“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
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
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.
Jane Vandenburgh is a novelist and also the author of Architecture of
the Novel: A Writer’s Handbook. A few of her reflections on endings to
• 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.