Novels are made up of moments, strung together in waves that rise and fall, rushing towards an inevitable, hopefully surprising, conclusion. These moments are created by the author, consciously and unconsciously, as the novel is planned, drafted, and polished. The ending isn’t necessarily the most important moment, but it is a defining one.
Note: Though in this article I mostly focus on novels, at times – for ease of explanation, to bring in other opinions, or to allow some images – I brought in other media.
What Makes an Ending Satisfying?
Some readers seek endings that leave them feeling comforted or inspired. Others want to be left feeling awed, even shaken. I’ve heard some people describe their favourite plays as the ones that send them shambling from the theatre afterwards, feeling dazed and disoriented.
Different people may seek out different endings, but I’m primarily interested in an ending’s rightness: whether or not it works within the context of a fully told story. I’d go as far as to say that whether the ending of a narrative fits or not registers with a reader on a deeper level than preference in most cases. A well-constructed novel has an ending that follows directly, if not transparently, from the actions and decisions that have come before.
If an ending isn’t earned by the text, if it isn’t the final product of a natural progression, then it may seem contrived, tacked on, or even ridiculous. The result will be disappointment, or anger at the betrayal of the trust that has been built up between the author and reader. Whether the ending is happy or sad – and readers may have preferences either way – it won’t be satisfying unless it has been earned. The frustration of a broken story – especially one that up until that the final moments stayed true to its characters and world – is often the difference between “it was a solid book, but I didn’t like the ending” and “the ending ruined it.”
Endings as a Reflection of Worldview
We want endings that validate us. Optimists want to believe that the world is a happy place, pessimists appreciate grimmer, darker resolutions, and most readers fall somewhere in between. The experience of story brings an authorial point of view to bear that operates in contrast to that of the reader, manifesting through plot, character, and action.
Reading a novel is an aesthetic experience, one that involves seeing ourselves in relation to an instance of The Other. The farther an author’s point of view is from a reader’s, the harder he or she will have to work at getting past context and culture to the story archetypes that lie beneath. The closer the author gets to those archetypes, the more readers the material will resonate with, regardless of differences in point of view and expectations. That universality is something that can only be leveraged in a fully-told tale with the right ending.
In as much as the ending of a story is the author’s last chance to provide – in a scene, a moment, an image – a final word in the conversation that is being had with the reader, it is also the last piece of a puzzle that ideally reveals a final truth.
Truth and Balance
If I seem to stress the right ending over the happy one, it’s because the main yardstick by which I judge the success of a work – if not always my individual preference – is truth. Luckily for me, most storytellers aren’t aggressively cynical and dark, and often the balance of optimism and despair fall within the spectrum of what I can both appreciate and enjoy. Sometimes, the endings of even dated or mediocre work resonate with me, because the core humanity of it moves me (*cough* The Death of the Incredible Hulk). Sometimes something is both very bleak and hits me the wrong way and I can’t stand it (No Country for Old Men).
I prefer happy endings, but being primarily interested in complexity, completeness, and truth both broadens and narrows what I’m likely to enjoy: I’m not looking for morality or activism in fiction, only humanity, and this leaves me open to any ending, if I think it’s justified by the text. Even if an ending is very dark, if the work touches on core, universal truths I can usually find something meaningful in it: sacrifice or love, or the nobility in a hopeless struggle.
What are some of your favorite endings, and why? Are the endings that you remember happy or sad, and what do you think that says about you? Have you ever been upset by an ending, but still felt it was the right one and praised the work?