Sunday, October 16, 2011

This is The End, Beautiful Friend*

Note: This article contains SPOILERS for the following films/novels: The Perfect Storm, Little Women, The Age of Innocence, Gone With the Wind, Love Story, Romeo & Juliet, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, My Girl, Titanic, Stella, Juno, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Lonesome Dove, Life is Beautiful, Inception, Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz and several Nicholas Sparks’ novels.

They say all roads lead to Rome. Mrs. Margaret Atwood must believe this statement since a few years ago she made a very good point: there is only one authentic ending for any story. For her hypothesis, read Happy Endings.

Since not every novel can end with the death of all its participants (unless it’s The Perfect Storm), we have to come up with a spot to end the story before the inevitable happens. But where? At what point should we stop tormenting our characters and type “The End”? They say that a satisfactory ending is fundamental in storytelling. A reader will forgive a slow beginning or even a sagging middle, but NOT a poor ending. Sounds easy enough, but how do we achieve that “surprising inevitability” everyone talks about? How do we please our audience when everyone has different tastes? Is it even a matter of pleasing or making a strong statement about the human condition despite the audience’s expectations? I’m afraid I don’t have a perfect answer (in fact, I’m struggling as-we-type with the ending of my second novel) but perhaps a glance at different novel endings—those we have liked and disliked—may give us (me!) a clue of how to find the ideal conclusion for our masterpieces.

Happy, sad or just plain confusing?

Many stories end with the happy nuptials of the protagonists after they’ve overcome innumerable ordeals and tribulations. Other novels (most of them written by callous men such as Shakespeare, Nicholas Sparks, Erich Segal, Herman Raucher, Jorge Isaacs and James Cameron) end with the tragic death of one of the lovers. But what about those in-between/vague endings where the couple inexplicably part ways much to the reader’s astonishment and heartbreak? Would these stories have had equal success had they had different, perhaps jollier, endings?

Scene from Little Women
Good thing you're happy, Jo, because many of your fans--including this one--did NOT approve of your final selection and how quickly you forgot Laurie!

In The Age of Innocence, why did Newland Archer walk away from his beloved’s apartment without even stopping for a cup of tea after twenty six years of separation?

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” Would we have still loved Gone With the Wind if Rhett had never said those infamous words? Perhaps Margaret Mitchell was trying to give us a clue of the ending with the book’s title.

I still cry when I watch this heartbreaking scene in Love Story.

But Sir William, must both of them die?

What if you’re not writing a love story?

It seems that stories that focus on one character’s journey or growth give the writer more freedom on how to end it. I’m talking about coming-of-age stories or those that focus on a character overcoming a minor or big flaw, such as George VI’s stammer in The King’s Speech, Forrest Gump and his low IQ, Juno and her unwanted pregnancy, Benjamin Button and his reversal growth problem, Vada and her strange connection to death and loss (My Girl). The commonality I see in these endings is that all these characters eventually come to terms with their problem and overcome it (all but poor Benjamin Button, who, let’s face it, was doomed from the beginning.) There is also an issue of “inevitability” here. Juno’s pregnancy has to come to completion as does Benjamin Button’s life. The question here would be: did the protagonist achieve his/her goal and if so, was the end result satisfactory? Did he/she grow as a result?

In My Girl, Vada had to grow up the hard way.

The self sacrificial hero

These are the kinds of endings that leave the audience in absolute silence at the end of the show or book (except for a sob here and there.) We love them, but at the same time they make us lift our heads to the skies and yell in despair: “Why?”

Not sure I’m brave enough to attempt this kind of cruelty in my own writing, but it may be worth a try. After all, it’s these poignant endings that leave an audience captivated. (Ever heard someone say “I love this movie. I cried so much with it!”?)

In Titanic, Jack gives up his space on a floating door so that Rose can survive.

In Stella, a mother renounces to be part of her daughter’s life so she can have a better future without her.

In Juno, the young heroine gives up her baby for adoption because she knows he’ll be better off with an adult mother.

Those twisted minds

We cannot forget the masters of suspense and film noir Alfred Hitchcock and Cornell Woolrich. These guys sure knew how to twist our expectation with jaw-dropping conclusions to their very dark stories. They didn’t want to leave their audiences with a smile. They wanted to provoke thought. They wanted to surprise. How do readers respond to unexpected endings? (Probably well since The Twilight Zone was a very successful show.) Current examples of this kind of ending are The Sixth Sense, The Village and The Others.

In comedy the only twisted ending I can think of is in Julia Roberts’s film My Best Friend’s Wedding, where the main character doesn’t get the guy. (But then again, maybe this was a “character-growth” story?) What are your thoughts on this? Is it acceptable to have a “unhappy” ending in a romantic comedy?

And how about those endings where the protagonist dies and another one must take the lead, like in Lonesome Dove or Life is Beautiful?

How very sad was the day Augustus McCrae left this world.

I don’t get it!

