Thursday, March 28, 2013

Bad Endings



I am reading a great book at this very moment (OK, not this VERY very moment, but I was a few minutes ago) that I am afraid to finish. I'm right near the ending and I'm doing this blog rather than finishing the book. This is because I've read a number of otherwise-brilliant books lately with rather disappointing endings. The most recent was the Hugo- AND Nebula-award winning Among Others, by Jo Walton. I so enjoyed the act of reading this book — page after page made me happy — until about 4/5ths of the way through, when I began to get nervous. It was clear by then that Walton was probably not going to wrap up the dozens of dangling threads she'd left. She was also building up toward a Supreme Ordeal (of the Hero's Journey type) that was unlikely to pay off. It almost couldn't pay off, given what she'd done so far: the nemesis hadn't even been introduced, only vaguely alluded to.

It was, indeed, disappointing. I was pretty invested in the story, so the weight of disappointment made me kind of angry. I wanted to yell a little bit at Walton's editor for not sitting her back down and making her redo those last twenty pages. Surely she could see that they didn't match the rest of the book? But Among Others has received rave reviews (not to mention those awards) so perhaps it's just me. I don't like trite endings; I don't like loads of things left unresolved.

I know should forgive Walton. I am terrible at endings, myself. I've written probably a dozen for my historical novel and absolutely hated them all. I realize a satisfying ending is perhaps the hardest part of a novel to pull off, and I wish it didn't weigh so heavily on a novel's value. If 90% of a book is fantastic, why does a bad ending mean you discount the whole book? A bad beginning doesn't. All Stephen King's books start off wobbly: he's terrible at beginnings. But his endings are usually great, so we love him.

So: what is it that makes a good story ending? Or a bad one, for that matter? I'm curious to hear other's views of this: what books have you read, or movie have you seen, that did it particularly well or failed spectacularly? Why?




12 comments:

  1. Hmm, good question. To me, a BAD ending rushes to tie up all the loose ends, without paying any attention to whether or not the manipulations and resolutions make any sense, or are even plausible. Feels like the writer just wants to get DONE with the book. It's like opening a beautifully-wrapped piece of chocolate and discovering it's carob when you bite into it. Pa-too-ey!

    Right off hand, the BEST ending to any book I can think of is in John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany." Dynamite! All of the convoluted happenings in the story, which at first don't seem to be connected, are all brought together in a beautifully intricate way. I was stunned by how well it was done. A wonderful seven-course gourmet meal. (With chocolate mousse!)

    Darn. I was hoping to see a picture of some baby owls here. (HA!)

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    1. Right off the bat, I can offer a differing opinion. "A Prayer..." holds as one of the books that sticks out as a horrible ending for me. It felt artificial and constructed. While I understand that the book was fiction, it crossed from realistic fiction into fantasy in the end, and felt ridiculous. For those that believe in a religion, especially Christianity, I can see how the ending would feel good; Owen was Christ-like. The ending was proof that Owen was not crazy, and his life was sacrificed for the greater good. As an allegory, I get it. I just wanted to believe it.

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    2. I really struggled with Owen Meany. So many people told me it was the best book they'd ever read EVER in their LIFE, with lots of exclamation points, and that's always tough. How can a book measure up to that? I've read a few other John Irvings I've loved but just didn't get that one.

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    3. Oh, and Susan: this is just for you! :) http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/owl-camouflage-photo-wildlife-photographer-1747832

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  2. I suppose I enjoy endings that feel believable, and it doesn't much matter whether they are happy endings or sad endings, but generally they have a mix of both. Some of my favorites are "Ender's Game", "Holes", "Presumed Innocent", and "To Kill A Mockingbird". Some of my least favorites are "My Sister's Keeper", "A Prayer for Owen Meany", and "Mars" (Ben Bova).

