So I’ve reached that point with my next book The Last Cup. The ending! While it can be quite the enormous task actually getting the reader to the ending, the ending has the potential to be the last stunning impression you leave. An ending can make or break a book. It can ruin an otherwise stellar plot. It can elevate a good book to greatness. The last thing you want to do is your end your labor of love with a big fat shrug, and that goes for every genre I can imagine: Horror, drama, sci-fi, fantasy, erotica (um, let’s not get into it), coming-of-age, YA, etc. The ending is the culmination of your story and its themes, and it also marks the end of the incredible journey that your protagonist has taken.
“My favorite part of ‘Lord of the Rings’ is when they’re in The Shire,” said absolutely no one ever.
If your protagonist has NOT taken an incredible journey, then why did you even write the book???
I was always proud of the ending to my first book, The Notice. The resolution and the twist at the end of that story was executed, I feel, as well as it could have been done. My new book has not gone so easily. I’ve run into a couple of tiny logistical hurdles in planning my ending. I actually already have the last chapter in the bag; it’s the third to last chapter that has my hands tied right now. I know how I want the book to end but I can’t rationalize my characters making the proper decisions to deliver them there. That problem might be more common that you would think. Frankly, it happens all the time. It happens in my favorite movie to knock on, “Prometheus”, where the characters behave and react completely irrationally in order to forward the final third of the story.
I know I use a lot of movie examples, lately, but I’m on another tremendous movie kick right now where I’m watching three or four movies a day. Movies fuel my writing as much as books, to be honest. In fact, I think there are about four popular plot devices that ruin endings nowadays, and I would like to address them through a handful of endings I’ve seen recently that left me groaning.
“Sean’s 6 Worst Movie Endings He Could Come Up with For This Article”
1. Prometheus – Let’s just go ahead and get it out of the way early. I’m not saying it has the worst ending of all time, but…give me a few minutes to think about how I want to finish up that sentence. I’ll get back to you. No, really, I’ll get back to you.
“The Happening” by M. Night ShockMeLikeAnElectricEel
3. Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, etc. Basically, everything after “Unbreakable”
4. War of the Worlds (2005)
5. Monty Python & The Holy Grail
6. The Forgotten
DON’T Try a “Deus Ex Machina” (Unless You Have a REALLY, REALLY GOOD ONE): The most frustrating plot device in the world today, in my opinion, is the old “Deux Ex Machina” or “Hand of God”. What used to seem like an inventive way to throw off a reader and go out with a bang has been turned into the ultimate cop-out cliché by the likes of “Lost”, “Battlestar Galactica”, “Mass Effect 3”, “Signs”, etc. Wow, look at all those science fiction examples I just listed. Hmm, how about that? What exactly is a “Deus Ex Machina”? It’s when something completely out of left field happens to wrap up your story that just conveniently has all the answers to your story’s intriguing questions wrapped up with a nice big bow without you actually having to do anything, I don’t know, original or creative.
I’m sorry, you just know that when these guys got back to the mothership, someone had a nice long talk with whoever’s freaking job it was to recon Earth and make sure it didn’t have any of that “ubiquitous clear substance that instantly burns and kills us”. Oh, the whole planet’s pretty much made of it, you say??? What a stupid ending.
I’ll use “Signs” since it’s probably the most well-known example. Remember how at the end of M. Night Shylaman’s otherwise decent sci-fi drama about aliens we discover that these aliens who have come trillions and trillions of miles to take over Earth just happen to be vulnerable to water? WATER, for crying out loud! And the little girl had been randomly placing glasses of water around the house in unwitting preparation for saving her family because somehow she subconsciously knew it would kill the aliens? Yeah, it doesn’t make any sense. That’s the ultimate irony of “Deus Ex Machina”: The Hand of God is anything but “Intelligent Design”. It’s also EVERYWHERE right now, it seems. The more convoluted a TV show or movie becomes, the more insane their ideas, or the more bewildering their concept, the more you can bet your bottom that a Deux Ex Machina is on the way to finish it, because the writers couldn’t think of a logical, satisfying ending to tie up so many outrageous loose ends.
DON’T Try a Non-Sequitur Ending: If there’s one thing that pisses me off more than Deus Ex Machina, it’s non-sequitur endings. No Country For Old Men frequently gets accused of having a non-sequitur ending by people who are too lazy to actually pay attention to final monologue and THINK about why it’s there and why the movie is called No Country For Old Men. In the movie adaptation, Tommy Lee Jones gets to deliver that final monologue and I will say this right now: Tommy Lee Jones is never a non-sequitur. I could be reading Tolkien’s Return of the King and if the final page read that Tommy Lee Jones suddenly appeared out of nowhere, pimp slapped Frodo, and took his place on the ship to the Grey Havens, I would scream out to the heavens that it was the best ending of all time.
