I recently submitted a story to an online journal, and received some feedback from the editor, a couple of changes she wanted to see: first, the character’s motivation was unclear, second, the ending didn’t work. Well, motivation’s not too hard, a line here and a line there–but the ending? I wasn’t sure how to end the story any differently, without it suddenly becoming either a different story altogether, or simply much, much longer. The ending issue had me stumped.
So I worked on the motivation. I layered in some back story, changed the tone of a few lines of dialog, tweaked up a few images to draw out the symbolism and enhance the character’s concerns. Added maybe a hundred words overall as I worked through the piece from beginning to end. And you know what? By the time I got to the end, it was perfect. It didn’t need to be changed at all–because the newly sharpened motivation had made clear exactly why that was the right ending.
The seeds of a good ending are sown long before the ending arrives, and often before you even know what the ending will be. The ideal ending for a work is both surprising and inevitable. Surprising, in that you don’t guess chapters in advance what the end will be and how it will come about. Ever read a mystery where you know who the killer is the moment he walks on the page, then you read the whole book, hoping you’ll be wrong but you aren’t? Yeah. Chances are, you’re not reading that author again.
Inevitable, in that when you arrive at the ending, you smack your forehead and think, “Of course! It could have happened in no other way!” An ending that is inevitable, but not surprising, like the mystery where you already have the killer pegged, is boring. And one that is surprising, but not inevitable feels like a shock. It can provoke outrage and irritation–that’s not what was supposed to happen. It feels like the author simply tacked something on, or formed some pretentious notion that she would defy narrative convention with this abrupt change of direction.
Notice, I’m not saying what the ending should be. Happily ever after? Everybody’s dead? a great revelation, a return to balance, or a brave new world–the right ending depends entirely on the individual work to feel appropriate, and, to be exact, it depends on the beginning. That’s when you set the expectations for the range of endings the reader will feel are appropriate (potentially inevitable). The author defines the parameters of the world–dragons, space ships, interfering deities. Note that these things might be obvious or they might be subtle–a word, a reference that the reader will later recall with amazement when they see what a genius you’ve been. But if you produce a dragon at the end of a book that had no prior inference of the existence of dragons, readers will be angry rather than amazed.
Which brings me back to the ending of my story, and how it linked to the character’s motivation. The ending needs to not only cap off the action of the story in a plot-sense, it also needs to feel natural for that character. It should relate to the character’s needs, whether by fulfilling or thwarting them–hopefully in a way that is unexpected, yet consistent with the character you have established. My ending, as set up by the beginning, didn’t fit. Why was that the right ending for this character? I hadn’t shown the connection. By working harder to develop the character’s motivation, I revealed what kind of ending he needed, then delivered it.
Think about the last story you encountered or wrote with an unsatisfying ending. It’s entirely possible that it had the right ending. . . but the wrong beginning.