Coming To The End


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?


15 comments to Coming To The End

  • sagablessed

    My favorite ending? Dracula with Gary Oldman. Why, because in the end Mina could not save him. Despite a love that transcended the eons, in the end she had to kill him. To free him, and herself, there was no other option, and you could feel part of her die with him. I know it sounds morbid, but life isn’t always unicorns farting rainbows and glitter.
    The worst ending in my opinion? Wind in the Willows. Yes, I know it is a child’s book, but I hated the ending even as a child. Too saccharine.

    Of course bear in mind my opinion may -no, it will- change in a few weeks.

  • My absolute favourite ending is a happy one. Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword. It’s also one where before the happy ending, doubt shadows the main character well after the Big Bad is dealt with. The drawn-out ending really works.

    The ending I liked the least was The Ropemaker, by that author’s husband. It had less wonder than I wanted, was darker in ways I didn’t like, and I especially didn’t like the flash-forward 500 years epilogue. It also left a few loose ends that I had been looking forward to seeing tied off. This is probably just matter of personal taste… but what isn’t?

  • Misty I cannot chose my favorite ending. Not because I hate endings — they are wonderful. But because they are all unique. I just finished the latest Odd Thomas novel (by Koontz) and the development of the character has been so lovely and rich and profound. And now, in this latest novel Odd has been given a glimpse into the reality of good and evil, that battle that is going on everywhere and always. It was a wonderful way to leave me for the holidays. I am feeling blessed because there is nothing religious or political about the good and evil in the novels. It’s people making decisions and being willing to give their lives for truth and innocence and to save others. If you haven’t read the series, it is worth the read.

  • I find the endings of the Lord of the Rings pretty satisfying. (Not including the appendicies, for now, but those work too). The idea that Bilbo and Gandalf and Frodo get to leave and have peace is lovely. But I also like the fact that Frodo doesn’t ever fully recover from the war and the ring. That some things, sometimes, change us or even damage us. On the other hand, the ever hopeful Sam does get to go home again. He gets to go home and make a life for himself and make the world better in the Shire. There’s something there that’s beautiful, especially since I think he’s the main character, in a lot of ways, or at least the character with whom most audience members really identify.

    There are endings that I hated at the time, like Kaftka’s novel about systematic bureaucracy The Trial, I think. The MC had no idea what was happening or why, and neither did I. I get it, and what it was saying, but I didn’t like it. I had issues with the original (short version) of the Stand by King. The bad guys get blown up, and that’s it? Seriously? Argh! But, again, in retrospect, I see better what he was trying to accomplish. Evil tends to take out itself. (There’s some of that in Tolkien, too).

    Endings I hated: Right now I can’t think of any. (I hate Romeo and Juliet, but that’s a whole play thing, not the ending…). Some books made me angry, Like CS Lewis’s Narnia–the way Susan ended was horrible. But that’s about it.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I always yearn for the happy ending. But for me to be satisfied, it really needs to have a ‘but…’ Avatar and The Last Unicorn both have great endings. They’re happy, but there are also some very real losses. *Worst* endings I can think of are both Tom Cruise/Steven Spielburg movies: War of the Worlds and Minority Report. I like happy endings, but those were not only saccharine, they shredded disbelief. Also, the movie The Family Stone, where the “happy ending” is achieved by the main character undergoing a complete and utter switch in personality…yech.

    For book examples, I can come up with great and awful in one series – The Dresden Files:

    Awful – Changes. The last “tragic” twist at the *very* end I was actually perfectly okay with, because it averted the sicky sweet ending he was pretending to set up, which itself came after *such* a low blow in character development (like Laura’s example, this is very much a matter of personal taste) that what had started out as my favorite book in the series had turned into something that produced a viscerally bad reaction every time I thought about it.

    Awesome – the next book in the series, Ghost Story: This sort of ending really only works well for a not-the-last book/season in a series, which is the excellent *twist* that not only makes reality to turn out to be so much different than expected, it *also* sets up some *very* interesting possibilities to come. That ending meant that I left a book I had been feeling so-so about feeling excited, animated, and looking forward to the next installment.

