And so, dear writer, at some point, we must all shut up and let the characters live their lives.
The fairy-tales we grew up with usually ended “And they lived happily ever after.” Personally, I prefer the German: “If they have not died, then they are living still.”
That does not mean that one is better or worse than the other. They just work for different genres.
Happily Ever After
Happily ever afters work for romances: a wedding in the last reel.
Or for some adventures: the intrepid paleontologists and kids escape from the dinosaurs and go home only slightly traumatized and more than ready to forget the whole ordeal.
Even cozy mysteries: She solved another crime in Cabot Cove and the sheriff is coming over for pie and lemonade.
But then, you have your grittier stories.
If They Have Not Died, Then They Are Living Still
This is where nior lives: the hardboiled detective goes home to the bottle and lonely office to wait for the next femme fatale through his door.
Or the literary novel where the characters have circled back into the same trauma live they had before, but a little wiser.
“To Be Continued” (Actually, this could probably be an entire post on its own.) Cliffhangers are the endings which aren’t endings. The books do not stand alone. For example, if you jump into The Two Towers without reading the Fellowship of the Ring, you are going to be in serious trouble. You need all the books in the series in order to get the story. This is different from a series ending.
In general, a series ending ties up the plot of the book. This means, the adventure is over and you didn’t need to actually read the book before it or after it to enjoy the story.
However, in a series, there are over-arching things that are not tied up in a neat little bow at the ending. The main couple doesn’t get together. There’s a tension in whether or not the partners are going to be in front of the review board. Or, there’s a villain hiding in the shadows who hasn’t been confronted. Our heros may believe that the story is done, but they have only finished part of it. Series are not cliffhangers though. Cliffhangers are when the main story is not completed without the next book.
So How Do You Actually End a Book?
The facetious answer is that you simply stop writing and type “The End” on the page. (Or FIN or STOP – These are very old school and apply to journalism rather than stories. FIN/STOP were to let the person on the other end of the wire know that the story was complete and could run.)
The harder answer is — are you done with the story? We’ve all read books that seems to have pages just added on to the end of the story to drag things out. And we’ve all had cliffhangers that we didn’t know were cliffhangers pop up on us. (This is not as common as it once was because fewer publishing houses are willing to take the risk.)
If you’re done with the plot, but not the characters, then you need to leave a few openings for the next story. “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” This is the ending for a series. You could follow-up Casablanca by following Ilsa Lund’s character. Or you could follow Rick and Louis into the French underground. The characters can go on to another adventure, but the first one is done.
Sylist has a list of the best 100 closing lines of books. I’m going to snag a few to discuss here.
Happily Ever After
“But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.” – The House At Pooh Corner, A.A. Milne
This ending lets you continue to imagine Christopher Robin and the rest playing happily in the woods. It’s a true fairytale ending where nothing bad will happen and everyone will continue to live happily ever after. This is indicated in the sweeping lines of “wherever” and “whatever” and “always.” This is most commonly found in kid’s books and fantasy stories.
“With the Gardiners, they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them.” – Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
This is a more calm version of the happily ever after. We remained best friends and loved each other. Life went on and you get the sense that in general it is a happy ending with little heartache, but what generally happens in life.
They Are Living Still
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” – A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
This is a death speech. It is famous. It is powerful. It isn’t a happily ever after, but it is a firm ending of the story. We have followed the character to the grave.
“I wrote at the start that this was a record of hate, and walking there beside Henry towards the evening glass of beer, I found the one prayer that seemed to serve the winter mood: O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone forever.” – The End of the Affair, Graham Greene
Life goes on. It’s a dark and deadly life at this moment, but it continues. And maybe it will get better, but maybe it won’t. That’s okay for now. Bitter and dark like stout, it’s an old man who’d had enough of life, even as he knows that he’ll keep on living it.
“There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it.” – Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx
Again, if they haven’t died yet, then they are living still. There isn’t a solution to the problem, but our character has accepted that and is moving on into life.
“Then shouldering their burdens, they set off, seeking a path that would bring them over the grey hills of the Emyn Muil, and down into the Land of Shadow.” – The Fellowship of the Ring, JRR Tolkien
The story is obviously not done and now we need to see what the Land of Shadow has in store.
“After all, tomorrow is another day.” – Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
I call this a soft close. It’s an ending that’s looking at a new beginning. The characters are compelling enough and the times interesting enough that if the author chose to, she could continue. However, the story is ended for today. Tomorrow starts a new one.
“She opened the door wide and let him into her life again.” – The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,Stieg Larsson
This is a call to read the next book in the series. He’s been let into her life – what will happen now? Is this good or bad? There are questions open that the character(s) can answer in the next book, but the main mystery is done.
So, let’s look at our character Billy-Jo. You remember her right? She started out handcuffed to a bomb that didn’t explode in our openings post?
Happily Ever After: “Come on, let’s grab a beer at Paddy’s,” Piper said, “and you can tell all the drunk old Irishmen that you were nearly blown up.”
The story is neatly finished. Piper is helping her deal with the situation with her usual aplomb and a lot of beer. There may or may not have been major consequences of this story, but this is the signal that everything is just fine.
They Are Living Still: “Finally,” Piper muttered as Billy-Jo finished adjusting the prosthetic hand again and squinted down at the release papers from the hospital.
There were major consequences, but Billy-Jo survived and she plans to keep going even though she now has to learn to deal with those consequences.
Cliffhanger: “Oh, Jesus H. Christ, help me!” Piper screamed while Billy-Jo sawed through the rope that held her while the timer on the bomb continued to count down.
Nothing is yet resolved. Tune in next time when Billy-Jo says, “I swear to God, if you don’t listen to me this time, I will lock you in the trunk!”
Series Close: “Piper, come on, it’s just a free vacation to Bermuda. What’s the worst that could happen?” Piper just glared over her glasses.
We’ve resolved the bomber story, but set up the fact that Billy-Jo is going to Bermuda… and she just cursed herself by asking what could go wrong. If we want to spend more time with Billy-Jo and Piper, then we travel with them in the next book. Otherwise, we’re happy enough knowing that the problems have been solved and the characters will continue to have a life.
Whew! There we go. All finished up. And yet… Oh, I don’t know, I think this calls for a “Next Time” on Stalwart Writer.
What do *you* think we should discuss?