IT'S A TRAP: The Easy Ending

| Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Today's Tune: Loose Ends

Time for IT'S A TRAP! These posts are intended as somewhat humorous (but true) tributes to traps that we writers occasionally find ourselves falling into. Disclaimer: there are always exceptions to every rule. Sometimes even the worst writer "traps" can be pulled off with style in the right hands.

But they're usually a bad idea. MOVING ON.

IT'S A TRAP! - The Easy Ending

You'll hear a lot of people tell you beginnings and endings are the most important parts of your manuscript. Really, the ENTIRE THING is important, and it should of course be compelling throughout. However, beginnings and endings do have a special importance. Beginnings hook the reader in, bring up questions in their mind, and keep them reading. Endings give them a sense of finality -- a resolution for all the pent-up emotion and tension they've been (hopefully) feeling throughout the story. They need to be significant, strong, and satisfying.

Some manuscript endings do not quite get there. Whether it's because the writer has no idea how to wrap things up or they go for the most obvious solution, the Easy Ending feels flat. Weak. Disappointing. Even frustrating. The ending is the very last scene left in a reader's mind, so it can make or break a novel for them. Here are a few examples of endings that can "ruin" a manuscript.

Perfectly, Magically, Happily Ever After - First, a caveat: happy endings are not a bad thing. It is OKAY to let your characters be content, in love, and enjoying life at the end of your manuscript. In fact, as far as I know, this is a requirement of romance: the couple has to end up together. There's a difference between a happy ending and a PMHEA. Happy endings are heartwarming, make sense within the context of the story, and aren't overblown. PMHEAs are the sickeningly sweet, too-perfect, frustratingly nonsensical happy endings where no one really had to lose anything and everything's cotton candy unicorn farts and skip-into-the-sunset land. They lack emotional impact. Nobody will care that the characters got a perfect ending if they didn't have to truly sacrifice to get there, or if it's outside the realm of possibility within the story world you've built. They may even resent them for being spoiled twits.

The Non-Ending - You've brought your readers down a twisted path of tension and emotion and excitement, and then you just... leave them hanging. You may think you're being clever and ambiguous, letting them decide for themselves how the action will play out, but it's a lot more likely they will be SO PISSED at you. I could insert a sexual metaphor here, but I think you can figure it out. Ambiguous endings can be very powerful and interesting (see: "The Lady, or the Tiger?"), but you really need to know what you're doing. Don't ever, ever do this because YOU don't know how the story ends.

The Twist That Isn't Really A Twist Anymore - She was dead the WHOLE TIME. It was ALL A DREAM. The helpful aliens ACTUALLY WANT TO EAT THEM. He's a SECRET PRINCE. All those friends were FIGMENTS OF HER IMAGINATION. If you want to end a story with a powerful twist, you have to push yourself further than the obvious, because your readers know all about the obvious. They've seen those twists before. They know the signs. They'll be sitting there going, "Please don't let this be 'they don't realize they're on a post-apocalyptic Earth' story, please don't let this be a 'they don't realize they're on a post-apocalyptic Earth' story, UGH IT'S A 'THEY DON'T REALIZE THEY'RE ON A POST-APOCALYPTIC EARTH' STORY. WEAK." Big impact 100% lost.

The Fizzled-Out Cliffhanger - You have to watch out for these if you're planning a series. Cliffhangers can function two ways: to leave your readers salivating for more, or to completely piss them off and make them feel cheated, like you're conning them into buying the next book. You want the former, not the latter. Obviously. Many readers despise cliffhangers at the end of a novel. At the end of chapters, awesome. At the end of a novel? NO. RAGE. While series novels are a continuation of a larger story arc, each individual novel should have its own specific arc which has a satisfying conclusion while still leaving the big questions unanswered.

The Untied Knot - You may have tied up the big, main plot element, but you've left other threads dangling. The reader is blinking at the last page and going, "Wait. Wait. I never found out who left the key! Why was his mother's music box important? Who was the Lady in Red? Is that all? THAT CAN'T BE ALL." Make sure you finish all your subplots. Don't get unwieldy with explanations -- if you feel like you have to, you need to integrate the subplot better -- but don't leave loose threads and hope the reader will forget because you gave them a Big Shiny Finish for the main plot.

