I have had the experience several times now of reading a book that I am very much enjoying–right up until the end. Then the work either fizzles out, simply stops, or blatantly kicks me in the teeth (as a reader). Leaving me feeling, well, WTF, author?
Authors spend a lot of time crafting beginnings. They worry and work over their middles–but sometimes, they neglect the most important part. Endings are critical. Mystery writer Mickey Spillane said that the first page of your book sells that book, and the last page sells your next one. If you deliver a satisfying reading experience all the way through, then readers will be eager to pick up your next title (and for you writers out there, remember that your first reader is likely to be an editor/agent/reviewer/blogger). And if you fail to deliver that complete experience, then your next book is likely doomed.
Author and psychology professor Jennifer Lynn Barnes in an article for the Novelists’ Inc. newsletter recently pointed to a reason why endings are so important. She references an experiment involving subjects plunging their hand into painfully cold water (A) or plunging their hand into painfully cold water, then into slightly less cold (but still painful) water for a longer period of time (B). The subjects overwhelmingly preferred B, in spite of the fact that the suffering overall was longer. They preferred their suffering to end on a better note. (The Ninc newsletters go online for public consumption about six months after publication–so you’ll have to wait for the full article–totally worth the read.)
It turns out (and if you examine your own experiences, you will probably find anecdotal confirmation) that in any given experience, people tend to remember most the highest point–the most thrilling, most terrible, most beautiful–and the ending. So, for example, I took a trip to Hawaii last year where we got to visit with seahorses (most beautiful), and had a really terrible flight off the island. High point, ending. We also visited with a dolphin, and if I sit here to recall more, I can dredge up those memories, but if you said, “How was your trip to Hawaii last year?” likely, I’d mention the seahorse and the flight–and nothing more.
The ending of the experience is what solidifies the whole thing. It encapsulates what that experience was like, bringing it together and resolving the emotional impact on the reader/experiencer (even if the thing itself is somewhat unresolved, like the middle book of a trilogy). You get to that ending, and you’re thinking, “Wow–that was great!” Or maybe, “Wow, I was really enjoying this–until now.”
The same moment, plot-wise, can deliver a very different impact on the reader, depending on the order of ideas, sentences, phrases, or the effort of the author to find just the right image for that final note of resonance. Imagine this is the last line of a story:
Jerry helped his injured companion up onto the horse behind him. She might not survive the night, but at least they rode on together.
Or this one. . .
Jerry helped his injured companion up onto the horse behind him. They rode on together, but she might not survive the night.
The first example, in spite of the companion’s injured state, leaves you with the positive impression of these two characters, together through it all. The second one ends on the downer that it doesn’t matter if they are together, she’s doomed. Sucks to be her. And probably sucks to be Jerry, too. The same things happen. The same phrases are used. The impact is *completely* different.
An ending can be flat–neither enhancing nor detracting from the experience of the work.
It can be brilliant–the shining capstone on the work that leaves you googling the author for their next title, right now!!
It can be a sucker punch–one that rewards the readers’ time, patience and investment with a moment that undercuts everything the reader loved about the book.
Please note: if what the reader is loving is the horror, the pathos, the dread, then the ending doesn’t need to be happy at all–that’s not what I’m suggesting: it needs to be the culmination of the reader’s emotional engagement, even if that emotion is a negative one.
The endings that bother me are the ones that turn the contract with the reader on its head, refusing to provide any satisfaction, leaving the reader hollow, ignoring emotional resolution or the potential for positive emotion even in a negative or unresolved situation, the endings that feel like you found a bug at the bottom of your ice cream sundae.
For you writers out there, take a hard look at those critical last moments on the page. Are they delivering the impact you want to leave with your reader? Are they the clincher for the experience you’ve been crafting so diligently? Is this a final page that will encourage the reader to seek out more?
For you readers, what was the last truly satisfying book you read? How did it end, and could the ending have been stronger? weaker? Have you, like me, suffered that terrible let-down of a great book with a bummer ending?
The first pages of a book are where the author makes a promise about the journey to come, and the last page is where they deliver. . . or not.