Saturday, September 10, 2011

Earned Endings

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about story endings, and in searching for today’s blog post I decided to revisit an essay on the subject that was published in Write With Fire, my collection of articles on writing. This is a substantially tweaked version of that piece.

First, let me describe the endings to a couple of books I’ve read in the past few years:

Book 1: The hero is cornered at the end by the villain in a dank storm drain. The villain has a gun, and the drop. She’s a bit over the top as a character, but we know she’s vicious and ready to kill. The hero is a bit more bumbling but has shown amazing resourcefulness throughout. As the two face off, a wild animal attacks the villain from behind and kills her. The hero is saved.

Book 2: The hero and his friends are pursued by a savage and powerful witch. To show how evil she is, she’s even killed and "eaten" a child. She’s capable of transforming into an eagle or a dragon, and can take on many different human forms. She can possess human souls and force them to do her bidding. And then she faces the hero. He steps toward her, and with a single blow of his sword cuts off her head. The end.

If you’re like me, neither of these endings seems very satisfying. But why? I think it’s because the authors forgot two simple rules for endings. The writer of book 1 forgot that heroes must resolve conflicts themselves and cannot be “rescued” by fate. The author of book 2 forgot that defeating the villain must be difficult for the hero. Readers expect heroes to win, but they expect them to have to work for their victories.

The characters of any story have to earn their endings. With one exception, they cannot be given anything. The exception? Whatever they are given has to be either taken away again, or turn out to be a curse. The more easily a character wins, the less the reader cares.

31 comments:

Angie said...

I agree on both counts. Having the villain die because there was an earthquake and rocks fell on him isn't terribly satisfying. We want to see the protag solve the problem, and if that means offing the villain, then that's what it means.]

I think a lot of folks go for the deus ex machina ending because older stories often worked that way, where the story meant to tell a moral by showing that Fate or Nature was against the evil person, and that the protag, who was good, was spared and made to prosper without getting his hands dirty.

The second seems to come from a desire to show just how awesome the protag is. The author who takes it too far forgets that we're not impressed unless the protag has to sweat for his ending.

That's one of the things I disliked about how Harry Potter wrapped; both Draco and Lucius Malfoy were set up in the early books to be major antagonists, bad dudes with a lot of power behind them, relative to their respective generations. By the last couple of books, though, both had been reduced to helpless wet rags, and neither one took any action that had any significant impact on the endgame. That was disappointing, watching the two of them just fizzle out like that. Harry didn't have to defeat either of them -- they just sort of collapsed on their own. Umm, yay? :/

Angie

oceangirl said...

As a reader, I fully agree. I just would like to add that, for me personally, it has to be a happy ending. And the author has to spell out the clear ending, I do not like to wonder or make my own story like in the book Chocolat. But then, by the ending, it is all too late, for the reader, I mean. She has bought and read the book.

Carole said...

Great examples of bad endings. I agree completely.

BernardL said...

I would offer one personally preferred exception where as an author you have set the stage to take out what I call the ‘Straw Man Character or Situation’. The ‘Straw Man Character or Situation’ embodies something that bugs the crap out of the author in real life, and said author lays it on thickly but believably, hoping to have brought the reader to the same junction of thought. When the hero brutally, and with proficiently drawn out zest smokes the ‘Straw Man Character or Situation’, said author pictures the reader going ‘Oh Hell Yeah’, which may… or may not happen, but to me, it’s worth the risk. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, at least Harry Potter still had a major villain, but I do agree that the Malfoy’s had been wrung out by the end. I imagine part of it was the difficulty for the writer of moving three villains through the last book. In the early books, where the major villain is hardly featured, she needed the lesser villains like the Malfoys. But to have both of them just collapse at the end was weak.

oceangirl, they say the ending sells your ‘next’ book. So yes, they’ve already paid for that one, but will they buy the next? I can handle unhappy endings but I do like them to be pretty clear.

Carole, thanks. They were so weak.

BernardL, I suspect the straw man character is much more satisfying for the writer than the reader though. Unless the reader is of pretty much exactly the mindset of the author. Which certainly could be true but probably doesn’t account for a whole lot of readers. The other thing is that such a character might be very useful in certain types of writing, as in, say, thinly veiled political satire.

KeVin K. said...

As writing professors have pointed out ad nauseam: Real life is random and messy and full of improbable coincidences and unresolved conflicts, but fiction can not be. Truth is always stranger than fiction because fiction plays by rules that have no hold on truth. In fiction the ending, happy or no, must progress logically, or at least reasonably, from the story. (Unless your name is M. Night Shyamalan.)

Example 1 would work if the wild animal had been hanging over the mantel in act one and, after killing the villain, went after the hero; presenting an escalating problem. Example 2 would require a bit more set-up, but works if enough clues have been laid to show the obvious enemy had in fact been the puppet of the real enemy -- whether a destructive force like the Nothing in Never Ending Story or a cabal of evil like the Tea Party. The way-too-easy head-lop gives the hero and her team a sense of security, causing them to relax their guard and be at a potentially disastrous disadvantage when the real battle begins.

Charles Gramlich said...

Kevin, yes, either of the scenes I described could have been used in the story to build toward an ending, but they shouldn't have been used as endings themselves. In the first book, the story did go on after that but the hero never faced the animal and ended up having to kill someone who was a lesser villain all along so it was very anticlimactic.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Funny how some endings are inevitable and are there from the start. Some have to be forced into existence. But the best are often ones you find your way into.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Both of those endings seem too easy. The word 'contrived' comes to mind.

