Endings vs Conclusions
Have you ever read a book and gotten to the end and then flipped back several pages to see if you missed something? Or closed the book and said “REALLY? That’s all?” Or wondered if the writer just got BORED with the story and ended the book rather than serving the characters and their struggles to the actual conclusion of their story? That’s not to say that a story can’t end with some ambiguity. Wondering what might have happened to the protagonist after the book is through doesn’t mean it didn’t conclude where it needed to.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.” The trick though, is to make sure that both your beginning and ending are connected. Not just by the middle – the journey between start and finish – but by the overarching theme of your book. George Orwell said that “I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” That lie you are exposing is your overarching theme. If you haven’t exposed it, if you haven’t given it its day in court and come out with a verdict, then you haven’t finished your book. The question you have asked of your protagonist must be answered, and in a satisfying way.
The conclusion of your story is your final resolution. You have placed your characters into a conflict. They need to resolve that conflict. Don’t shortchange them on that resolution either. This begs the question, is the climax a part of your conclusion? It can be. As long as it’s satisfying.
Colin Greenland (author of the 1990 book, Take Back Plenty) wrote that “Plotting is like sex. Plotting is about desire and satisfaction, anticipation and release. You have to arouse your reader’s desire to know what happens, to unravel the mystery, to see good triumph. You have to sustain it, keep it warm, feed it, just a little bit, not too much at a time, as your story goes on. That’s called suspense. It can bring desire to a frenzy, in which case you are in a good position to bring off a wonderful climax.” If we think of our story like great sex, then it’s all about timing. We want our reader to ‘get off’ in the best, most mind-blowing, way possible. And your conclusion is the post-coital glow, the cuddling, the morning after. Nobody wants to get rolled out of bed after an amazing romp between the sheets and told to hit the road, especially if the climax was spectacular. They want to bask, to revel, to understand what just happened instead of going over it in their head the next day and deciding they hate the jerk who kicked them out after a half-assed goodbye. (Of course, nobody likes clingy either – don’t draw it out!)
Now, this isn’t to say you have to have your stereotypical happy ending. Your characters don’t have to get married and have a baby and do whatever else is considered part of ‘happily ever after’. Lots of books choose not to do this at all (look at The Fault in Our Stars by John Green for example). Your happy ending doesn’t have to be fortunate circumstances. It can be some sort of moral resolution, an understanding of the world around them and acceptance of that world – at least until the next book, if you happen to be writing a series.
Joss Whedon says, “You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are.” When you finish your book, have you revealed who the character really is? And more importantly has the character realized who he or she really is? They’ve made their journey, they’ve faced whatever insurmountable odds you’ve put them up against, but did they learn a lesson or reach a goal beyond just killing the big bad? The monster they have to defeat isn’t as important when all is said and done as their internal demons. And that is where your story should conclude. Not when the dragon lies vanquished, or when the princess is saved, but when the hero or heroine says, “Now I know who I am. Now I know what’s important.”
Mickey Spillane (best selling crime novelist) had the best advice concerning finishing your book: “The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book.”