    I just finished a beautifully written (translated from Japanese) dark book with an interesting ending choice - "The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea" (Mishima). The ending is foreshadowed in the book, and the reader knows the plan, but is not subjected to the experience of it. You are left to assume that it is carried out, but not left to witness it. I'm sure that it was a message - that we are not brave enough to face these horrors of human nature, and so we turn away and ignore that they are there. Very interesting choice.

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    1. Interesting list! I agree with you on the books you've listed that I've read. I haven't read Mishima, but the book I was referring to in my initial post (the one I really liked but hadn't finished) has a similar ending. The momentum of the book carries you toward this one inevitable thing, but that thing never happens on-screen, as it were. It's clear it will, but as you said: the reader will not witness it. In this case, the off-screen event wasn't a horrors-of-human-nature one, but the opposite. I wonder what goes into that sort of ending choice. Maybe the authors felt that whatever the reader would do in her imagination was likely to be more satisfying than anything the author spelled out? Or more horrifying, in the case of Mishima.

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  3. Now I'm really curious to know if the ending you're putting off is going to satisfy. Will you write about it either way?

    (Like the bit about Walton's editor. :))

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    1. It was good, Suze! The book was "Heft" by Liz Moore. I was mostly satisfied at the end — certainly I was not angry. I was ever-so-slightly disappointed that Moore chose to end it before the *real* ending, as I describe in my answer to Mara above. But Moore's choice of ending seemed like a real choice. She made it as an artist, deliberately. Walton's ending seemed like panic. Like, "how do I end this thing?" I gave Heft 4 stars (out of 5) and Among Others 3 stars, though my feelings about the ending were totally different. Both books were well-written and enjoyable to read ... almost all the way through. :) I wanted to recommend Among Others to you initially, actually, because of the narrator's strong voice — we've talked about that. Now I'd really only recommend it to someone who's a huge sci-fi fan, because that element would probably make up for the weak ending.

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  4. I recently read Robopocalypse and enjoyed it so much, from start to finish, that I did something I've rarely done before: I read it again. I thought the ending was very satisfying and brought all the elements of the story together nicely.

    Books like Ender's Game I really like because of the twist at the end, a twist that delivers a wonderful surprise, though I've not been able to read the remainder (tried but couldn't). To a lesser degree, the Hunger Games series does a pretty good job, though those books are not written as well.

    Thinking back to Asimov's Robot series and his Foundation series, thinking of Stephen King's Dark Tower series, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Herbert's Dune series, all of them delivered big time and all of them had a bit of a twist every so often that satisfied. The same is true with George R. R. Martin's Fire and Ice series, which often surprises.

    Funny how all the examples I just thought of were science fiction and fantasy. I may have to branch out a little more.

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    1. Joe, you have really made me want to read Robopocalypse! I sure like the cover. After World War Z (which I did not care for) I have been very gun-shy of that sort of book, though I don't know if it's fair to lump them together.

      You're right about Ender's Game. Twist endings are almost always satisfying, aren't they? There's something about that "WHOA!" reaction that is very pleasurable. I read "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell a few years ago when it was assigned to my daughter's class. It's a classic short story with a fantastic twist ending; if you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. However, My Sister's Keeper has a twist ending that almost everyone seems to hate, and I'm not sure why that is. It didn't seem real, maybe? It seemed designed only for the shock value, rather than as a natural consequence of events.

      If you're branching out from speculative fiction but want more twisty stories, I'd recommend Defending Jacob and Gone Girl, two recent thrillers that will probably have you glued to your chair.

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    2. I hear you, Sister! I have the same problem writing endings (that's why I'm currently 'blogging' instead of working on my novel). My first novel had countless endings and I finally settled on one (but I can't say that I love it). My second novel also had a couple of endings. It's just so easy to slip into cheesy-land, especially if you have a romance in the story. To me, that's the hardest challenge: how to avoid a predictable and corny ending!

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    3. I remember how hard you worked on the TBL ending—and how good it ended up! :)

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