“One cold hard fact of fiction is that as we’re busy writing the most sophisticated story, we can also hear — if we listen carefully — the underlying rhythms of the fairytale. From mystery to romance, from high art to personal history, we read for the same reasons. We were taught early to expect we’ll get to the happy ending, as it’s one of the main jobs of art to make all our human suffering somehow bearable.”
I don’t know of anything worse for a reader or someone in an audience to suffer the slings and arrows of a lackluster ending. What a letdown! How cheated we feel when a story doesn’t deliver an emotionally satisfying ending, one that seems inevitable and yet somehow also surprises us and sheds light on the whole story that’s gone before.
On the other hand, what a joy it is to close a wonderful book and feel its last pages echoing in your head and heart! And to feel it drawing you back into its world for a time as you ponder what it’s revealed to you about life and your own personal story. How richly satisfying an experience this is.
Recently, I read a very helpful online article about endings by Jane Vandenburgh, a novelist and also the author of Architecture of the Novel: A Writer’s Handbook. A few highlights to stimulate you:
• When it comes to beginnings and endings, the principles at work are unyielding, as laid down by that ancient master of emotion, Aristotle, in his Poetics.
• We achieve a satisfying ending by ensuring that it is harmony with, and somehow contained in, the beginning of our story.
• “A story can be finished only when it’s answered every question asked” and “elaborated every narrative issue raised,” says Jane. “A story wants… the columns in its balance sheet to equal one another, for every loss to be restored, each minus to find the plus with which to solve itself.”
• When we read an artful and satisfying ending, we realize that the writer has been constructing the storyline without our even realizing it, so that every element of it is unified. This sense of wholeness is restorative and necessary: we feel cheated without it.
Let’s ponder these thoughts as we craft our endings — and write on.