Critique Technique, part 8: story endings

To quote from Ogden Nash’s puckish poetry accompanying Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, “Now we reach the grand finale / Animale Carnivale…”

The story you’ve been reviewing has reached and passed its climax, its moment of greatest tension and conflict. The good guys have won—or not. The protagonist has survived, achieved whatever she set out to achieve (or maybe something different), or gained some new understanding—or not. Now it’s time for the author to tie everything up in a shiny bow, or leather straps, or bands of steel, so you, the reader feel that satisfying sense of completion—or not.

Or not?

Or not. We’ll get to that shortly.

Award-winning thriller writer Joe Moore recently wrote an excellent post on The Kill Zone blog in which he talked about the makings of a great ending. I won’t try to reproduce the whole piece here—you should go read it for yourself—but he says a great ending should:

  1. Resolve anything that wasn’t taken care of in the climax. Tie up the loose ends, in other words.
  2. Answer the “story question”—that is, what the story was about, what changes the protagonist was going to go through as a result of the situation he faced, or whether, as noted above, he was going to achieve his objectives or not.
  3. Establish a new sense of normalcy. Things have been topsy-turvy for the protagonist through the whole story. Now she can get on with her life, even if that life is totally different from what it was at the beginning.
  4. Reinforce the story’s message, theme, or moral, if there was one.

That third point deserves a bit more discussion. The “new normal” doesn’t have to be a good state of affairs. The protagonist might be dead—which could be bad for him, or good. Or enslaved. Or wealthy. Or married. Or divorced. Or back at home (except, of course, that you can never…). There may be hints that there’s more chaos or turmoil yet to come, but at least the chaos and turmoil of this story are over—or not.

There are a couple exception to this “rule.” First, some genres tolerate unhappy or ambiguous endings that leave things unsettled. They’re acceptable in “literary” or science fiction but anathema in romance. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath ends with a scene of amazing humanity and giving, yet we never know the result of Rose of Sharon’s act or what happens to the entire Joad family.

Second, if the piece is part of a series—and this is true for non-fiction as well as fiction—there needs to be something left unresolved. In this case, just as with the end of a scene or chapter, this is where the writer leaves the reader with that, “But wait, what about…?” itch, that hint of something left undone, unfinished, or still to come that makes him want to read the next installment, even if it’ll be a year or more before it appears!  This incompleteness can appear in the form of just a word, a phrase, or a sentence, or even in something left not said or not done.

In the end (pun fully intended), no matter how a piece ends, your job as the reviewer is to decide whether it succeeded in its mission to complete the story—or not.

Here are questions for you to ask as you make that evaluation:

  • If the piece ends a series or is meant to stand alone:
    • Have all the threads of the story been tied up?
      • Do I know what happened to all the major characters and why?
      • Has a new state of normalcy been established?
    • If the author meant the piece to have a message, moral, or theme, is there a concluding restatement of it? Note that this statement can be implicit or explicit. Grapes has one: the human spirit will triumph, no matter how many degrading and demoralizing obstacles are put in the way. Rose of Sharon’s action says it better than any blunt statement even Steinbeck could have ever made.
    • Do I feel the story is complete, or is something still lacking? If lacking, what?
    • If the piece ends ambiguously:
      • Is this what the author intended (as best you can tell)?
      • Did she prepare me for this?
      • Is it a fitting ending for the story?
      • Is the piece written in a genre that accepts or allows this kind of ending?
  • If the piece is any part of a series except the last, add:
    • Do I have an idea of where the larger story is headed next, what’s in store for the protagonist (and possibly the antagonist)?
      • Is the “new normal” still unsettled?
      • Does the protagonist know there’s still something more to do or resolve? He may not, but you, the reader, have to sense it.
    • Am I excited by the possibility of spending more time with these characters? Do I want to know more about them? Do I want to find out how they deal with their next adventure, or that danger that I see lurking around the corner?

What else do you look for in the end of a piece to decide whether that ending is successful or not?

And with that, we’ve reached the conclusion of this series on beginnings and endings. Next time we’ll begin looking at characters and characterization.

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3 comments on “Critique Technique, part 8: story endings

  1. Writer Jobs says:

    Great post thanks. I really enjoyed it very much.

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  2. Novel Girl says:

    This post should be read by all writers. It was so helpful for me. I’ve considered if the novel I’m revising right now should be a stand alone or not. I’m going to save this as a Word doc and refer to your points.

    Thanks heaps.

    P.S. I tweeted the link to this post because I wanted more people to see it 🙂 Sorry I didn’t tag you, but I didn’t see that you had an account from your blog, but you can see what I wrote on my blog.

    • RossBLampert says:

      Thanks so much. Glad these posts are helpful. Thought at first my novel-in-progress was going to stand alone, too, but now I see the way into a sequel. Gotta get this one done first, though.

      No Twitter account–YET. But shame on me for not having one. That will be repaired soon.

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