But enough about Tommy Lee Jones. “Monty Python & The Holy Grail” is a famous comedy with a non-sequitur ending and if you’ve seen the movie, you surely know what I’m talking about. It only halfway works because it’s Monty Python. Advice Time: We’re not Monty Python. Don’t even think about trying to get away with a non-sequitur. I’m not even sure how that would work in writing fiction. I can’t think of any popular novels with true non-sequitur endings, but if you can PLEASE sound off in the comments. I’d love to have them brought to my attention and see if there are any examples where it kind of worked.
In television, I know you have The Sopranos, which definitely ended with a non-sequitur that made a bunch of people really upset. After all that story and all that gripping dialogue, the whole series ended with a random diner scene that cut to black or something like that. Which reminds me that the most important advice on non-sequiturs that I could possibly give you is to
DON’T Commit an Abrupt Tonal Shift in The Last Few Chapters: Admit it, you walked right into that gag at the end of the last paragraph, didn’t you? Moving on, I would also recommend avoiding an abrupt tonal shift in the last few chapters of your book. One reason for this is that characters tend to be very important in establishing tone. The tone of a book often matches the way a character or characters speak and behave. An abrupt tonal shift at the end, then, can work against those characters. It can make their actions suddenly seem erratic and it calls into question how a character would react to any such situation. Confusing, I know.
THIS. I’m trying to describe THIS. You didn’t need to sleep tonight anyway, right?
I’d like to highlight a movie that most of you have probably never seen. It’s called Splice and it stars Adrien Brody as a scientist working on a creature that is like a human/animal hybrid. It’s kind of like Frankenstein in that the creature, which ultimately matures into this weird abomination that is like half Russian supermodel and half goat or something, is actually quite sympathetic. The first half of the movie is a brilliantly executed meditation on the animal instincts in all of us, and it could even be viewed as a profound metaphor for parenting, believe it or not. You’d have to watch the movie to see what I mean. Too bad I’m about to ruin it for you. Where Splice comes crashing to the ground in a horrifying ball of fire is in the last ten minutes when the creature suddenly switches genders (yes, you read that right—the thing SPONTANEOUSLY SWITCHES GENDERS), rapes the female lead, and pretty much goes on a killing spree. 90 minutes of subtlety and brilliant thematic themes are completely undone because a fantastic sci-fi film decides literally at the very end that it wants to become a horror film instead.
Don’t be afraid to compromise the story that you want to tell. Believe it or not, but there was a time when I considered shoehorning a vampire into my book The Notice, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story about a girl growing up in war-torn Bosnia. It probably would have made the book more “marketable” if I could have pulled it off. Too bad I have integrity.
4. No Aliens (Oh, I’m Sorry; You Say Your Book is About Aliens? See Exhibit A. No Freaking Aliens) Let me qualify that last remark. I’m not saying you should not use aliens if they exist in the universe of the story you’re telling. I love awesome alien races, a’la “Star Trek” and “Star Wars”, etc. What I hate is when a movie or book that has nothing to do with aliens suddenly involves them at the end. I realize that this is basically Deus Ex Machina all over again, but I wanted to single aliens out specifically because I’ve seen it a lot lately. You can’t have some mysterious scenario where, say, children are disappearing in a tiny mountain town and Detective Guy Everydude, P.I. is on the case and he thinks it might be the town hobo, Seamus McFoil, who might have been responsible for those murders years back, but nope…It was all aliens. Aliens took the kids. Betcha didn’t see that coming, right?
If you need an example of what I’m talking about, go find the movie The Forgotten and watch it. You’ll understand why aliens should not just be abruptly introduced out of nowhere. You see, readers like to try guess where you’re going, and if you’re writing something that is engaging and mysterious, they will be captivated by the fact that they can’t guess what’s next. If you suddenly tell them that aliens were responsible for everything that has been happening, your readers will feel slighted because it turns out that all those awesome, mysterious things that were happening earlier weren’t actually happening for any intelligible or nefarious reason. Just…aliens. They’ll feel cheated. Why? Because you cheated them.
Pictured: An insanely graphic photo of a Frigidairian exposing himself.
On the same note, if you’re writing sci-fi and you have all these cool alien races who are fantastic characters, I say YES! GO FOR IT! MORE OF THAT! but do not have your resolution end with one of those alien races suddenly coming forth with a piece of alien technology that will magically tie up all your loose ends. There is no such thing as a “Resolution Cannon” (although there should be) that an alien can just randomly fire and, BAM!, there’s peace between the Toasterlings and the Frigidairians (sorry, I’m writing this from my kitchen…so sue me!). Once again, it’s cheap. Be better than that. Please be better than.
Also, I call dibs on Frigidairians.