Having recently finished a novel, I have spent some time talking to people about ending things…novels, short stories, poems, etc.
So, what makes a good ending? And why is it that “An uncomfortable silence ensued” is so exactly the opposite of almost everything we would want in one?
For those who did not see the earlier posting, near the end of my most recent novel, I jokingly asked a friend for help. He replied that he was terrible at ends. If it were his book, the characters would just look at each other and it would end with something like: An uncomfortable silence ensued.
John loved this ending. He immediately applied to many other works: Hamlet, Star Wars. You name it. But really, an uncomfortable silence is exactly what we don’t want at the end of something.
And ending is like a punch line. It is a thing that pulls the story together in such a way as to make the experience satisfying. Usually, an ending is the moment just after the victory when all is concluded. (Unless you’re me, and you write two full chapters of post-victory-missing-father-answers-questions stuff. But I don’t recommend that approach! So, in this case, you might want to do as I say, rather than as I do.) Normally, endings are more like the old romance guidelines which said: end the story the very moment that the couple gets together.
Basically, you write your story. You write your climax. You write what happens next. Then go back and cut everything after whatever the final sum-up moment of the climax was, ending at the very moment when the story is complete.
Again…do as I say, not as I do. Got that? Okay…
Overall, there are three basic endings. Everything turns out the same as the beginning—the sit-com ending used by all non-serial TV shows. Everything turns out worse than it started—a tragedy. Or everything turns out better than when it started—what used to be called a comedy, but now is just called a story.
There is another ending, however, that many of the bestsellers use. It is the unexpected twist ending. In his book Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass describes this kind of ending as: The main character fails to get what he was striving for during the book (sad), but instead he gets something else, which turns out to be good or better (happy or at least kind of happy.)
This kind of ending often has a bittersweet quality, because of the loss of the desired goal brings a note of sadness, even if the unexpected good that comes the character’s way once they see what is left for them after their failure brings some joy with it.
An example of this last ending is Gone With The Wind. Scarlett fails to get Rhett or Ashley, but she does go home to Tara with a hope of starting again. An even better example of this kind of ending is Casablanca. In fact, while whole books could be written on why Casablanca stands out so much among its contemporaries, one of the reasons is the way in which the end so perfectly meets Maass’s criteria.
If you are familiar with the film Casablanca, you can skip the next two paragraphs and go right to the next one. For those who do not know the story: In World War Two Casablanca, Rick’s Cafe is the go to place for entertainment and casual atmosphere. Nazi’s bring fear into the hearts of the Free French, but hard-boiled cafe owner Rick refuses to take sides. Once, he was an idealist who fought on the side of underdogs, but no longer. Now he is callous and jaded. No one is as neutral as Rick–except possibly Louis, the local Police Captain, who makes money off his neutrality.
Enter Victor Laszlo, a great champion for freedom. He is seeking to avoid the Nazis, who formerly held him prisoner, and to escape to the free world. Traveling with him is the beautiful Ilsa, a woman with some mysterious tie to Rick’s past. Turns out, she’s the woman who broke Rick’s heart and turned him hard and cold. Only, turns out again, it wasn’t her fault. Back when she fell in love with Rick, she thought her husband, Laszlo, was dead. Only at the last minute, when she was supposed to meet Rick to flee the Nazis occupation of Paris with him, did she find out the truth.
The story is set up to suggest that Rick getting the girl back is the goal. After all, Rick used to be a decent guy who fought for the underdog. He fell in love. He got his heart broken. Now he is bitter and cold. Surely love is what he needs to bring him back to life.
And yet, we are aware, as we watch the movie, that, even though Rick and Ilsa got into their fix through no fault of their own, to get out of it by hurting Laszlo would be wrong. So, how to end the movie without either leaving Rick hanging or breaking up Ilsa and the worthy Laszlo?
The answer, when it comes, is in Rick’s willingness to do the right thing, to become a better man, despite the pain to him. The thing that really makes the end of the movie so surprisingly good, however, is not Ilsa’s leaving, but the fact that this leaving does not leave Rick broken and hard. Instead, Rick is not the only one who has become a better man. The formerly cynical Louis has also been transformed.
When Rick utters the immortal line, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” the viewer cannot help be uplifted by the vision of these two men leaving their former lives of neutrality and devote themselves to the cause of freedom. This unexpected partnership for a dangerous but undeniably worthy cause changes the movie from a tale of romance and heartbreak into a story of redemption—the very best kind of story.
So, to sum up, some of the very best endings do not include the success of the hero at his main quest but allow the failure of the hero to transform him such that he reaches a greater victory than his former goals would have allowed.
Remember…as I say…not as I do….
An uncomfortable silence ensued.