NOTE: I wrote this journal some time ago and have been sitting on it. However, this piece in the New Yorker made me realize now is the time to let it out. In her article, Joan Acocella talks about famous novels with bad endings, and postulates about why this is. I’m surprised she never touched on the simplest explanation: writing endings is hard and writers make mistakes. Fumbling your ending, however, is a bad one in my book. Allow me to explain…
On the Importance of Endings
“Then in this ending we find a beginning also. Which is as it should be.”
Some years ago I stumbled across an article in Wired about Ernest Hemingway’s story in six words. (“For sale; baby shoes, never worn.”) In it they printed some other six word stories from professionals in the field of speculative and horror fiction. As I read through the submissions, some of which were from writers I admired, I had to admit that none of them were as good as Hemingway’s original. Hell, I took a crack at it myself (“Girl found a ring: invisible now.”) and was disappointed that I couldn’t do any better. One thing I noticed, however, as I scrolled past the wall of six word stories, was how very few of these modern submissions did what Hemingway did: just tell the ending.
Most stories can generally be broken down into three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. And I saw many writers who would carefully spend two words on the beginning, two on the middle, and two on the end. However, the better stories (and Hemingway’s own) leave off any mention of a beginning or middle, and instead save all six words for telling the end.
If you think about it, the end is really all you need to know. I’ve read short stories that seem, for all intents and purposes, to be the ends of novels plus the minimum of exposition needed to keep the reader from floundering. They are simply a novel with the first seventy or eighty thousand words left out.
Some kinds of stories are like this: all that matters is the end, everything else is predictable and compulsory. So it’s understandable that many writers skip to the good bit, trusting their readers to reverse-engineer the story that came before—and, if that story is simple and predictable enough, most readers will do this without even noticing. Take Hemingway’s story, which is a prime example of just telling the ending:
For sale; baby shoes, never worn.
That is only the end of a (rather tragic) story, but we make it up out of thin air just from reading ending sentence.
I want you, my reader, to keep this ability of endings to encompass the entire story that preceded them in your mind when I say: endings are important.
Now that I’ve said that, I’ll also point out that with some stories, the ending is not as important compared to the rest of the work. These are “it’s the journey not the destination” types of stories. And even then the ending is still important. Ursula K. LeGuin has championed the notion that a story can be like a big complicated house; it’s all about the rambling around inside, not the leaving by the back door, that’s important. I appreciate this point of view, but I’d also like to mention that all my favorite stories by her (Dragonfly, The Annals of the Western Shore Trilogy, The Lathe of Heaven) have really fantastic endings (and beginnings, and middles; Ursula K. LeGuin does not write the kind of story where you can leave off the first eighty-thousand words; it is those first eighty thousand words that make her endings so good).
So if endings are important even in stories where it is the “journey” that’s the point, then what of more conventional stories, where the ending can define the entire work?
The ending is downright paramount.
And by that I mean: the writer had better, as they value their career, get the ending right. The wrong ending, just as much as a bad ending, can ruin the entire story. Never mind how beautiful and intricate and compelling your setting, characters and plot—if you can’t successfully land that plane, your story will crash and burn.
“Don’t promise a cake and deliver a lemon,” is my maxim for a good ending. In other words, a good ending fits with the rest of the story. If you’re telling the kind of story that wants a happy ending, it better get a happy ending. If you want a sad ending, go back and tell the kind of story that can support one.
Now, tacking a sad ending onto a happy-ending story is just wrong, in my opinion. Wrong like rape; it is a violation of the trust a reader gives the writer when they trust you to tell them a good story—and therefore a good ending. But it is equally wrong, I think, to turn around and put a happy ending on a sad-ending story. That can invalidate all the sadness that went before it.
Of course, figuring out whether your story wants a happy ending or a sad ending can be difficult, so it’s no surprise that writers slip up from time to time—but who ever said telling a good story was easy? Getting the ending right takes judgment and skill and a little bit of intuition and it’s a lot of work.
