Legend has it that Mozart would torture his father by playing all but the last note of some passages, and then slip away without providing a satisfying musical conclusion. Writers destroy wonderful works with horrible endings. My study wall has dents in it from books I’ve hurled across the room because of this failing. In my head, there’s a list of authors I will never forgive.
Please don’t misunderstand. I love the ambiguity of the final scene of Inception. I can handle sad endings, bleak endings, bittersweet endings, and screwball endings. I even have a tolerance for post modern, ironic, meta-endings if the rest of the work justifies it. (The jury is still out on The Sopranos, as far as I’m concerned.)
But for commercial fiction, the ending must be satisfying. And, within a genre like romance where there is an expectation of a happily ever after, failing to deliver is perilous.
So, what kinds of endings suck? I won’t provide a comprehensive list, but these are included on my dishonor roll:
Unclear endings. The story concludes, but you need to read it several times to figure out what happened. Often this is because the writer is working to be too cute or has carved out too much of the supporting text. Or sometimes, a key statement is hidden in a mass of boring prose — the parts everyone skips. An easy fix to this is for a writer to show it to people and ask them to state how it ended. If a few people get it wrong, it’s revision time.
Unending endings. All right, already. You’ve explained it nine different ways. Every loose thread, including several that don’t matter is tied up. Even your characters are getting bored from standing around. Let me out of here.
The worst sin found in these may be the Aesop ending, where a wise character explains everything and what it means and why it is important and why you should really, really, really love the story at the end. Sit down Aesop. A few of us still have brains. The sad part is that this tragedy happens to books that are otherwise wonderful, and a small amount of editing can cure the disease.
No ending. The story just stops. You look for the next page, wondering what the heck happened. In most cases, I have no idea what went wrong. In some instances, I suspect a sequel is being set up. One I’ll never read. Note: It is not an ending unless it answers the story question.
Deus ex machina. Here’s a cheat writers have been using for millennia. The protagonist, in a horrible fix, is rescued. Originally, a god would literally be lowered from the rafters down onto the stage and he or she would sort things out, but Greek playwrights don’t have a lock on this behavior. When I was a kid, the cavalry rode to the rescue. Nowadays, it could be a science gadget or a lottery win or a surprise witness. It doesn’t matter what the device is, if the protagonist does not solve the problem, the story fails.
The lesson here? Write a clear, succinct ending where the protagonist acts to resolve the problem and the story question is answered, and you have a satisfying ending. It may not be great and there may be other story problems, but the ending will have done its job.
If you’d like to learn more about endings, including how to make them powerful and unforgettable, join my online Savvy Authors workshop, Endings That Buzz – Answering the story question with clarity, emotion, and power, Feb. 3-16. We’ll be working on the four essentials of a strong ending, exploring strategies on out how to reach “The End” and reviewing what to do if you paint yourself into a corner. I’ll also have suggestions on how to test your finale so it attracts new readers instead of driving them away.
Peter Andrews is a full-time, independent writer of speeches, articles, and blogs. He has dozens of short stories and hundreds of nonfiction articles in print. He has worked professionally in PR, and as a Web producer, speechwriter, and radio producer. He is the author of the popular How To Write Fast Blog.