Friday, September 5, 2008

Ending Gracefully

You’ve just read the last page in a book you enjoyed. You expect to feel satisfied, like at the end of a delicious meal. But instead you feel unsatisfied, vaguely unsettled, or even down-right irritated. Maybe you want to throw the book against the wall. What happened? Why did a perfectly good book fail in the last few pages? I recently had a manuscript rejected (I was able to rewrite and resubmit)because of a weak black moment, so I did some research and hard thinking, and I do have some things to say about the subject. Here are my, not so very humble, opinions.

First, the black moment has to work. I learned the hard way (hence the rewrite) that the black moment has to be really black. In a romance, the reader has to believe that the couple has no chance of having a happily ever after (even though we all know they will). And that’s not an easy task. But if the black moment isn’t black enough, the book won’t be satisfying.

Second, characters have to work at it. To paraphrase Alicia Rasley (a wonderful teacher, by the way!) characters have to earn love. Characters have to change during the course of a novel. They have to move from the position they hold at the beginning to a different one at the end. In my book Shadows of Evil, Kia has to move from a loner who distrusted most everybody (especially men), to a person who can reach out to her friends for help and work with them. That’s how she earns the right to her ending.

Third, doing it realistically. Margie Lawson (another wonderful teacher!) talks a lot about conveying “authentic emotion” and how a writer has to use introspection, description, physical manifestations of emotion, and dialogue to show how emotion works and changes within a character. If done right, the reader can be led down the garden path right along with the character and believe that the character changed and became able to do what needs to be done at the end. If that journey to change is not believable, you have a book where the end feels unrealistic and forced. You’ve read those, where all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere the hero/heroine understands he really can get over the hard feelings/forgive/understand/move for/become a different person for his/her heroine/hero (and mother, sister, brother, uncle, best friend, and worst enemy). Unsettling and irritating. It leaves the reader wondering why she just wasted all those hours reading that book.

Don’t stop too fast. I personally hate it when a book gets through the black moment and just stops. I don’t want the dang thing to go on to show grandchildren and retirement either (although that would be preferable), but to just stop without some hint of what’s beyond just doesn’t give me closure. It only takes a few pages, so please me a scene or two with hero and heroine together after the story problems are solved. Make me believe they’re going to have a life together. Maybe this is strictly a personal thing, but I feel strongly about it.

Last but certainly not less important, please, please, please tie up the loose ends. Don’t leave a mystery unsolved (unless it’s a gateway into a sequel, and even then give it enough resolution to satisfy the reader). Don’t make the reader wonder why there was a mysterious gravestone mentioned in chapter 3 and 5, but never explained. Don’t leave us wondering why the red dress disappeared. Avoid at all costs a meeting with a relative who tells the heroine seemingly important things, but nothing that is ever mentioned again. You know what I mean, and it’s annoying. This my friend, is my daughter’s pet peeve. I’m a bit more forgiving, but many readers aren’t. And the last thing a writer wants to do is irritate a reader.

Those are my thoughts on ending novels. I’m sure you have some of your own. What makes you want to throw an otherwise perfectly good book against the wall?


  1. I recently read a lovely, wonderfully written mystery, The Sunday Philosophy Club, by Alexander McCall Smith. I loved everything about this book--the protagonist's witty voice, the very British way the murder is investigated--everything, that is, except the ending.

    There was a good deal of intrigue throughout the book, and the necessary danger our otherwise sensible heroine stumbles into, which is precisely why the ending was so unsatisfying. It was rather flat.

    We, the readers, find out that the person we've suspected all along is not, in fact, the murderer. Of course. Now, without wanting to give away the end of the novel, I will say simply that the actual culprit, once confronted, is contrite and able to explain what happened.

    And that's it. The end.

    Totally, completely unsatisfying! I was inclined to forgive it, however, because the rest of the book was so charming. And I have recommended it since. I took the view, that for this particular book, it was more about the journey than the destination.

    But you're absolutely right: That line of thinking doesn't usually hold up.

    Lovely post. Lovely blog. I'll be back to visit for sure.

  2. Throwing a perfectly good book against the wall...maybe if I'm trying to kill a spider? :)

    I also don't care for tear-jerker endings unless it's more of an almost-tearjerker than turns into a mostly-HEA.

    Jody W.

  3. Endings are the tough part. And that post-modern just stopping stuff makes me crazy. I love when the writer does the work for me!

  4. I know what you mean. My biggest pet peeve is when the ending is rushed. I hate when the author gives us an exciting opening, a page turning middle and then speeds through the black moment so fast, I almost miss it. I have to wonder if it's because of the impossible deadlines some of these authors have. It's like they just needed to hurry up and finish and get it in the mail. Maybe they should try writing the ending first (I've done that before *G*)