Being raised with Disney and traditional fantasies in which good always conquered over evil, I had believed in only one type of ending. It was not that I was so ignorant that I thought that no stories had alternate types of conclusions, in my naiveté, I simply believed anything else to be pointless. Because there is so much in reality that is never met with justice, I was determined that all of my own stories would end in a way that everything would be resolved, would work out, and my protagonists would be happy.Oh, how disillusioned I have become.
Of course, a happily-ever-after has its time and place. What would Jane Austen’s books be without it? Thematically it would create a drastic change, and maybe it would feel pointless. However, readers can usually gauge what type of events or dialogues to expect as they read the books. We feel the denouement coming and that is because the ending draws the book together and serves the overarching theme.
Stranger Than Fiction – a story about an author whose words defined the destiny of a real living man – put to the fore the value of a proper ending. It was suggested that if she (the author in the book) ended the story tragically, it would complete the novel, making it memorable and praiseworthy. However by saving the man from tragedy, it would ultimately detract from what the entire book was trying to convey.
My sister (aka my first beta) has, on multiple occasions, become upset with certain decisions I have made, especially endings where I killed off a character or cut it off on an ambiguous line. In response, I ask her – once she was on speaking terms with me again – if she thought the alternative would still reflect the message that my story presents. The answer of course was always no.
If William Wallace (Braveheart) did not scream, “Freedom!” would it still have the impact. We’d not feel what they did: how much prosperity and freedom from oppression was and is worth fighting for. If Romeo and Juliet had not commit suicide, the effects of the continuing blood war may not have sunk into the souls of those who survived them or to the readers themselves. Theirs were necessary tragedies.
Had Ellie from The Last of Us said anything other than, “Okay,” would motives of the characters have resonated as deeply? Is it not the alluded feelings that draws us into the retrospection required to fully appreciate it? Did Roland (The Dark Tower) break the circle? Did Jonas’ (The Giver) place exist or was it an echo? To decide, we must take what we were given throughout their stories.
The power in ambiguity is the way it forces the involvement of the readers. In some cases, it brings you back to the events leading up to the close, moving the focus to certain elements of the story – perhaps inner struggle of characters. In other cases, you have the opportunity to settle on an ending that satisfies you. In thinking it over, you might discover the answer to the closing lies within the subtext of the story, sometimes with the context. Maybe the point is as simple as faith.
When done well, stories that conclude with a major plot twist can be the whipped cream on a nice cup of blended mystery. And it’s safe to argue that these twists don’t always work toward the betterment of our protagonists. In The Usual Suspects, (spoiler alert) the entire film is littered with little clues until it reaches the last scene and we find that we had followed the unfolding of a red herring. Then we watched the antagonist walk away – and without really hating the person either. Without that plot device, the entire narrative would be meaningless. A drone rather than a narrative.
There are and have been many debates on how stories should end. Jane Austen is purported to have said that she wanted all of her books to end happily. Bilbo in The Fellowship of the Ring said something similar. I’ve heard many a person claim that endings should be realistic, wherever it may lead. Either can be boring, especially in excess, maybe even unbearable. There is a time and place for happily-ever-afters and the tragedies and c’est la vies, but also for the bittersweet hope, ambiguity, the plot-twists, and cliffhangers.
Although it’s okay as a writer to have our own restrictions; it gives us a sort of stylistic individuality as with Austen. For me, fulfilling the story is what takes precedence, but if I can end it with at least a hint of hope, it will be so. Because it’s something which I can’t let go.
What does your ending convey and how does it support the theme of your story? Your beliefs?