How Not To End Things
By Stuart Horwitz
Allow me to pull back the curtain just a bit. Yes, I am a developmental editor who gets paid to be an instructional expert…to know what I’m talking about, in other words. But I’m also a writer, and the writing process is separate from editing skill. All writers make mistakes, and I think that the ability to fix them is the measure of talent/ability.
For those of us who have struggled to end a piece of writing, we know that there are a series of pitfalls that the ending can fall into. Below, I have tried to break these into five broad categories based on the particular flaw in each argument. (I should mention that there was one runner-up, the Speech-Which Reveals-All ending, which didn’t get quite enough votes to be included…)
The Too-Precious Ending. I have done this. But I’m not the only one. The poet John Ashbery once ended his book with a word that no one knew. He liked the idea of his readers having to go to the Dictionary to look it up, that way they’d be “closing one book and opening another.” Um, no. That is just too precious. This example also falls into the next category:
The Overly Obscure Ending. I have done this. I didn’t want the reader to have a clear sense of who was right or wrong — after all, haven’t thoughtful people accepted relative morality by now? My readers could not participate in what my story ultimately meant; as a result, they didn’t have a clear fix on what actually happened, either.
There is such a thing as an open-ended ending (pardon the repetition). In something that is open-ended, the gestures are symbolic enough and the words spoken are applicable enough that we know what something means to us, but we don’t necessarily seek to impose that meaning on other people. I would say that’s a good thing, carried out in the spirit of fair play, and not at all the same thing as being overly obscure.
The Horrifying Ending That Awaits Us All. I have done this. Are you sensing a pattern? Sometimes we can fall into the trap that we should end our tale in utter darkness. That would make us cool — plus, it would be so much easier. Take every series of events and just head them down the toilet.
In the last century, the modern critic William Dean Howells said, “What the American public wants in the theater is a tragedy with a happy ending.” I’m not suggesting that your ending (if not dark) should be overly light either. As readers, we’re just asking for an ending that befits the rest.
The Abrupt, That’s-What-It-Is Ending. We’ve all done this! This is really a failure of the middle more than the end. Someone took out the fourth act, the falling action, and evidently forgot to return it. We think we are appealing to people’s shrinking attention spans, but the result is that our readers finish the race ahead of us.
In Greek drama, the equivalent would be the appearance of the Deus ex Machina, that scene where a God comes down on a mechanical contraption and ends the play with what happened next and forever. Time to go home, people.
The Irresponsible Ending. I have done this: written an ending and then claimed not to have engineered it. A variation of the sentiment that “my characters are stronger than me,” is “I can’t say why it happened, it just did.” The problem with this ending is that everything we create, especially the ending, is an act of projection that clearly identifies our values for all to see. To not own your projection just adds insult to injury.
The ancient theorists called the ending the apportionment of fates. There was no way around it–what the playwright or poet thought about the world was encoded in the ending.
If the ending communicates your values, befits your story, lets things play themselves out, doesn’t make us feel stupid, and helps us keep our bearings, then you’re good. Your readers know the end is coming, they can see the number of pages they have left roughly in the book they are holding or track their progress in their e-readers. That the end will come is not the question. When you will start wrapping things up, and how you will wind up packaging the experience are the things we are really watching for.
Stuart Horwitz founded Book Architecture after an astrologer told him his work would flourish “behind the scenes.” New today: check out Book Architecture’s animated feature, “The Wheel of Process,” and give it a spin for essays and advice on all all stages of the publishing process.
Stuart is an award-winning poet and essayist, and the front man for the band Art Don’t Pay. He holds two Masters degrees—one in Literary Aesthetics from NYU, which helps him a lot with this work—and one in East Asian Studies from Harvard with a concentration in Medieval Japanese Buddhism, which helps him get out of bed in the morning.