What about those endings that leave the audience bewildered and we need hours of conversation (or therapy) to figure out what the writer was trying to tell us (or a website with graphics to explain the story’s ending.) Click here for an interpretation of Inception's ending. I wish The Ring also had an explanation website!

Did that elusive totem stop spinning after Inception ended? Was the protagonist still dreaming?

Oh, crap, it’s not over.

Don’t get too happy that the blood and guts spread throughout your movie screen are no longer there. When you watch a horror film, the final scene (guaranteed) is a lurking shadow behind the only character left alive or a hand climbing out of the tomb.

Don’t worry, folks, it’s just a dream.

Need I say anything about these endings? Do the names Alice and Dorothy give you a clue?

Now to recap: What do you think makes a good ending? Do you favor happy love stories or sad ones? Is a novel considered more “literary” if it has a tragic ending? Do you mind predictability (good guys always win)? Can you think of a memorable ending that was unexpected or particularly touching?

* To enjoy the soundtrack for this post while you read, please press the play button.


  1. I prefer VERY VERY sad endings. SAD! MORE SAD!

    Although unfortunate, I very much think "literary" = "sad". I don't know why this is.

    I am not someone that analyzes too much while reading/watching, so everything tends to surprise me. (My friend Jen, on the other hand, knows every plot twist within the first few pages of a book or minutes of a film, and is always right!)

    PS Not a fan of Nicholas Sparks. "The Notebook" was one movie I actually groaned watching. And I like sad! It just felt TOO contrived.

  2. I like the way the movie, 'Juno' ended. Interestingly, it was the character played by Jennifer Garner that drew me in the most and I like the way the story was resolved with the actions of both Juno and her character. **SPOILER ALERT** You thought that the ending could only be achieved by the couple taking in the baby or not taking in the baby but it was a mix of both. The couple did not take in the baby, but Juno recognized that Jen's character could and should have the baby despite the puerile actions of Bateman's character.

    At any rate, the ending provided very satisfying character arcs for all of them. In my opinion, it's a good example of how it can be done successfully.

  3. You should add Newhart to Alice and Dorothy. That show's run ended with it all being one giant dream and is probably one of the most talked about sitcom endings in history (except for maybe "Seinfeld").

    When it comes to endings, I think as long as the story is well-crafted then the ending will hold whether the protagonist dies or not. The worst part of Titanic, for me anyway, was old Rose doing an oopsy-daisy and dropping the necklace in the ocean. I thought it was kind of dumb.

    I take a bit of an issue with Sparks' writing, not because he kills people off, but because he formulates every novel pretty much in the same way. And, yeah, that includes the fact that someone always dies in a heart-wrenching manner. It just gets a little old after a while. He doesn't really surprise the reader.

    I thought "Juno" was funny the first time I saw it, but the second time I saw it I was thoroughly annoyed with Juno's character. She was so snarky and harsh and almost forced in the storyline that I've never gone back to watch the movie again.

    I have plans to kill of my current protagonist. I feel, that as a writer, changing it up from time to time brings freshness to the way I write. If I get into a Sparks mode, then I don't think I'd enjoy what I write. It's nice to feel something different on the page instead of the same old. Plus, I think it challenges me as a writer to take my material in a different direction than what's expected.

  4. I find endings crucial since I tend to read them way before I finish the novel, and there are certain books I never finished because the ending was too sad (The Charterhouse of Parma) or unsatisfactory (Mary Doria Russell’s A Thread of Grace). I have ambivalent feelings about happy endings. I was told in college that only sentimental trashy novels end on happy notes. Obviously that is not true, since all Jacqueline Susann’s “trashy” novels have tragic endings. There´s something about a joyful or an open ending that gives you hope.

  5. What makes a good ending? That is a hard to answer, but I don´t think an ending has to be happy, just satisfactory. Anna Karenina’s death comforts me since now both her husband and lover are free to rebuild their lives. The English Patient´s death releases him of physical and emotional pain; moreover it frees Hanna from her duty to him and trauma. As much as I cry at the way Waugh ended Brideshead Revisited, I know there is no other way to wrap up the story. Charles has lost everything, but has gained faith and that keeps him from falling apart.

  6. How often have you read a 400p. novel, and somewhere around the
    300 p. point, felt that it was about to end, matters resolved, characters on their way, sad or happy—but there must be more to the story, so you read on, only to find flashbacks, trivia about minor chs afterlives etc. Did the writer run out of story line, but the book had to have 400p. to sell? I've noticed this frustrating tendency lately. Franzen's novels are good examples. Just my opinion. Comment? Regis

  7. I like sad endings and I like happy endings. An unresolved ending will drive me crazy! I can imagine it would be fun for the writer to write something left to interpretation, but as a reader, I like resolution.

    Fabulous post!

  8. I love that you included Stella. The ending kills me--in a good way. I love the ending of the movie Before Sunset, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.

