I recently read a novel with a bad ending. It had, up until the last few pages, been a great novel. I had consumed it almost in one sitting, breathlessly, and then when I was expecting a twist, a resolution, something to bring it to a satisfying conclusion, there was nothing. It presented the most banal solution to what had been an exciting puzzle that could have been imagined. I felt betrayed and angry, and I will not likely read anything by that author again.
I have written about the importance of beginnings in your novel, but endings are just as critical. In the beginning you establish the contract with the reader and in the end, you must execute on it. You must deliver the payoff to those who have invested in your work.
Lists of books with bad endings abound. Some commonly listed books with bad endings include Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Allegiant by Veronica Roth and Atonement by Ian McEwan. Yup, those are all on my bad ending list, although Atonement is considered by some to be one of the best endings. Part of the reason that the endings are so bad is because the books had so much promise that it is even more agonizing when the ending is poor.
Gillian Berry has a fantastic list of the worst types of endings to books, including some of my personal least favourites:
- Everyone Dies Ending – pretty self-explanatory and never a good idea
- Deus Ex Machina Endings – character gets themselves out of a dire situation with an inexplicable and contrived solution – some new event, ability or loaded gun that just happened to be right where they needed it
- The Way Too Soon Ending—writer got tired of writing and cut things off right after the climax, or worse, petered out before any climax
- The Where Did that Come From Ending—a strange twist or shift in the story or writing tone that was totally unexpected, not foreshadowed, out of character and unsatisfying
I would add to that list the:
- The Main or Key Character Dies Ending—sometimes acceptable when it was potentially expected, like they were sick of something, but other than that, not
- The Non-Twist When You Promised a Twist Ending—writer spends whole time hinting at and building up to something and then nothing is revealed, the killer is the person who was suspected all the time
- The Too Ambiguous or Non-Ending Ending—too little is explained, the writer teases the reader with too many open-ended questions, there is no evidence of personal growth or redemption on the part of the main character
- The Gratuitous Final Twist When Everything Was Wrapped Up Ending—everything is resolved and seems like it is going to be okay, then the UFO comes back, or the main character ruins her life in one fell blow
Others would add The Too Happy Ending and The It Was All a Dream Ending. While I don’t love those, I find them more tolerable than some of the others.
Joan Acocella points out that endings are bad when they are a betrayal of what came before and theorizes that sometimes authors just get tired and think they have worked hard enough. Gillian Berry likewise points out that sometimes authors paint themselves into a corner with their plot and don’t know how to get out—enter the avalanche that kills everyone, or the inexplicable Deus Ex Machina that gets your character out of an unescapable situation. Writers also may think that ambiguous or non-ending endings are more artistic. They certainly abound in literature, and sometimes they are okay as long as they conform to genre norms and aren’t too ambiguous, but I’m not a big fan. I remember being told in a writing class that I had to kill my darlings. I thought that this meant that artistically I had to kill one of my main characters. It doesn’t and don’t.
Genre conventions and reader expectations also play a critical role in determining what is a good or bad ending. Some readers want a happy ending to every story—others like endings that are shocking and leave them scratching their heads. Romances must have a happily ever after or a happy for now ending or readers will generally be very upset. The killer must be revealed at the end of a mystery. Thrillers must have a twist. Literary fiction allows for much more ambiguity in its endings, and Lee Rourke argues for the value of loose ends in this piece in The Guardian.
No matter what you are writing, you must pay attention to your ending. If the first line in your novel is important, the last line is often critical.
Satisfying endings answer questions, fulfill your promises and bring some closure to the reader and the story. You don’t have to answer every single question, but you have to answer the main ones. You can leave room for interpretation, but things have to make sense, and seem inevitable and right. Novels can end with sadness, but there must be some uplift somehow. According to the NY Book Editors blog (which offers some great advice on writing endings) Good endings make the reader’s “heart ache and then ponder”.