Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The End (Happily Ever After vs. They All Died)

(Warning: This is a post about the endings of books.)

Recently, my brilliant and good-looking critique partners told me I had to kill off one of my main characters. But I want him to liiiiiiiiive! No, they said. That would not be a satisfying ending.

They are probably right, as they are about most things. But it's a tricky phrase, satisfying ending. It doesn't imply contentment or justice, only natural resolution. Surprising yet inevitable, as someone once said. (Probably John Gardiner. He said a lot of things in that book I didn't read because I thought Grendel was pretentious.)

So I've been mulling over this concept of "satisfying ending." Is an ending satisfying if you are bawling for an hour afterwards? Is it satisfying if it's ambiguous? If everything works out the way you want? If the good end happily and the bad unhappily, for that is what fiction means?

A satisfying ending has to be believable, we have to be invested in the characters, and there should be some kind of resolution of tension. And, just like in music, the greater the tension, the greater the payoff.

And we can wait. Sure we can. Frodo still hasn't thrown that damn ring into the volcano? Take your time. It's going to take 800 pages to kill Voldemort? No problem. Heck, in his opera Tristan und Isolde, Wagner makes us wait four hours to hear a freaking harmonic resolution, and we only get it when (SPOILER ALERT!) Isolde dies.

But once we get there, we've got to feel it. The ending is one of the most frustrating places to overly feel the writer's hand pushing the characters -- or our emotions -- around against their wills. We know when something is not right.

The End.
All of those elements -- believability, investment, natural resolution -- can be accomplished with vastly different types of endings. Since all of life's important lessons can be learned from Wayne's World, I thought I'd examine that film's three different endings as examples of popular conventions. Which team are you on?

For those of you who need a refresher, lovable teenagers(?) Wayne and Garth do a quirky, popular public access show out of Wayne's mom's basement. But sleazy TV exec Rob Lowe gets the rights and wants to exploit them! Also Wayne is in love with this super hot girl who's in a band named Crucial Taunt, and she starts making eyes at Rob Lowe.

Decisions, decisions.
Wayne and Garth and their friends hatch a plot to have Crucial Taunt perform and to bounce the signal directly into the limo of a passing record producer, Mr. Big, who will then presumably offer the band a sweet deal. And screw Rob Lowe! Somehow.

Luckily for our study, Wayne's World offers up three different endings.


The record exec sees the performance, but doesn't offer the band a contract. Super hot girl leaves Wayne for Rob Lowe, Wayne's psycho ex-girlfriend reveals she is pregnant, and somehow Wayne's house burns down. The movie ends with Wayne carrying Garth's charred body from the wreckage and shouting, "Why, God? Why??"

Sad endings work for me when I take away something from the story that is greater than just sadness. The cases that don't work for me aren't necessarily poorly written -- some of them are brilliant -- and I don't necessarily take away only sadness from them. But the sadness overshadows everything else, and for that reason, I don't think they help me grow. Think Charlotte's Web (sad, lovely, poignant, I'm never eating bacon again, okay I'm eating bacon again, life is hard but it's worth it, friends are important) versus Old Yeller (OMG HE JUST SHOT OLD YELLER).

I also think tragedy can be an easy substitute for depth.

"Jeez, all the leper orphans died? GIVE THIS AUTHOR A NEWBERY!"


(Known in Wayne's World as the Mega-Happy Ending.) Mr. Big offers Crucial Taunt a record deal, Rob Lowe gets a body cavity search and realizes there's more to life than being evil, and his henchman discovers that platonic love can exist between two grown men. The movie ends with Wayne asking, "Isn't it great to know we're all better people?" before everyone makes fish faces.

Happy endings work for me when I reeeeeeeally want them. I think the happy ending can be the most dangerous -- it has the potential to make a story forgettable because nothing lingers to bother us afterwards. I think the way to avoid this is to really make us work for our happy ending. For example, Jane Eyre grudgingly gives us our -- mostly -- happy ending only after terrible sorrow and drudgery and loss, and by the time we get there, it's just what we need.



Okay, in Wayne's World, the Scooby Doo ending is the ending where they rip off Rob Lowe's face to reveal Old Man Withers who runs the amusement park, "And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for --" well, you know. It's absurd and insane.

In modern parlance, this might be known as the WTF Ending (not to be confused with the It Was All A Dream Ending, which should never, ever be employed under any circumstances unless you are Lewis Carroll. And even then, f@*k you, Lewis Carroll).

You heard me.
A good Scooby Doo ending -- that which appears to come out of left field -- remains surprising yet inevitable, with the reader completely wrapped up in the surprising part to the point where its inevitability can be completely obscured. What was your reaction the first time you read Salinger's "A Perfect Day For Bananafish"? Mine was this face: o.O

When I finished reading M. T. Anderson's Thirsty, I threw it across the room. It took me three days to figure out I didn't hate it; I loved it. Yet Thirsty contains possibly one of the least satisfying endings in YA lit, at least on first glance. But it holds up. Is it inevitable? Certainly. Is it surprising? At first. It's surprising the book ends when and how it does, although in retrospect, there is no other way for it to end. Quick, what's the last line of Thirsty? If you've read it, you just said that line out loud. That's an ending.

I would lump the Ambiguous Ending in with the Scooby Doo Ending -- it's kind of its chilled out older brother. I think the Twist Ending, however, is more of a subcategory.

Do you have a penchant for certain types of endings? Do you love crying for Wuthering Heights, skipping around the apartment for Sense and Sensibility, or pondering I Capture the Castle?


  1. Great post, Adi! I really enjoyed your humorous takes on the different types of endings. I especially loved the Scooby Doo one!

  2. Thanks, Blessy. I can imagine you being a closet Scooby Doo fan! :)

  3. I Capture The Castle has one of the only (non-Shakespeare) endings I can quote! (Which I guess I won't do here in case nobody else has read it but man, I loved that ending.) I like ambiguous endings (the Robert McKee description sticks in my head: an ending that has both positive and negative story value). I think that most books that have thematic complexity call for ambiguity in the ending, even if it's just a little nudge to keep it from being all one thing or the other.