Endings are Evil (or What Makes a Good Ending?)


March 23, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue

Ever gotten to the end of a book or series and had this response:

Grumpy Cat gets it.

I finished reading an urban fantasy series last night and ended up being kept awake for hours asking myself if it was a good end to the series or not. If I’m honest with myself, I have to say that I was disappointed with it. I still enjoyed the series and didn’t hate the ending, but I can see why many of the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads were scathing from my own emotional perspective. But does that make it a bad ending? Why were so many of us disappointed?

I think it’s a tricky question and it’s one that concerns me as a writer because I don’t want to disappoint my readers.

So, what makes a good ending? I posed this question to my husband and he said pretty much the same thing that can be found in almost every article or writing forum on the web: “There’s no magic formula. It depends on the individual book. Just write what you’d want to read.”

That answer makes a certain amount of sense, but it doesn’t really help anyone figure out how to write a good ending, does it?

I found a much better answer posted by Rafiki on the forums over at writingforums.org (original post):

“To me a good ending leaves me with the feeling that you get when you remove something that has been paining you for so long that you have completely forgotten that it exists; but the pain is still there, prickling at the back of your mind. It worms its way deeper and deeper into your subconscious, finally the tweezers come and they pain is removed. The relief you feel is the most extraordinary thing in the world, as if you had lived your whole life in misery and now, for the first time, you are in bliss.  … That splinter is you, body and soul, and the pain that you felt was the pain transferred by something that you care about, something that means something to you.

“Rather than asking how you write a good ending the question you should be writing is “how do you write a good story?” The trick in writing is sticking the splinter in, the ending is simply removing it.”

I do so like how Rafiki phrases it, but this still seems a bit simplistic. I suppose I could ask beta readers, “Hey, anything still sticking in your craw after you read the end?” but that’s a stop-gap. How can we approach this issue head on to avoid bad endings?

I think endings are difficult by nature. The end of anything is painful, books included. Tell me you’ve never gotten to the end of a series and felt like you’d just broken up with a lover or lost a friend. A good story will draw you so far in and get you so invested in the characters that you hate to see them go. You hate knowing that you won’t ever be seeing them again or knowing that you’ll tag along on more of their adventures. It’s a loss, so I sometimes think that the odds are stacked against the writer from the very beginning. No matter how they wrap up the book, we’re still going to be disappointed.

Also, a writer can’t end things the way they end in real life. Endings in real life are messy. There’s always loose ends, unanswered questions, and lack of emotional resolution that we carry into our next adventure. Readers won’t tolerate that in fiction. Real life is ugly enough. We expect fiction to give us a break from it and the momentary illusion that things really can be resolved, even if the resolution is sad or painful. Granted, an author can get away with loose ends and hanging questions in early books in a series, but that just means he or she has more to tidy up at the conclusion to the series.

That’s not to say that we as readers expect everything to be resolved. We’re not that unrealistic, but a writer has to hit the core points of his or her story and make them satisfactory. There are things a writer can leave untouched and open to the reader’s interpretation. A good book will leave you things to ponder and carry with you after its conclusion. What those points are will be entirely dependent on the individual story.

So, now we’re back to the answer of there is no answer because it depends. Yay. That helps. So maybe I need to be asking a different question.

What makes a crappy ending?

Still a difficult question. Think about the endings of books or movies you have not liked and try to articulate why you thought it was crappy. It might be easier to explain than why you did like a certain ending, but it’s still not easy.

I think I have an answer here, though. Crappy endings are ones that do not meet expectations.

Example: if I’m reading a bodice ripper I expect an HEA (happily ever after). It’s the freaking point of the genre. Yes, it’s formulaic, but that’s what we expect. Guy meets girl, they fall in love, steamy sexy times ensue, complications arise, they work out their differences, more sexy times, and guy and girl live happily ever after. THE END. If I don’t get my HEA, I’m pulling out my pitchfork and rounding up an angry mob.

(I’m joking… mostly. A certain urban fantasy author pissed me off with a death about halfway through her series and it was three years before I decided to give her a second chance and prove that there was still a happy ending in sight. Now I’m beyond glad I did and think the twist she pulled on me adds to her overall tale, butT I can’t share details on without risking spoiling someone else’s experience.)

Outside of the romance genre, expectations are not so readily definable. I do think there are expectations inherent to certain genres: mystery novels have to have the mystery resolved and in fantasy the powers of good must triumph over evil. But how that happens can widely vary. The powers of good can still triumph even if the protagonist dies, right? Or maybe he survives, triumphs over evil, but loses the girl. I hate it when that happens, but that doesn’t automatically mean the end is bad. Sometimes the loss only adds to the depth of the story.

