December 22, 2009

Dear Endings, Your Happy Sappy Little Bows are Strangling Me

Dear Readers,

Having been closed for the past few days, I’ve had a great opportunity to catch up on my reading. (To be honest, I don’t know why I say “catch up” as I never really catch up on reading—it’s like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon: you never feel any closer to finishing than when you started.) But all this reading—manuscripts & published novels—has me frustrated out of my mind. Why, you ask? ENDINGS. I’ve already done a post about prologues (which are one of the biggest destroyers-of-openings, post can be found here: http://bit.ly/Prologues) and I think now is a great time to talk about endings.

No matter which genre you’re writing, the ending is essential. This is the last thought the reader is going to have of your story, the taste you’re going to leave in their mouth. If you write a fabulous book but a terrible, incongruous ending, the ending is going to be the only thing the reader remembers. Those few pages are going to stop the reader, who might have adored your story and your style, from recommending your work to any of their friends and probably from picking up anything you write in the future. Yes, it’s that important.

And so, I’d like to highlight just a few of the biggest issues I’ve seen with endings:

1) Forced

Too many authors make the mistake of thinking that everything has to have a happy ending—it doesn’t. Don’t feel that everything has to be tied up with a neat little bow with all the characters smiling, holding hands, and singing kumbaya. Don’t insult your readers’ intelligence. If you’ve written a strong, compelling book, don’t force and ending that doesn’t make sense. There are sad endings; there are bittersweet endings. If your novel talks about mental illness and institutionalization, it might not make sense for everyone to be reconciled at the end. It’s much more important to stay true to your characters and tone in the ending rather than forcing the plot somewhere it doesn’t want to go.

2) Preachy—“and what I learned today, boys and girls…”

One of the most frustrating things for me as a reader is a story that forces not necessarily a happy ending but a moralistic one, especially in YA literature. Teens are preached at from every angle in their lives—they go to school, religious institutions, live with their parents, are watched all the time. They always have someone telling them what’s right and wrong, how they should think. They absolutely do not need it in books, too. Don’t force your characters to make the “right” choice at the end just because it’s “right” if it’s not actually consistent with who you have written them to be. They can have done the wrong thing and learned from it; it’s more important to show the change than to throw the “what I learned” moment in.

3) Three dimensional characters suddenly become stereotypes

Writers should know more than anyone—characters are human. If you have a character that is 3-dimensional all through the story but then becomes an stereotype at the very end (the person who decides it’s time to face up to their responsibilities & offers to be punished, the weak person who is suddenly a hero, etc.) you’re just leaving a sour taste in the reader’s mouth. Real life is more complicated than that.

4) No change in character/no development

The other problem with so many endings is that they don’t incorporate any change in the character. Stories are about growth, especially in YA, where characters experience extreme emotional growth in a very short time-span. It’s not about learning a lesson and shoving it in the face of the reader but rather how the character has or is going to incorporate those lessons into who they are becoming. The ending often just shows us the first step in this new direction. If they didn’t change at all, make sure that’s what you intended because otherwise it just seems like a long story where nothing happened.

5) Series whose book couldn’t stand alone

Okay, you’re a tease and we know it. You want to put out another book in the series and you’re leaving plenty of room for sequels—I respect that and so do the rest of your readers. Hell, we love it! But don’t forget, we need to be able to survive between books. Your story has to end at a logical stopping point; don’t cut us off in the middle of the story. Your book has to stand alone. Tease us with what will happen, the upcoming adventures and problems of our beloved hero, but don’t just stop. There needs to be method to this madness. A great place to stop is usually where the path has changed directions; we know that the journey isn’t over but we’re okay with taking a short breather. I think the Harry Potter series had this down pat.

So what do you all think—what are the other cardinal errors of endings? What are some books that have done endings very right…or very wrong?

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