I was recently given the challenge of writing about endings. How does one end a story in a satisfying way? I’m not sure if I’m the best one to ask since I haven’t finished any project of note or scope. A few of my short stories are complete, but most of them aren’t very good. However, I’ll do my best.
Stories revolve around conflict. Sometimes the conflict is very small, like misplacing your keys and trying to find them before you are late for work, or the conflict could be huge, spanning star systems and deciding the fate of entire worlds. Most stories fall somewhere between the two. Fantasy does tend to go large-scale with some kind of threat to the world or at least to the local kingdom.
A story begins usually just before the conflict is introduced. We see what is “normal” and then something happens that creates conflict for the character. They lose their job, they are taken out of slavery, they become a slave, they gain or lose a kingdom. The conflict introduced may bring them positive changes, like in Mercedes Lackey’s Dragon Jousters series. A boy name Vetch is a serf, bound to the land under a harsh master, but that changes when a Dragon Jouster comes to his home and takes him on as a servant to help tend the great dragons. Obviously Vetch will be facing a new set of challenges, but his lot has improved from his previous state of serfdom. Or the conflict could be more negative and dangerous. Richard Mayhew in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is living a perfectly ordinary life until he stumbles across an injured girl named Door. He takes care of her and she’s out of his life in less than 24 hours, but as a result, he suddenly becomes invisible to the upper world. His good deed costs him his fiancée, his job, his money, his home, his very existence as a normal person. Because of this unfortunate turn of events, he must descend into the dangerous London Below to try to get his life back.
So if the story begins with conflict, it only follows that the story ends when the conflict is resolved. Vetch gains a dragon and his freedom, Richard regains his life but then trades it for a life in London Below because that’s where he feels he now belongs. All of the conflict, or at least a good 90% of it, is resolved at the end of the book. The ends have to be tied up in a manner that makes sense and feels like a natural progression. Lackey’s story couldn’t have Vetch be a serf or servant throughout the entire book and then suddenly at the end become king of the nation or something. That would feel fake, contrived deus ex machina, and completely out of keeping with what we’ve learned about the character and the world. Likewise, Neverwhere could have ended with Richard returning to London Above, but after seeing how close he’s become to Door and the others of London Below, and seeing how superficial his friends in London Above are, we would feel dissatisfied, perhaps even cheated, if Richard decided to forsake all the wonder and magic and, yes danger, that he found below. Because we’ve come to know Richard over the course of the book, we know he would be far happier with a spunky, independent, compassionate person like Door than his snobby superficial fiancée Jessica who was willing to leave an injured Door on the street just so she wouldn’t be late to a dinner engagement.
Now, not all ends can or should be tied up at the end of the book if it’s part of a series. In Harry Potter, Voldemort isn’t defeated at the end of the first book. Instead, each book presents certain challenges, conflicts, and antagonists to be overcome. Much of the conflict is physical, but there’s a lot of mental and emotional conflict and maturation going on. At the end of each book, Harry has grown a little bit. He’s survived and learned, reaching a new plateau each time, and the following book builds on that, keeping the all-encompassing threat of Voldemort strong and increasing as we progress. It’s like playing a video game and each level features its own location and boss, but you know that, at the end, you have to face the final boss who’s been pulling all the strings. When that final boss is defeated, when that final conflict is resolved, only then can the story and the series come to an end.
That being said, crafting a satisfying ending can be tricky because so much of it depends on interpretation. The author has a certain view of who the characters are, how they behave, react, mature, and ultimately chose. Readers have their own interpretations and ideas about what the characters should do, what kind of people they are, and what kind of ending they should have. As a writer, you try to present your own ideas as clearly as you can, but know that not everyone will agree with how you do that. People’s impressions and interpretations of characters will color how they want the story to progress and what they want the ending to be. I like seeing characters come through more or less intact. Other people want to see their fresh scars and wounds right out there in the open. Whatever you chose, you want to make sure that the ending feels like a natural culmination of events and doesn’t contradict the tone of your story. (Unless you’re Joss Whedon, then apparently you can get away with it.) If your story has been light and fluffy, don’t turn it into a dark tragedy at the last minute. If your story has been rather dark and grim or at least highly realistic, don’t pull a fairytale-like happy ending out of thin air. If you change the tone at the last minute, your readers may feel cheated and decide not to bother with your work anymore. It’s alright to challenge or defy expectations, but don’t completely obliterate them.
Again, most of what I’ve said here is hypothetical or comes from observation; I haven’t actually been faced with the challenge of ending something. The exact wording I now will be tricky, to allow the song to wind down to a soft, lingering closing note or to end with a grand clash of trumpets and drums. It depends on the story, on the author’s personal preference, and, of course, what the characters feel like doing. Beginnings are vital to engage the reader, endings are necessary to give the reader a sense of satisfaction at having read your book, regardless of what other emotions (joy, sadness, hope, glee) may be at play. Choose your words wisely.