It entirely depends on what tone the author has set for me and if the conclusion, good or bad, seems to fit with the tale they’ve been telling all along. If I’m reading a light-hearted, comedic tale and the protagonist dies at the end, my pitchforks are coming out because I feel betrayed. If you’ve teased me with a certain overarching question for five books and then never answer it, even if good does triumph over evil and the guy does get the girl, I’m still going to be pissed. If you’ve played an entire series as grounded in reality and then throw mysticism at the end as cryptic non-answer to a question, I’m going to find a fireplace and burn your novel. (An empty threat since I e-read everything these days, but still.)

So, ultimately, I guess I’m saying that the author sets his or her own expectations. Yes, there will always be controversial endings, some readers are not going to be happy no matter what you write, but if you really bomb it’s because you didn’t conform to the tone or message that you yourself set.

That’s the conclusion that I’m working with right now, but I’m not sure how helpful that is to my own writing or anyone else’s. So, what are your thoughts? What makes a good ending good? What makes a crappy ending crappy?

Post your comments and let the debate fires rage! Please try to avoid specific spoilers for books or series, though. Have a heart for your fellow readers.

Feel free to hit me up at kiralynblue@gmail.com if you want to commiserate over the conclusion to Mark Del Franco’s Connor Grey series or if you can guess which series I took a 3 year hiatus from. FYI: I still love Connor Grey and would still recommend the series. I do not feel it falls into the crappy category, it just wasn’t what I hoped and got me thinking on this question.


7 thoughts on “Endings are Evil (or What Makes a Good Ending?)

  1. Len says:

    Deus ex machina endings make me so very angry. I can just about handle any ending as long it is explainable. I also hate when characters change the way they act just to suit the storyline.

  2. tracycembor says:

    I agree 100% — crappy endings are the ones that don’t meet your expectations, either due to the genre conventions or lack of setup in the story itself.

    Twist endings or unhappy endings in short stories also fall in this category for me. Why am I going to read something to have a joke played on me or to be depressed when I finish it. Maybe it is that I read for entertainment instead of personal growth, but I don’t enjoy most of the short stories I read. Either the set up for the ending is poor, or the author thinks they are too clever.

    For novels, I would like to submit as an example Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. I won’t elaborate for people that still want to read it, but for me the ending was such a WTF that I can’t read anything else that he ever writes. If he can’t close the deal, as a reader I’m not giving him my time. Those books aren’t short.

    • Oh noes! I loved the Mistborn Trilogy. Ok, fine. The ending wasn’t what I hoped for either, but I cut Sanderson mega slack because I think I understood what he was trying to do. Plus, allomancy. Maybe I was just so enthralled by the concept that I turned a blind eye to the any shortcomings of the ending on that one.

      Ok, how about a really kick-ass ending? I submit for your approval “Invisible Monsters” by Chuck Palahniuk. That was a WTF moment in the best kind of way. I also loved his ending of Fight Club, the book not the movie. Go read it, people!

  3. A Facebook friend of mine gave this response to what makes a good ending:

    There are two important characteristics of a good ending.

    1) it has to leave you someplace you want to be. Whether that means you’ve learned more about the characters, or got to play some interesting mystery, or whatever. The ending is a destination, and it’s important that it’s a desirable destination. This is also the problem with endings that lack closure; you don’t want to be left with unresolved issues.

    2) It must honor what came before. Once you get to the end, the rest of the story MUST HAVE MATTERED. If you could have gone directly from A to C, why the hell did you make me read B? This is what’s wrong with the “it was a dream” ending; it cheapens and de-legitimizes the rest of the story. This was the complaint with the ME3 ending.

    From a more practical standpoint, if you’re trying how to WRITE a good ending, the answer is incredibly simple. If it’s a good ending, you know it before you write the beginning. Too many times, people start with the characters or the premise, and then just let the story wander, ending wherever it happens to.

  4. kddidit says:

    I feel as if the Connor Grey series is in limbo. Although, part of that is that I didn’t want it to end. I’d come to love the life lessons and the twists Del Franco gave his protagonist, but that ending???! WTF! Does he have a continuation in mind, but hasn’t settled on its path? Is he in need of a publisher? He’s burnt out? No longer interested…?

    • Good questions. He seems to be working on his Laura Blackstone series now. I’m almost afraid to read it because I can’t decide if I want it to continue the themes he set up or if I want it to be something else entirely.

  5. JP McLean says:

    Good observations. I had two opposing opinions about the ending I wrote in the third book of my trilogy. One said it fizzled out and another said it was too bloody and violent. This tells me that the first reader’s expectations weren’t met and the second reader’s expectations were hammered. It was valuable input that I needed to understand and address to improve the story. Thanks for the post and thanks for checking out my site. I appreciate it.

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