I don’t like to lay out “do’s” and “don’ts”. I think there are exceptions for every rule. There are no inherently bad ending types, just bad matches. Bad intuition. There are also endings that are premature or drag on too long (bad judgment calls). And there are endings that just don’t make much sense (unskilled).
But I recently saw an article go by (I can’t be bothered to look it up, but since I’m dealing with its subject in the abstract rather than the details I think I can be forgiven) that was talking about the rise in popularity of the “unhappy ending.”
“Nonsense,” my mother said when I relayed this information to her. “Happy endings never go out of style. Not with readers. They only go out of style with writers, editors, and publishers—who have gotten bored and want to try something different.”
She’s right, I think. (My motto, aside from “I am as awesome as I am pretentious, and I am very pretentious” is “Mother is always right”.) We writers can get so wound up in our writing circles, workshops, and critique groups that we can forget we’re not actually writing stories for other writers, but for the vast sea of readers—present and future—many of whom, I think it safe to say (like me) prefer a happy ending. Because there is so much natural sadness in the world, I think fiction has a duty to try to make up the difference.
But this is only my opinion. Yet although I brazenly prefer stories with happy endings, I do recognize that this shoe does not fit on every foot—and more important than making an ending happy or sad or bittersweet, is making it satisfactory.
I don’t like giving advice to other writers. However, I wish to leave some advice here for me. To remind my future self what I was getting at with all this.
So, future self, listen up:
Don’t pay attention to what’s popular or in fashion. Do what’s right for your story. Don’t try to compromise your work just so it’ll fit into whatever slot your agent or publisher wants. Do what you believe in your heart is the right thing. Because popularity rises and falls; fashions come and go; but a good story (with a good ending) can last for centuries.
So how do we writers go about ending our stories? I can’t speak for others, but this is how I do it (and you will have to read my stories and decide for yourself whether it’s effective):
I write for the ending.
It’s as simple as that.
I write for the ending.
I find I cannot begin writing a story until I know how it ends. Until I have something to aim for. From the very first sentence I have a goal, a reward, a release, in mind. Sometimes it changes a little during the course of writing, but mostly it remains the same. I have on occasion written endings to stories I haven’t started yet, then gone back and written the story up until ending can be neatly fitted on, like the cap on a bottle.
My idol, Diana Wynne Jones, once said that endings were the most difficult part for her (apart from titles).(Incidentally, another thing I need before I begin a story: A title. I don’t know what this says about me.) But for me endings have always come easily. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the whole story fixated on how I’ll get to them, striving for that one moment when all the gears click into place, the scale resolves, the drumbeat… ends. Maybe it’s because I value endings so highly that the few perfect endings I have found in other stories (examples: Prince Caspian—C. S. Lewis, The 13 Clocks—James Thurber, Good Omens—Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, The Pinhoe Egg—Diana Wynne Jones (who admittedly does not always have the perfect kind of endings I like best, but who got better at them toward the end), and Powers—Ursula K. LeGuin), have stuck firmly in my head, and I hold all my endings up to that same high standard. Like bringing a string into tune, I have the pure A of Prince Caspian’s ending ringing in my head as I write, and when I hear my story’s ending coming into tune with it… I stop.
I began this journal with a quote from one great fictional detective, and I shall end it with another:
“But he had not that supreme gift of the artist, the knowledge of when to stop.”
As important as it is to finish the story (I find ambiguous or “choose your own ending” stories particularly annoying; to me it smacks of lazy and indecisive story-telling) it is equally important that when all things have been neatly put away, to end it.
Now I shall exercise what little artistic gift I have left, and put a stop to this one.
Goldeen Ogawa has been re-writing the endings to other people’s stories since she was six and ret-conned Bambi’s mother dying. Nothing is safe from her: the Forest Spirit lives for sure. You can email her about the things in your head at firstname.lastname@example.org or peck at her on Twitter @GrimbyTweets.