This Is The Ending That Never Ends, It Goes On And On And On... - It's totally possible to overdo an ending. This is what happens when you leave 800 subplots loose and try to wrap them up at the very end. Or when you feel the need to beat the reader over the head to make sure they "get" everything. Or you're just so in love with your world and your characters that you can't stand to leave it without giving it a "proper" farewell. Don't lose the emotional impact of your resolution because you got too bogged down in pushing it to the limit.

How To Avoid This Trap

Endings cannot be tacked on like an afterthought. They cannot be hastily created because you just need to end the story already. They cannot be easy or obvious or lazy. Not if you want to make a lasting impact on your readers and give credit to your whole story. You must, you must, you must know how to end your manuscript. Not only powerfully, but in a way that makes sense for your narrative.

Whether you decide on a subdued ending, or a twist ending, or sad, or happy, or symbolic; you must craft it as carefully as you crafted your beginning. Don't go with the first ending you think of (unless it's really, really good). Don't take an easy way out because it's familiar or you have no idea how to wrap up your plot. If you honestly can't figure out how to tie everything up and end strong, than you may have a bigger, manuscript-wide problem on your hands. Which sucks, but fixing a faulty manuscript is better than writing a flat ending.

Your ending should take all of the emotion and struggles of your plot and create a powerful sense of resolution and closure in the reader. (But what if I'm writing a series? The reader still needs some form of closure.). It may leave them feeling content, or unsettled, or weepy, or buoyant, but they should feel something that will make them sit back and think, wow.

What makes you think wow?


{ Phoebe } at: June 8, 2011 at 7:55 AM said...

Nice post! I like the bit on never-ending endings (the end of the LOTR movie trilogy stands out in my mind). Meanwhile, I've been struggling with giving my book (which has to have a cliffhanger ending, for a variety of reasons) a feeling of finality as well. Believe me, it aint easy.

{ Elena Solodow } at: June 8, 2011 at 8:08 AM said...

I always like to see where my endings "end" up (pun intended) during my first draft, see where the characters take it. I absolutely hate cliffhangers. I just don't see the point in them 'cause it takes so long for new books to come out. I agree that most endings aren't satisfactory in one way or another.

{ Theresa Milstein } at: June 8, 2011 at 9:29 AM said...

I loved the Harry Potter series because a big plot was always taken care of, but enough loose ends that I wanted to read the next book. JK Rowling knew how to leave readers satisfied. And book 6 had such a cliffhanger, but it was justified for book 7.

I hate cliffhangers. I read something hyped up last year. It ended on such a cliffhanger, I took a point off Goodreads and won't read the rest of the trilogy. I felt that cheated because nothing was resolved. The one thing that was revealed was pretty obvious for most of the book.

{ Rose Transpose } at: June 9, 2011 at 7:59 AM said...

Good post. I especially agree with books in a series needing to have some sort of an ending for each novel.

My most favorite endings are when the story ends in a way that I wasn't expecting at all, but can afterward see that it makes perfect sense for the novel. It's pretty rare for this to happen, since it can be really tricky to pull off just right.

- Nicholas

{ fairyhedgehog } at: June 11, 2011 at 1:34 PM said...

Not really ending the book is the worst sin for me. I remember reading one book and I couldn't believe there wasn't any more to it when I turned the last page! I flicked through the endpapers looking for an ending! That's terrible writing.

I prefer happy endings but they have to be plausibe within the story. If there's a strong resonance with the beginning of the book, so much the better.

{ Suze } at: June 23, 2011 at 1:43 PM said...

'Perfectly, Magically, Happily Ever After - First, a caveat: happy endings are not a bad thing. It is OKAY to let your characters be content, in love, and enjoying life at the end of your manuscript.'

To quote the insufferable single-syllable concoction I've seen all over the blogosphere-- 'Squee!'

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