  9. Maggie, I also love sad endings. (To me, they make the most memorable stories. Why do you think us women like to cry so much? Do you think there's any truth to the healing power of tears?) But I also love some happy ones (like Pride & Prejudice.) This is why it's so difficult to figure out my new ending.

    I have also noticed that sad endings are considered more literary. Maybe it comes from the Greek storytelling tradition:

    Tragedy=sad endings=serious literature
    Comedy=happy endings=lighter literature

    You know, "The Notebook" is the only Sparks' movie I liked. But I am convinced it has to do with the chemistry of the actors and the time period, which I love. I felt the same way you do about "Message in a Bottle" and "A Walk to Remember."

    Suze, I was more touched when I saw the scene of Jennifer Gardner holding the baby than when Juno cries on her bed. Vanessa wanted that baby for SO LONG!!! It's absolutely heartbreaking when her marriage fails and the viewer assumes it's all over for her. I think this is a great example of "surprising inevitability."

    Sister Mary, I never saw Newhart, but I know I hated the ending of Seinfeld, which as you know, is my favorite TV show. I haven't met anyone who liked Seinfeld's ending (which goes to show us how difficult endings are. Even incredible writers like these ones had a hard time with it.)

    About Titanic, I also hated that the old Rose threw the necklace to the ocean. It didn't make any sense!!! All that search (and the whole point of the story she told her granddaugher and boyfriend) was to find the thing! That was just WRONG.

    I admire your courage. I don't know if I could kill my protagonist.

    Sister Violante, I hadn't thought about that! Yes, Susann's novel has a very tragic ending (I hated it!) The tricky thing is how to make a happy ending that doesn't make the audience roll their eyes, and be somewhat surprised. Good point about Anna Karenina, too. It was hard for me to root for her. I didn't mind her death at all. (I just wanted it to be over!) I don't think this novel could've had a happy ending. It had tragedy written all over it.

    Regis, I'm currently reading a novel like the ones you mention: Daughter of Fortune, except that all the backstory of a secondary character (two entire chapters!) is placed right in the middle of the action. I find this so frustrating. Where I've also noticed the phenomenon you mention is in Latin American soap operas and mini series (like The Thorn Birds, for example). What happens with some soaps is that sometimes they are transmitted at the same time they're being taped, so if ratings are doing well, the producers are forced to extend the story. This is why I decided to be a novelist and not a screenwriter!

    Jenny, I also hate unresolved endings!!! Thanks for stopping by.

    MP, the ending of Stella is tragic, but so touching. It's the ultimate mother's sacrifice! How do you feel about Beaches?

  10. Great topic! Sometimes an ending that appears tragic can be uplifting, somehow: the end of Time Traveler's Wife, for example. Or the end of McCarthy's "The Road." Or the end of Edgar Sawtelle ... I cried buckets at that book, which is very rare for me, but I didn't feel it was a proper tragedy because it doesn't end on a downbeat note. I guess the difference might be if the reader is led to feel there's a door opening somewhere, for some character, in spite of all the horrible things happening. When all doors are shut -- like a Shakespearean ending where everyone dies -- then it feels like a true tragedy.

  11. You're right, Sister Steph. There are sad, but uplifting endings. And then, there are Shakespearean tragedies (which I don't mind if I hate all the characters, like in "The Other Boleyn Girl" ha ha.)

    I should read (or watch) "The Time Traveler's Wife". You guys are always talking about it.

    Yesterday, I was reading in "Plot & Structure" (James Scott Bell), that there are three basic endings:

    1. Positive: protagonist achieves goal.
    2. Ambiguous: we don't know if mc achieves goal.
    3. Negative: mc doesn't achieve goal.

    BUT there are also complex endings:

    1. MC gets goal, but end result is bad.
    2. MC doesn't get goal, but end result is good.

    This pretty much sums them all up! His section on "sacrifices" and "final choices" was illuminating to me. I'm seeing light at the end of the tunnel!

  12. Lorena,
    I wouldn't recommend watching "The Time Traveler's Wife." I haven't read the book, so I'm not sure how true the screenwriters were to it. After I watched this film, all I could do was think of how many flaws were in it, thus making the ending not overly realistic. But, it's up to you!

    I hope you figure out what kind of ending you need to your story!

  13. I'd avoid the TTW movie, too -- it's okay, but really doesn't do the book justice. I loved the book.

    I like that breakdown of complex endings -- very well summarized! I was also thinking of hero's journey via Christopher Vogler, where the MC gets the "elixer" but that's not quite the ending -- you still have a) the road back, b) the resurrection, and c) the return with the elixir.

  14. I love a satisfying ending--it doesn't have to be happy. I also like the ones that leave me guessing (but not as much). Twists are the best endings, but they are so hard to write.

  15. This is a great analysis of all the possible types of endings. In all my W-I-Ps, I write the ending first. I love closure so I guess I write with that in mind. Great post!


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