Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield
Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.
If you’re a rational human bean you undoubtably spend more than a trivial amount of time contemplating the end. It’s inevitable, right? Everything has a beginning and an ending. Everything. It’s a fundamental law. The universe began with a singularity programmed by an alien basement dwelling nerd and will succumb to painful, spasmodic, heat death, billions of years in the future.
Entropy is a bitch, and there is no appeasing her.
So yeah, everything ends, and the literary landscape is no exception. Books have beginnings, middles (we’ll delve into those horrid soggy messes another day), and endings. When you spend your ill-gotten lucre on that piece of trash dead tree, recommended by someone you’ll never trust again, you’re invested. You dive in, praying you can figure out what the fuck those metaphors actually mean, and crawl along, double checking the back copy every fifteen minutes to make sure you’re actually reading the right book. Maybe you’ll put it down so you can re-enter your pointless existence for minutes, days, or in rare cases, years, but you will eventually finish it. You will! Unless it blows chunks, or the book is Alan Moore’s Jerusalem. At twelve hundred and sixty-six pages, you’re likely to kill yourself first.
And the end, after you’ve put in so much time and energy, has an excellent chance of not meeting your expectations, and in many cases, just plain disappointing. There’s a ton of reasons for that of course, the primary one being that writing awesome finales is hard. Like brutally hard. Authors are vicious, emotionally conflicted monsters when they write, and unless they’re pumping out four shitty, cookie cutter books a year, they want their books to be award winning masterpieces from start to finish. But, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they’re capable of doing just that.
Here are a few bits we dislike about endings, in no particular order except metaphysically.
It’s better to Burn Out than Fade Away: Chuck Wendig swears even more than Noggy, and that’s saying something, so when he talks about the third and major climax of the book needing to hit Holy Goatfucker Shitbomb! magnitude we tend to agree. Too many endings fall short by not exceeding what came before, ramping down instead of up. The last thing a reader wants to find when they’ve clawed their way to the top of Mount Doom is that the eagles got there first and those idiot hobbits could have retired to the Prancing Pony for ale and weed.
John doesn’t Die in the End: You’ve set the stakes high. The moment arrives where everything is on the line and you pull the punch right before it lands, striking a glancing blow or missing all together. On purpose. WHY? A poet-musician has to die, or at least be brutally maimed, or your reader is going to break the spine and use the pages to line their neurotic parrot cage. If your book says Poet John has to die, you better bloody well kill the bastard.
Too much of a Known Thing: Noggy and Lola step out for ice cream. One thing leads to another and they’re racing down the blacktop, police cars and angry spouses and various aggrieved parties hot on their trail, a famous yet poor life choice thriller writer bouncing around in their trunk. And then? Off the preverbal cliff, nose diving two thousand feet into the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The end of the road, both figuratively and literally. Everyone suspected it would end that way, hopefully with some inspired screaming.
Entertaining? You bet. Unexpected? Not at all. You, the reader, knew they were going to going to be eating fireball sandwich the moment they snatched the drooling lush from his opulent digs and roared away in their Pontiac Aztek. At least set the damn story in Gloucestershire with a subplot involving a cheese wheel race for god’s sake.
Overstaying your Welcome: While the climax and end of your story aren’t technically the same thing, we’re in the camp that feels they should be close together. If your heroine slays the dragon and gets the girl and then goes home and bakes cookies for a hundred pages, there better be something sinister about those cookies. Just because Tolkien got away with it at the end of Lord of the Rings doesn’t mean you can. After a world spanning adventure of epic proportions, he earned it (though the movie version destroyed a generation’s worth of bladders).
Best to leave the bar before they toss you out.
Ends that Aren’t Ends: While standalone books need hard, satisfying endings, the current genre writing trend is trilogies (which, contrary to the laws of mathematics, can comprise anywhere between two and fourteen books) where endings are often just transitions to the next episode. This is often extremely unsatisfying. Every book should stand on its own, with an ending that wraps up the story the book is telling, even if there is MORE ending at the absolute end. And don’t get us started on cliff hangers if there’s a better than average chance of abandoning your baby, or dying of old age before you write the next one (I’m talking to you George. And you, Lola…).
Call us negative Nellies if you must, but yeah, so many bad endings. Can we explain what makes a good one? Sure. Avoid writing a bad one. As we said, not easy, but honestly, not THAT difficult. There are eight million stories in the naked city, and every one of them has potential for a horrible, gruesome, unhappy ending. So get writing.