I’ve been thinking quite a bit about endings lately. Everything ends, and the best one can hope for is that the ending is painless and peaceful, or beautiful and grand. Endings can be sudden, and they can be well-planned. Sometimes the end is wracked with tears, and sometimes the end is filled with joy and laughter. Nothing lasts forever. It’s okay for things to come to a natural conclusion – it’s just the way of things. Friendships end, jobs end, and of course, stories end.
Last night I watched the midseason finale of Once Upon A Time. (I have to take a left turn here to marvel at the existence of the midseason finale. Why is this a thing? I can see skipping a week or two around the holidays to make room for the endless number of holiday extravaganzas featuring country music stars singing rewritten hymns while wearing eighty pounds of glitter, but waiting until March to get going again is just weird. Okay, back to the post.)
Anyway, as I was saying, I watched the midseason finale, which brought a whole bunch of stories to a fairly satisfying close. Even though they set up to begin again in March when the show starts back up again, you could conceivably never watch another episode of the show and be okay. It made me think about really good once-and-for-all endings, and how the best ones manage it. There are lots of different endings, so let’s talk about a few.
First, there’s the tried-and-true happily-ever-after. The romantic partners find each other, declare their love and ride off into the future together. If a mighty magic item was in the story, it finds its way into the most trustworthy hands, to be used wisely and safely for the good of all. Good triumphs and evil is vanquished. It’s been done a million times, and for good reason – people like it. You do run the risk of becoming a bit saccharine if good isn’t tempered with a little reality, but if this is the way you plan to close out your novel (or series), the happily-ever-after never really goes out of style.
Almost as common is the happily-almost-ever-after. Not everyone you like wins in this scenario. Someone’s true love doesn’t make it to the end of the story, and the grieving lover only achieves the goal because of the power of his thwarted love. Could be that the hero has to make a sacrifice to ensure everyone else’s happiness and safety, a sacrifice that locks him out of paradise in some way. This is a great ending, and not particularly easy for a writer to pull off. When it works…hoo boy, better have a box of tissues ready, because the tears are guaranteed.
You don’t see the tragic ending so often any more, except in literary fiction. I think this is probably because things are pretty tough in the real world right now, so readers want their stories to reflect at least a partial happy ending so they can escape their own miseries for a while. The true tragic ending involves no one being happy. Romeo and Juliet are dead, and so are Tybalt and Mercutio. Sets of parents all over Verona are in mourning, and the main feud, while at last ended, is clearly seen to be not worth the cost. This one’s also hard to get right, because you don’t want to telegraph your sad ending too far ahead. The best writers pull it off by keeping the reader guessing until the very end.
My very favorite ending is from Tim Powers’ The Drawing of the Dark. The main character is a former mercenary soldier, still strong but past his prime, who’s the reincarnation of Arthur, returned to help the West against a dreadful threat. Duffy strives and fights even though all he wants is to run away with the girl he lost as a young man and make a quiet life with her now that they’re older. But it’s not meant to be, and by the time he recognizes that, too much has happened for his fantasy to ever come true. He saves the West, but at too high a cost for him to live with. He leaves the story being carried on a ship crewed by men whose language he doesn’t speak, so he’s once again alone. I weep like a child every time I reread that book, even though I know what will happen, because the author draws on the worries and griefs that plague us as we face age. It’s beautiful.
Now I want to hear from you. What endings of stories made you happiest? Which ones disappointed you? And why?