A problem with endings

3.24.09 | | 9 comments

What do the following Mormon market novels have in common: Angel of the Danube, Brother Brigham, Hunting Gideon, Kindred Spirits, On Second Thought and Salvador*?

  1. I have read all of them and like all of them.
  2. They each have something wrong with their endings — generally minor things, but they each have a moment (or moments) that made me go “wait a minute.” That jerked me out of the reading flow.

This is not to say they are “bad” novels or that they totally fall apart in the end or that I know how they should be fixed.

And I want to point out that ending a novel perfectly is one of the most difficult feats in literature. Short story endings are easy (relatively speaking). Novel endings have a lot to do and they have to finish up while tying up at least some of the narrative threads. They have to maintain intensity but also allow a little bit of catharsis and slackening of tension. A bit of resolution is nice. If you end too abruptly, the reader often feels cheated. On the other hand, if you tie up all of the loose ends, the ending is often too pat. It’s a hard thing to do and even some novels that are considered part of the canon don’t end all that gracefully. For example, I found the endings of Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King and The Adventures of Augie March to be weak. Heck, Kafka couldn’t even end any of his novels. So I don’t raise this because I want to bag on the authors of the novels listed above. All worth reading if their author and subject matter appeal to you.

However, as a believer in craftmanship in fiction, I also think that with the novels above (many of which are first or second efforts) much of the blame lies with the immaturity of the writers.  And with that in mind, I’ve asked Stephen Carter to post about how to write better endings over at The Red Brick Store. So head on over there and find out how to fix your endings. Meanwhile, let’s talk here about what novels have endings that work for you and novels that fall down a bit in the end.

* There are probably other Mormon market novels that fit in this same category, but these are the ones that I was able to pull out of my head without going through my entire library.

Updated at 11:30 a.m. to reflect that Stephen’s post was up.

9 comments: “A problem with endings

  1. Laura Craner

    I’ve read most of the novels you listed (haven’t read _Hunting Gideon_ and _On Second Thought_) and I mostly agree with you.

    The exception for me was _Angel of the Danube_. I enjoyed the ending. It completely surprised me when the book turned into a romance novel. I have to admit the English major in me didn’t like the happy ending, but the girly-girl in me loved it. (Of course, the girly-girl also secretly enjoyed _Twilight_–but just a little.)

    As for BB and _Kindred Spirits_, my main problem was that the endings were too abrupt and too happy. I felt like they quit the stories halfway through. Especially with KS. I mean, Kendra just finds out her husband is sleeping with his wiccan ex-wife and that a major reason he converted was because he really like the idea of polygamy so Kendra leaves him, gets a priesthood blessing and comes back then–zoom!–fast forward one year and they’re getting sealed? How on earth did they get from sleeping with the ex-wife to sealed?

    Hmmm . . .I liked the ending of _Slumming_. I also like the end of _The Earthkeepers_. For me, I like it when the authors leave a little ambiguity but hint at the course the lives of the characters will take.

    I remember being a little bugged about the end of _Bound on Earth_. It was a little premature. I understood why Angela Hallstrom left it that way (it was supposed to be like real life) but I wanted a little more on how Beth and her bipolar husband were going to work it out. The grandma’s perspective at the end gave some good resolution without creating a disingenuous, pre-packaged feeling.

  2. William Morris Post author

    I have come to terms with the _Angel of the Danube_ ending and actually think it’s a brilliantly subversive move.

  3. Darlene

    I know you’re talking about novels, but I just had to air this: The short story by Darin Cozzens that placed in the (2007?) Irreantum short fiction contest absolutely blew me away . . . until the very end. (I still thought it should have one first place anyway for the power of the writing, and for Cozzens’s ability to make me writhe with the characters, etc. His writing gave me shivers–good shivers.)

    But the end! Here was a character who needed to forgive someone. Two-thirds through the story I am on the edge of my seat enraptured with the psychological quandary: how is this guy going to bring himself to forgive? How will this story get some closure? And then . . .

    [spoiler]

    . . . by some fluke of fate, the man he needs to forgive happens to come upon a dear relative (I think it was a grandson) in danger and saves his life. Ahh! Suddenly it is easy to forgive! And what a great place to end the story!

    But what would have happened if this opportunity hadn’t come, this force from outside, this deus ex machina? There, THERE is the story. And I missed it.

    I hate it when writers resort to an outside event to resolve things. It takes so much more work and skill to avoid that! (I’m struggling with the same temptation in the novel I’m working on now.)

  4. Lisa Torcasso Downing

    I’m a fan of Reap in Mercy, the story Darlene mentions, and I understand the claim of deus ex machina. However, I wholeheartedly disagree that the resolution of the story is a failure.

    My “favorite” deus ex machina moment is in the Hobbit, a book I never liked. That darn Hobbit is in cave and he’s being hemmed in by bad guys in both directions. Then he reaches down and picks up a ring we didn’t know (he didn’t know) was there, puts it on and OMgoodness–he’s suddenly invisible! Salvation! In this instance, the character did nothing to solve his problem: It just happenstanced away.

    But Darin’s story is quite different. Yes, the annoying leach of a neighbor is in the right place at the right time and saves the grandson. (I’d point out that his being there was not unusual; it made sense, so it really isn’t only happenstance.) But the protagonist is in control of his reaction to that plot point. It doesn’t automatically follow that he must forgive, that he must be humbled. He could’ve been upset about x,y, or z and kept the status quo. The force, therefore, that leads to the resolution–the moment of humility and forgiveness–is very much an interior force. It just doesn’t stand that the protagonist “had” to make peace.

    Is it convenient? Well, lets refer to Stephen’s post over at the red brick store. he spoke of bones and structure. Plotting is sometimes convenient, the way its convenient to have a thigh bone if you want to walk from location to location. Stories need plot points. In my book, Darin handled it well.

  5. Jonathan Langford

    Uh oh, Lisa. You mentioned The Hobbit. Now we’re all in for it…

    The thing is, this is a point of coincidence that comes partway through the story. It’s not a resolution (in Stephen’s terms) of either Bilbo’s goal or his dramatic need. (Though in point of fact, like many coming-of-age stories, it would I think be hard to identify a “goal” Bilbo has that drives the story.)

    Certainly there are things to dislike in The Hobbit, even if (as I do) you like Lord of the Rings. But the ending, in my view, isn’t one of them. In fact, I think the book ends remarkably well, from multiple perspectives.

  6. ET

    I’m wondering if everyone is working under the same definition of “deus ex machina.” For example, I would argue that Bilbo finding the ring is very much a function of the plot; him finding the ring does not serve to help him escape from his pursuers. Rather his pursuers serve to help him discover the ring.

    However, my larger point is simply that this does not fit the model for deus ex machina given to us by the Greeks. In our current culture, we have lost sight of the fact that deus ex machina served to make the point that man trying to solve his own problems was not only futile, but blasphemous. In fact, at that time, I believe it was illegal to end a play with anything other than deus ex machina (I’m not sure of the absolute accuracy of that claim). Now, it’s just considered lazy writing. Darlene’s example seems close in that you have god (the writer) inserting himself into the story in order to provide resolution to the conflict and thereby stealing the character’s arc. Since the character still has to make a choice in the end, this might qualify more accurately as deus ex machina lite; or perhaps deus ex machina, once removed.

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