I can’t wait to talk about gimmicks related to a story’s ending with all of you. The ending is the most crucial part of a story; if you blow it, then everything else you worked for up until that point is now null. That’s a lot of pressure, and that is why an ending should be carefully thought out, crafted, and worked toward since the very first page. Yes, page one. I mean it. There are a lot of authors out there that feel a story should come full circle, that the ending should reflect something from the beginning. If it’s done well, it’s artistic and poetic and beautiful as hell, and I love it.
On a side note, did you know you can use “as hell” for anything? That’s clever as hell. That’s dumb as hell. Welcome to English. Anyway.
There are certain expectations that we as readers have placed on a story’s ending, and I think it has backed many writers into a corner, resulting in some pretty irritating gimmicks. But I am giving writers and readers alike equal blame for these four gimmicks that make me nuts. Seriously, you don’t want to be around me when I’ve finished a book with a problematic ending. I’ll talk your ear off about it for hours. Reading a book is an investment. Don’t stab your readers in the back by using cheap tricks at the end.
We Dug Too Deep
Did you like my not-so-subtle Lord of the Rings reference? We Dug Too Deep means that the writer gave the protagonist an insurmountable obstacle. Sometimes we want the reader to be so thoroughly engaged in the absolute dramaticallness of it all that we make it impossible for the character to win. Oops. So in swoops the deus ex machina to save the day. The editor of Embers Igniting, Madeleine, wrote a fantastic blog about cop-out endings, including deus ex machina. You should give it a read to see other kinds of cop-out endings that you should avoid.
I kind of hate myself for using a baseball idiom, but it’s easy to understand. Your ending should make sense and follow the clues that you should have set up throughout your story. Resist the overwhelming urge to shock your reader. This can be as outlandish as revealing that your character was actually an alien/angel/demon/ghost the whole time or has a terminal illness. Perhaps the character’s dear brother was actually the evil antagonist behind it all! Or maybe, just maybe, the writer decided to kill the protagonist.
All of these are plausible for the end of a story if the foundation for it has been laid. Like a puzzle you put pieces in their proper place, one at a time, never giving away the whole picture until finally, at the end, all of the pieces come together, and you have the complete picture. You don’t want to blindside your reader and throw pieces of a different puzzle at them. You want your reader to freak out, throw the book across the room, stomp around a bit, then two seconds later go “Oooooooohhhh, that makes sense,” as the pieces click into place. Or, if your reader is particularly clever, they’ve been on to you the whole time and when they finish the book, they have the pleasure of saying, “I knew it!” It’s okay for a few people to see it coming. That means you set everything up perfectly; let them have the pleasure of knowing they figured it out.
It sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? And yes, it may be easier to throw down your big reveal on page 444, but it’s lazy, and it’s cheap.
The Bow is the wrapped gift at the end of the story. The smooth, cutesy paper, the shiny bow, and curly ribbon—the perfect happy ending. It’s the kind of ending your put in children’s books or chick flicks. You, being the clever writer that you are, want your readers to like the book, so you give everyone ultimate happiness. This kind of ending doesn’t work on everyone. In fact, it makes a lot of people feel slighted. The biggest problem with The Bow is its predictability. Everyone knows it’s going to end perfectly so there’s never any suspense. Sure, this character lost their job, but not only are they going to get it back, they’re going to become the boss! Sure the couple got into a fight, but by the end they’re going to be married with a dozen kids. I know there was an epic battle at the end of the story, but of course nobody died. It’s butterflies and rainbows and cotton candy, and, let’s be honest, it’s cheap.
The best books I have ever read have a touch of sadness, of realism at the end. Think of the Lord of the Rings. Didn’t you feel just a little bit sad when Frodo and Bilbo and Gandalf went to the Grey Havens? Wasn’t it sad that Frodo was never quite the same after destroying the ring? Or how at the end of The Chronicles of Narnia Susan no longer believed in Narnia? What about the end of Red Seas under Red Skies by Scott Lynch? After all of the outwitting Locke and Jean did, they were ultimately tricked. And I can’t begin to express the feeling of foreboding that strikes me at the end of Patrick Rothfuss’ books. But it makes sense. The journey should change your characters in both positive and negative ways. That’s life, good and bad together, like wedding vows. So reflect that in your ending. Bittersweet can be very powerful.
This is what happens when the writer goes overkill, literally, and axes a large number of characters. I think The Sadist happened as a result of The Bow getting too much of a bad rap. People got sick of the tidy endings and the predictability of the fact that no one ever dies at the end of a story. They wanted realism, dangit! That is the number one argument I hear in justification of books that kill off too many characters—“People die in real life!” Since when do we read novels and expect them to be real life? If you really want that from your books, there’s a neat section in the bookstore with all kinds of real life stories; it’s called nonfiction.
Now that I’ve got that argument out of the way, let me tell you what I think. The Sadist is a cheap and easy way to garner an emotional reaction from the reader. Writers think it makes readers take them seriously, as if they are very, very mature for taking a fictional life. The problem with this method is that it overwhelms the reader. It’s a simple matter of economics. The more you have of something, the less value it has. So the first death of a character will be meaningful and full of all those depressing feelsies you want; the second less so, though it will hit hard too. But once you get to the third, fourth, fifth, your readers stop caring. When I read Divergent, The Hunger Games, and even Harry Potter, I checked out. The deaths became meaningless, and I sometimes wonder if Rowling got sticky notes with her characters’ names on them, put them on her wall, and threw darts to decide who would die.
As you can see, I’m pretty passionate about this topic. First, just consider that there can be some things worse or more impactful than a death. Secondly, remember that you are writing a piece of fiction, and you are allowed creative license. Yes, in real life, multiple people will die in a battle. That doesn’t mean you as the writer should take the time to make a sentimental impression of each of the characters before they died. Third, if you want to have a death that leaves a lasting impression, that deeply impacts the protagonist and your readers, don’t cheapen it by killing off someone else. It doesn’t make you a mature writer.
Believe me when I say that I don’t want to make a list of rules about what not to do. But I think it is important to understand the consequences for every decision you make as a writer and the reasons behind those decisions. A true quality story takes work, it takes careful crafting, and writers are readers too. We’re left with the impressions of all the storytellers that came before us, which means that the solutions that may be coming to your mind, may not be as grand as you think they are. They may be part of a formula you have been exposed to that has been successful in the past, but is not without flaws. Write purposefully, everyone, and don’t be lazy. Don’t employ cheap gimmicks just to get a rise out of your readers. Work a little harder.
By Rachelle Clifford