“Your first line sells your novel,” Mickey Spillane once said. “Your last line sells your next one.”
Mickey’s words speak to the importance of a good ending, especially in a novel. There’s nothing worse than investing the time to read a couple of hundred pages only to be cheated by an unsatisfactory ending. I can think of three books that left me feeling less than satisfied with the way they concluded. The first, and most egregious, was a novel set in the 1950’s on an island sanatorium. Due to my standing policy not to bad-mouth another author, I won’t name the book. The protagonist is a cop, who is investigating a case on an island. As the novel progresses, it’s ultimately revealed that the hero is actually a patient and every one of the people with whom he interacts is a player in an elaborate scheme to shock him back to reality. As if that weren’t farfetched enough, it’s revealed in the climax that the gun the protagonist has been carrying throughout the story is not a real weapon, but rather a water pistol. I laughed out loud at that one. Anyone who has ever handled a real gun, much less a cop, would easily be able distinguish the difference between the real thing and a water pistol.
The second one that comes to mind is a sci-fi satire that I read years ago. The novel’s title comes from an old children’s game involving a piece of string looped around one’s fingers to form figures. Although it’s been a long time, and the exact particulars of the plot escape me, it involves a secretive religious figure who is some kind of messiah in a South American country where his followers sit facing one another with the soles of their bare feet touching. There’s also some king of weapon grade substance that immediately freezes water into a solid substance at room temperature. The ending depicts an apocalyptic, chain reaction event that leads to the end of the world. The narrator’s love interest and a host of other characters take their own lives as all water on earth solidifies. The messiah appears at the end, after having been alluded to throughout the novel, only to commit suicide while making a defiant gesture to everyone. It’s then revealed that the book is actually a chronical of humanity’s last gasp. Although it’s billed as a satire, this is one depressing read and succeeded on making me feel like I’d been punched in the gut. After reading it I realized that the joke was on me. I’d shelled out money for a book so ludicrous and unentertaining that I felt making a defiant gesture of my own.
The third example I’ll bring up is a well-known series of comic books that were billed as a “graphic novel.” The plot features the investigation of the death of a CIA operative who was known for wearing a smiling face pin. Figure out which graphic novel I’m talking about yet?
Anyway, the comics were written by a popular writer from across the pond who apparently wasn’t aware that American presidents are limited to two terms. Although it featured superheroes, and was set in some kind of alternate or parallel universe, the plot was engaging right up to the end. Then, the writer purportedly lost interest in the project and ended the series with one of those “let me pull a rabbit out of my hat” type cop-out endings. It left me flatter than the thin veneer of a nouveau socialite. One thing I will say, in case I’ve managed to pique your curiosity, is that the screenwriter for the movie version rewrote the ending and accomplished what the comic book writer failed to do. The movie version is superb and artfully provides the type of ending that the graphic novel should have had.
So what makes one ending superior and another substandard? Let’s take a look at some requirements.
A good ending should arise out of the story, and be a logical conclusion that is gradually built from the first page onward. In other words, it requires some foreshadowing and the reader must be provided with enough clues along the way to have a fair chance at figuring things out. All the subplots and main conflict should be resolved by the novel’s end, and should be resolved in a satisfying manner. Using what they call a “freeze-frame” or open-ended conclusion is risky. These leave things up to the audience or reader and work better in a short story or TV episode than a novel. The most classic example of a bad, open-ended story is “The Lady or the Tiger.” I read it way back in high school and still feel cheated. The author failed to provide any clue to the reader as to how the story might turn out. Good writers, like Rolad Dahl, were able to use the freeze frame with panache. In his story, “Taste,” Dahl abruptly ended the story at a critical point, just after the climax, but there was enough preceding layering and characterization that there is little doubt what will come next. That’s artistry. I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention my all-time favorite freeze-frame ending. It was in the 1966 movie, Harper, starring Paul Newman. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and do so. The great William Golding wrote the screenplay and actually improved upon the novel (The Moving Target) by the incomparable Ross MacDonald.
In short, endings are important. Leave the reader feeling good, rather than having been taken for a ride and unceremoniously dumped.