The Golden Eagle said...

I agree. Endings shouldn't be as simple as a chance event or a simple act--otherwise it just feels pointless.

Liane Spicer said...

Anti-climactic much? I'd fling the book against the wall.

I prefer a story that ends with a question or ambiguity than such a contrived cop-out of an ending.

Travis Erwin said...

Great advice Charles. I understand these rules but don't always execute them well.

David J. West said...

Pondering everything I ever wrote since I was a kid and I hope I haven't done this.

Great post Charles.

Chris said...

My biggest pet peeve ending is a first person story where the narrator dies at the end. For some reason, that really irks me.

I don't need happy endings; in fact, I like when "victory" for the hero carries a heavy price.

Charles Gramlich said...

pattinase (abbott), a lot of my short stories have gone through changes in ending. The first one might be OK, but that’s all, but eventually I find one that satisfies.

Alex J. Cavanaugh, contrived, or maybe just ‘lazy.”

The Golden Eagle, as Kevin said, chance can happen in real life but it’s not good to have it happen in fiction.

Liane Spicer, especially for that second book, I did just that. And then I groused around the house for half an hour complaining about having wasted my time.

Travis Erwin, when a writer gets close to their characters they sometimes don’t want them to suffer. But the reader does. :)

David J. West, well, I did it when I was young. It wasn’t until I started thinking about the books I really enjoyed as opposed to the ones I didn’t that this kind of thing started to occur to me.

Chris, I agree. The hero really has to go through hell or he isn’t a hero.

G said...

Great examples of bad endings.

Writing endings to my stuff has been the hardest thing for me to be consistent at.

I've really only suceeded less than a half dozen times with writing endings that I was personally happy with.

Charles Gramlich said...

G., I always find endings much harder than beginnings, and like I mentioned to someone, I sometimes end up changing endings several times stories before I'm finally happy with one,

Richard Prosch said...

Good post! Reminds me of the old movie serials --how every chapter ended with a cliff-hanger, except the final one where it's all wrapped up in three minutes and you say, "Well, why didn't they just do that in Chapter One?"

X. Dell said...

I cannot agree more. You've written in earlier posts how important the opening of the story is for you. For me, a really crappy ending kills the story for me.

I think Deus ex machina endings (as in your first example) could work, say, for a highly comical novel if it's way over the top and creative. But that's a very rare situation, where other endings would still probably work better.

The second ending--what I would call 'Cutting the Gordian knot'--is a copout because it isn't a resolution. If the which was that vulnerable and stupid, a five-year-old with an air rifle could probably off her. Thus, in retrospect, the novel is a sham, because the villain wasn't really such a threat, except for the incredibly weak and stupid.

Perfect title.

laughingwolf said...

agreed, charles :)

i like the ending where the protag does NOT win, NOR lose his/her life... but is able to return, after recuperating for some time, for another try [in a sequel]... again, the outcome is... a draw... showing the combatants are truly well matched....

eric1313 said...

The god machine! Yes, of course, I'm reading a lot of Tolkien lately, and all I have to say is Giant Eagles. Now, I do understand that the eagles represent the will of Iluvatar through Manwe in turn through the eagle lord Thorondor and his descendants, so it literally is a god machine. But then again I know he would also say that he was writing a legend and not a novel. But the Eagles save so many people from corners they get worked into. And really some of his best works involve people who wished that they were saved by the will of Iluvatar.

Charles Gramlich said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charles Gramlich said...

Richard Prosch, Oh yeah, I’ve seen some that have been just awful. But then again, I’ve seen some recent movies that aren’t that much different. Paranormal activity comes to mind.

X. Dell, I agree that Deus ex machina, can work for humor, especially for short humor. I even used something like it once in a story, but it was only like a 1000 words. But for a novel! No way. And for the second one, to make the villain appear so tough and not be diminishes everything that went before.

Laughingwolf, thanks, man. I tried to do something like what you mention in the 2nd and 3rd Talera books.

eric1313, I can better forgive a bit of that kind of thing in the middle of a book, but to try and end with it is too much. Deus ex machina works only under very certain circumstances, and only if the other stuff around it is really really well done.

Ron Scheer said...

My rule of thumb about endings is that they have to be both unpredictable and inevitable. Both of your examples meet only one of these requirements. The first is not inevitable; the second is not unpredictable.

I've probably said this here before, but if I don't have a clear ending in mind before I start writing a story, it will never go anywhere, just in circles.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ron, I almost never have a clear ending in mind when I start, but I generally have a kind of rough idea of where I'm headed. I know more about the ending when I start a novel than with a short story. I don't like to know everything or I find myself uninterested in writing it.

Jodi MacArthur said...

I had to stop and think about this for awhile. Some of my favorite novels or series have exactly the satisfying ending that you talk of. The characters victories came at a great price and even if they reached their goal at the end, it sometimes meant starting all over again (The Dark Tower). To be honest, I struggle with my story endings. They go through so many rewrites. You give some wonderful tips and thoughts here. Great post.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jodi, a quote I heard once was "victory without struggle is hollow." I tend to believe that for fiction.

laughingwolf said...

i noticed that, charles... and why i loved em :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, glad you did! :)

eric1313 said...

Agreed, you were most definitely talking about something a lot more blatant than I was. You were talking about writers who 'cop-out' of doing their job and sweating and pulling hair and tossing and turning over a proper end to their work.

Good work rises above the rest. And a good ending has to be present for a book to truly be called good.

Charles Gramlich said...

Eric1313, I do think that's true, although it doesn't always seem so.