Happily Ever, Never, or Maybe After
There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”― Frank Herbert Readers seem to have very definite opinions about endings. I know I do. But I wonder if writers feel the same way about endings when they have a pen in hand.It seems there are three choices for writers. An ending can delight as in “happily ever after.” Or it can devastate. I can still hear my daughter sobbing inconsolably at the end of Ann Karenina. Then there is the dangle. I’m talking Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island or even more maddening to me, Anita Shreve’s The Last Time They Met. You might have guessed, I’m a happily ever after girl. After thirty years of practicing family law, I am without apology when I say I not only want, I need a happy ending. Not that I haven’t been riveted by tragic finales like those in Mystic River and Ordinary People. But when I write, I try to give my readers a resolution that is satisfying if not entirely happy. What about you, my fellow Miss Demeanors? What do you look for when you read? Is it different than when you write? Delight, dangle, or devastate? Alexia: It depends on the book. For a stand-alone mystery I like a nice, tidy ending. The murderer is exposed and brought to justice, order is restored. For a series, subplot cliff-hangers are okay as long as the main plot’s crime is wrapped up by the end of the book. If I’m reading comedy, I want a happy ending. If I’m reading satire, horror, or sci-fi, I don’t mind danglers and not-so-happy endings. I don’t read romances but I might if one ended with boy-doesn’t-get-girl or girl-realizes-she’s just-fine-on-her-own-and-doesn’t-need-to-waste-time-chasing-after-unobtainable-men. The only type of endings I can’t stand are those that don’t follow from the set-up in the rest of the book, those that are too convenient, and those that are utterly bleak, mean-spirited, or promote the idea that life is a miserable hell and humans are irredeemable. Tracee: Anna Karenina gets a pass. It was a tragedy from start to finish, so no one could have expected anything less than a sad ending. I don’t need a neatly wrapped happy ending (a la Jane Austin with wedding bells and applause) but I do like a sense of completion. Preferably not a grim one. I think that when you write a series you almost have to commit to an ending that provides some sort of hope for the future, or the hero/heroine would always start the next book arising from the ashes of tragedy. Perhaps once in a while you can get away with it, but rarely, I think. Now that you’ve suggested it, in the future I will aim for a mix of delight and dangle as the characters move from the edge of devastation in the next to end pages! Robin: I’m a dangler. The closure of a tidy ending is satisfying, like Sue Grafton’s method of using the report submission style, but an artfully crafted dangle stays with me longer. I’ll ponder the continuing lives of the characters. I lean towards dangling in my own work, too. Besides being fun to read, the resolution-but-not-necessarily-an-ending is also fun to write. Paula (Munier, our occasional Miss Demeanor): I like happy endings, or, failing that, hopeful endings. No “Life is shit” endings for me. Susan: I like it when I don’t see an ending coming. Too often I feel like I know from the first chapter how it’s all going to wind up. I also love the sort of ending that makes me sit and think for a while. I’ve always loved the ending of To Kill a Mockingbird because it’s so emotional and yet restrained. I’ve often pictured Atticus sitting there, waiting for his son to wake up. How different it would be if she showed Jeb tapdancing the next day. Cate: I like “life is complicated” endings.