October 28, 2011

happy (or not-so-happy) endings

A lot of industry professionals and other writers can’t seem to stress enough how important a solid beginning is for a novel’s success. I mean, when we submit novels to agents and publishers, most of the time, they require the first ten pages, or the first chapter. There are numerous blog posts that discuss how to hook a reader. And yes, I agree that beginnings are important. We have to make the reader care in a page or less and then keep them caring long enough so they want to know what happens next. It’s a difficult skill to master.

But equally important, if not more important, are endings. The final note of a book can oftentimes make or break a book. I don’t pretend to be an expert on writing good endings. In fact, I think endings might be my weakest skill as far as writing goes. I don’t know how to tie everything into a neat little bow at the end, and it sort of comes out as a tangled knot that needs much reworking before being even close to presentable. I can, however, analyze endings and decide whether or not the ending could have been better.

As other bloggers have said recently, endings should resonate with readers. They should leave a sense of completion, perhaps hint at something greater to come, leave the reader in a state of happiness or hopeful sadness. But most of all, the story must feel complete. Otherwise, the ending is unsatisfying. The story doesn’t feel over. It just feels like it stopped.

Even when writing series, we can’t just stop a story as a sort of break between the first and second books. The first book has to be complete, with most ends tied up, a satisfying climax and resolution, and the promise of more to come. We don’t want to frustrate our readers by giving them an ending that doesn’t answer the important questions or answers all of the questions in a slap-bang finale (which I tend to write in my first drafts) without any falling action or denouement. [see plot structure]

I’m starting to understand endings better, or I think I am. When I read a book or watch a movie, I try to analyze the key points of the story, focusing on endings. I feel I have a good grasp of hooks and middle reversals, though I probably have a lot more to learn. As far as the endings go, I focus mostly on understanding the falling action and denouement after the climax. These are the parts that resonate with readers. I mean, the climax is important, but it’s usually all action and stuff blowing up and aliens and sea monsters and cowboys riding velociraptors (shudder the thought). But the bit that follows the climax, that’s what defines the ending in my mind.

So, spoiler alert for anyone who has yet to read or watch the following books and movies: Ella Enchanted (book), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (book), Inception, TRON:Legacy, and The Return of the King (film).

Ella Enchanted employs an epilogue after Ella agrees to marry Char on her own terms after defeating her curse of obedience. The book could have ended the moment she agrees to marry him, making the resolution and denouement a whopping two pages, and even with the epilogue, the ending only trails on for another three pages. And while, it’s not entirely necessary, it does provide a nice happily-ever-after.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the scenes following the climax of Harry defeating Quirrell/Voldemort are full of explanation. Dumbledore answers most of Harry’s questions, giving the reader a nice wind down from the battle. Harry meets up with Hermione and Ron, Hagrid gives him the photograph album with pictures of Harry’s parents, and Gryffindor wins the House Cup. And finally, Harry parts ways with his new friends, looking forward to a summer of tormenting Dudley. The last few scenes span about fifteen pages, but the questions we had are mostly answered and the story ends on a happy note.

Now, Inception has one of the best endings. Ever. The climax comes when Fischer speaks with his dying father in dream level three, amid explosions, people dying, and other awesome stuff. The resolution follows, with Fischer explaining to fake-Browning that he will break up his father’s company, solidifying the success of Cobb and Saito’s goal. But Cobb and Saito have delved into the next dream level of limbo. Cobb needs Saito to reverse the charges against him so that he can see his family. This is the ultimate goal of Cobb’s actions. Cobb successfully finds Saito and brings him back to reality. Saito makes the call and Cobb returns home, no problem. And this is where the ending is tricky. Since Cobb has delved into so many dreaming realities, he can never be sure of which reality is the real one. So he has a totem, a spinning top that in the real world, falls over, but in a dream, it spins indefinitely. Cobb sees his children playing in the backyard, the same image he has seen a hundred times in his head. To see if it is another dream or if it is reality, Cobb spins the top, but before he can see if the top falls, Cob goes outside to hug his children. The movie ends with the camera zooming onto the still spinning top. It wobbles ever so slightly, and the screen cuts to black. Ho. Ly. Crap. Amazing ending. I love ambiguous endings like that, the ones that leave a sense of completeness without actually answering the final question of “what happens now?”. And the ending to Inception is especially chilling.

Tron:Legacy has a nice, mellow ending. After Sam and Quorra escape from Clu, Sam downloads the grid onto a flash-drive of sorts and lets Alan know that he plans to take control of Encom, when before, he worked against the board members. He leaves his father’s arcade, meeting Quorra outside. Sam takes her on a ride on his motorcycle, and there’s this cheesy (but nice) shot of them riding as the sun comes up, a phenomenon Quorra has never seen. The ending is mellow, but I really like it. It leaves a nice sense of happiness and completeness.

And then we come to The Return of the King, the third installment in the film trilogy, racking up at a whopping three and a half hours long. The climax is somewhere between the defeat of the orc army, the riding party to the Black Gate, the destruction of the One Ring, and the dissolution of Mordor. Now, I know that the film was being as true to the books as absolutely possible, but the ending dragged. It dragged in the book. In fact, it was longer in the book, if that’s even possible. The resolution and denouement follow as such: Gandalf rides the Eagles to fetch Frodo and Sam from Mount Doom; Frodo wakes up in Minas Tirith, reunited with the Fellowship; Aragorn is crowned King of the West; the hobbits return to the shire, where Sam marries Rosie Cotton; Frodo finishes writing The Lord of the Rings; Frodo then leaves for the Grey Havens, gives the book to Sam, says goodbye to his friends, and sets sail with Gandalf, Bilbo, Elrond, and Galadriel; and finally, Sam returns home, where he meets his wife and children and says “Well, I’m back.” End movie. That’s a lot to absorb, and it takes up quite a bit of movie time. Of course, in comparison to the length of the entire film, it’s fractionally justified.

Each of these films gives a different vibe by the end. Ella Enchanted and TRON:Legacy have that happily-ever-after feel. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone hints at more to come. Inception ends on a bittersweet note. And The Return of the King leaves us with the sense that the rest of the world keeps on going, regardless of our hardships, victories, and losses.

I know what sort of feeling I want the ending of The Clockwork Giant to convey, but whether or not it comes across that way, I can only wait and see. Hopefully, with more practice and observation, I can learn to craft an ending that people will remember.

Do you think endings are as important as beginnings? Have you ever read an ending to a book that you hated? That you loved? If you’re a writer, how do you craft a satisfying ending?


  1. Critics panned Inception as incomprehensible to moviegoers.
    Their reviews left me scratching my head not the movie.
    A perfect ending to a great and very original script.
    The ending to Mockingjay made for some angst but I got over it.

  2. Inception blew my mind. I wondered and wondered what the truth was at the end. Very well done movie. I loved all the others and enjoyed HP and LOTR trilogy as books and movies. Tron was not one I'd seen in the remake. Ella Enchanted satisfied on so many levels.

    I once went to a retreat which had an author discuss HEA's mirroring the beginning and having it tie a bow. For some reason that simple explanation resonated with me.

    Still do it!