  • The ending of Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’ showed me the potential of novels. And it shows the utter failure of the main characters without deflating them in any way. They learned something. I learned something.

    I think my favorite endings are the ones that let the journey continue. Yeah, I’m cheating, but I love it when I think I’ve got it all figured out…the story is wrapping up…and then, BLAM! What just happened? Or maybe something like ‘The Usual Suspects’ where it makes me want to re-watch the film and see what was really going on.

  • Nathan Elberg

    Should the ending always deal with events outside the MC, such as defeat (or victory) of the bad guy, exile, peace, etc.? What about if it’s something interior to the main character, such as his finding peace or happiness in the existing situation? The change is thus in the MC, or the MC’s way of thinking.
    I guess this would require a much more deeply written MC.

  • And it was all a dream….

  • the most disappointing was the ending of IT by Stephen King. The way the story was written was brilliant. The chapters alternated between past and present and the chapters started getting shorter and shorter so you were flipping between the past and present quickly. Like falling down a funnel and your way gets smaller and smaller heading to the climatic end! and it was a freaking spider. WTF? I don’t think I have ever been more let down by and ending.

    Linda Poitevin’s The Gregori series is bleak from start to finish. The last book comes out next year and I don’t think it is going to have a happy ending, but I tend to like the darker stories.

  • I love an ending that leaves you asking questions and wondering what will happen next — not in a sequel sort of way, but in the sense of where will these characters go next in their lives, or what did that ending really mean. Guy Kay’s Tigana ends that way. So does the movie “Inception.” Those are my favorites. But they’re really, really hard to write well.

  • Razziecat

    Oh my, here I am about to write the ending of a story that’s been rattling around in my head for almost 30 years….and up comes this timely post. 😉

    My favorite endings include the way Lord of the Rings ended…something lost and something gained; the ending of Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy, because it was so appropriate to the characters and their world; and the ending of Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Hallowed Hunt…tied everything up neatly, leaving the two main characters happy, but there was a little bit of sadness there as well.

    My least favorite was the ending of Charles DeLint’s The Mystery of Grace. I felt the story ended too soon, and didn’t solve anything. To me it was very unsatisfying. 🙁

  • Ooh, I loved the ending of Inception! We left the theater discussing what we believed happened, kept it up all the way home and on through dinner.

  • The ending of The Usual Suspects gets me every time – even when you know how the story works so the twist is no longer a surprise it’s very satisfying.

    The Innocent Mage duo ended badly for me because everything in the last five chapters became one character after another repeating “we have no choice, we must do what Prophecy dictates” as if Prophecy were an all powerful god pulling their strings. If the ending of the book relies exclusively on all the interesting characters suddenly and inexplicably becoming automatons then it’s very unsatisfying. I think the “man driven by fate” plot can be done well (Aeneid), but I don’t think most of us can do it well.

    The climax and denouement of The Fifth Elephant was excellent because Vimes’ war with his own worse nature coalesced around his war with the external antagonist. And because Sybil got to be a hero too.

  • I loved, *loved* the ending of C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. Despite being relatively lighthearted children’s books in many ways, none of the books ended with too much rainbows and butterflies; there was always the sadness of the children’s return to our world. I fell in love with the world of Narnia so deeply – and like so many others – that it was the world itself that drew me back to the stories time and time again, not the characters.
    “The Last Battle”, in particular, ended brilliantly. It was a poignantly sad book; the demise of beloved Narnia hurt deeply, but the ending made it all worth it.
    An ending I didn’t like was Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment. It was an utterly brilliant book, but the ending left me unsatisfied. Pratchett seemed to leave a lot of questions hanging in the air.

  • I tend to best like endings which bring the story full circle. The karma that has been building all book finally pays off (in the most spectacular way the better). In general I like the happily-ever-after or happily-almost-ever-after ending where Good has triumphed and Bad is in retreat.

    That said, an ending that stuck with me for a while was the anime School Days. It is classic tragedy and boy, it gets you simply because (as Misty said) not many stories end like that today.