It’s very rare that the end of a good book is the end of its story.
One cold January day I sat perched in the open back of our SUV, unconscious to the noise of the swap meet around, my knees pulled up to rest my book. I couldn’t feel most of my toes, and my fingers were just regaining enough warmth to remember they were attached, but I didn’t mind too much—I was engrossed in the final pages of my book.
As I turned each page, narrowing the already slim slice of unread drama, a dread slowly settled into my stomach. Not only would the journey be over soon, but I also feared the ending. How on earth could Steinbeck conclude this feat of literature in a way that would satisfy the story? I was afraid to be left with another unsatisfying wrap-up like I’d seen in so many books (even ones that have otherwise justly made it into the canon of “good literature”).
My fears, however, were never realized. As I finished the last words of the book, I experienced an ending I could justly call perfect. It did not tie every sub-story into little neat bows or drag on to show what life was like after the resolution was reached. Instead, it ended by opening a door—the door that needed to be opened for the story to be complete.
It’s not often that you find a perfect ending to a book, an ending with which the reader can find no fault. In fact, my list consists of only five that I’ve found so far: Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Hugo’s Les Misérables, Dante’s Paradiso, Lewis’ The Last Battle, and most recently, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. These books all ended exactly how they needed to. The stories didn’t end simply because they couldn’t keep going on. In these books, the authors had told the tale they set out to tell, and they had narrated just until it was truly finished—no sooner, no later.
Now aside from recommending these books (specifically Anna Karenina, as it is my newest and therefore my freshest love), I wanted to take this chance to talk about what it is that makes an ending satisfying—perfect, as it were. I have modeled this less in my own writing than I would care to admit, but I believe these are helpful things for all writers to keep in mind when crafting endings for their stories.
THE PERFECT ENDING DOES NOT FEEL FORCED
This is likely the most critical element of an ending that leaves the reader with a true feeling of conclusion.
I love Pride and Prejudice, but I confess it frequently comes to mind when I think of a forced ending. I’m quite tickled by the union of Darcy and Bennett, Bingley and Jane; but the extended ending that details vaguely what happens to each of the other siblings feels forced. (And if you disagree with me, I’d love to discuss, because perhaps I’m giving Austen less credit than she deserves.) There is not really any new information. Kitty seems to be a little less silly without Lydia. Lydia and Wickham are unhappy, Mrs. Bennett really hasn’t changed. I could have assumed all of that from the characters and how they had been painted throughout the book, and I really didn’t need to be a told in a non-story-like quasi-epilogue.
An ending should feel natural and it should occur at a place that is suitable for an ending. If an author wants to explain the conclusion of another character’s story, he shouldn’t tack it on after the true end.
Now I’m not saying there should be no resolution at the end of a story. Resolution is a key element in the classic model of a great story (Setup, Conflict, Climax, Resolution). However, a story can lose a lot of power if the climax is followed by a lengthy resolution where the reader begins to forget what was so important to the story in the first place.
If you want to have a powerful ending, don’t just end because you think it’s time to stop writing. End because your part of the story is finished.
THE PERFECT ENDING FITS THE CHARACTERS AND/OR STORY
The books that I rank among the greatest in terms of endings all conclude in harmony with the characters and the story arc. Each ends in a way that may surprise you at first but makes sense when you think about it. There’s a cathartic sense of accuracy.
The final scene of Les Misérables shows a gravestone, forgotten like an old memory with four lines scribbled in fading pencil. It is Valjean’s tomb, stationed in a humble, unknown corner. It perfectly closes the grand saga of a man who suffered, fought, saved, loved, and was ultimately forgotten. (I went back to re-read it just now, and nearly started crying.) I cannot imagine how Hugo could have ended this novel any differently. It is as if he began by stumbling upon the reality of this faded stone and wrote the story to make sure Valjean could somehow be remembered.
THE PERFECT ENDING LEAVES THE READER WITH FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Any book that I would rank as ending well has to leave me with new desires, new things to think about, or new questions perhaps with only hinted at answers. At an ending like that, I cannot simply close the book and go off to my next task without a second thought. The author has left me with a continuing train of thought that sticks with me long after I have finished living alongside the characters of the book.
It’s very rare that the end of a good book is the end of its story. When you close the pages, the characters can still live their lives. You will likely never be part of someone’s complete story in real life, and likewise it is rare in fiction. Similarly, there is no part of life where suddenly we’ve arrived and figured everything out; we are always learning and always growing. To present a finished character would seem dishonest.
This idea can apply to stories as well as characters. I’ll leave you with a prime example: the conclusion to The Last Battle, which is also the conclusion to the whole of the Chronicles of Narnia series:
And for us this is the end of all the stories . . . but for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.