Saturday, October 22, 2011

Endings: Happily Ever After - Or Not

After my weekly writing group today, a couple of us got into a long discussion about the challenge of endings. They seem so elusive. Somehow, you know when it feels wrong or feels right, but you can't articulate it and, until you hit on it, it seems almost impossible to see how you'll get there.

Let's face it. Endings are hard. They can torture you, drive you to drink, send you into endless bouts of insomnia. We put them off. We impose them. We rush them. We drag them out. We want to satisfy the reader and ourselves. We want to get the damn thing finished and we never want to say goodbye, because the ending means leaving behind characters and a world that we've grown to know and love.

Lucy Calkins says endings should have important action, memorable images, something that reminds your reader of the heart of your story. Tricky concepts for my 3rd and 4th graders, who are still learning how to move beyond "That's all I have to say!" or "I hope you like my story." So, I give them helpful sentence frames as a scaffold: "I will always remember _____." "I will never forget ________." "At that moment, I knew ___." "Now I know ______." "From that day on ________." If only it were that simple for grown-up writers!

But maybe it is. Folktales have handed down a collection of stock endings to us. Maybe those stock endings are just the master storytellers giving us scaffolding. We just have to figure out which kind of story we're telling and what our story's version of the stock ending would be.

"They lived happily ever after." Are you setting your reader up for a happy ending? If so, you have to deliver. What would it take to make your protagonist, and therefore your reader, happy and satisfied? Know this and you know how your story must end. Think how furious we would have been if Harry Potter hadn't defeated Voldemort in the end.

"They were never heard from again." If your story is a tragedy, you need to leave the reader with a mix of loss and devastation, and the lingering sense that it all might have been prevented, if only ... I think I'd put THELMA AND LOUISE in this category.

"You can still hear his voice echoing through the night." Expand your vision of a horror story to include anything that leaves a haunting image to cap off a cautionary tale. I think of MOBY DICK, whose final image - the boat sinking below the waves with its drowned crew - still lingers in my mind more than 20 years later.

"There goes a mouse!" I've always thought of this as the Grimm's folktale version of my 3rd graders' "That's all I have to say" - kind of a cop-out. But really, perhaps it's more like Bugs Bunny's "That's all folks!" The comedic sign-off has it's place, when delivered with the proper light tone and humorous nonsequitur. Think of MONTY PYTHON'S HOLY GRAIL, perhaps. Or BBETLEJUICE.

What flavor does your story have? Can you think of other classic, stock endings that might point the way in your own struggle to bring your tale to a satisfying conclusion?


  1. The best ending advice I ever heard was: Make sure it is inevitable, but not predictable.

  2. That seems to get to the heart of it, Craig. So much easier said than done, isn't it?


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