Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how books end, mainly because I’ve read some that do such a terrible job of ending, or that present a reasonable ending and then undermine it. I’m not saying that a book that’s annoying and incredibly flawed throughout will be saved by a spectacularly brilliant ending (though in my experience, a book with a spectacularly brilliant ending will not be annoying or incredibly flawed throughout the rest of it). I am saying, though, that an author who screws up an ending is doing harm to the book as a whole and annoying readers.
One problem with an ending is that it’s not actually an ending. I’m not talking here about the nasty practice of surprising the reader by announcing only at the end that this isn’t a fully complete story in itself but part one of a series (though I really do hate that). I’m talking about a book that wraps everything up nicely and then undermines its own ending. I’ve read two thrillers recently that did this, and while I liked both books, I think I would have liked them better if they’d had the confidence of their ending.
Without naming names (if you really want to know which they are, you can email me and I’ll tell you), the authors of both those thrillers seemed to feel that merely bringing everything to a satisfying conclusion was for wimps, and that the best way to end a book is to pull the horror movie trick where you think the monster’s gone and everybody’s safe and then, at the very end, you see the monster’s hand reappearing out of the grave (I blame the movie version of Carrie for this; movies might have done that before, but that’s where I first encountered that annoying trope). Especially with a good thriller, where you’ve been tearing through the book, always aware of how high the stakes are and how difficult it’s going to be for the protagonists to succeed, and where there are numerous situations where they come close to succeeding and then fail, and then only finally succeed by the skin of their teeth, you want to feel that there’s closure. At least I do. As my heart rate drops back to normal, I want to feel the relief that this time the good guys came out ahead and the horrible disaster didn’t actually occur. I don’t like having the rug pulled out from under me at the last moment (in the last pages, usually) and discovering that, no, whatever horrors the protagonists battled through and survived, their struggles were in vain because the danger is still there and may even be worse. I don’t mind the situation where the author is saying, “Hey, this could happen again, it was only through sheer luck that we made it this time.” What I mind is the author’s essentially saying, “You thought we stopped this from happening, but no, we really failed all along and everything you suffered through with the characters was totally useless, ha ha.”
But even that isn’t the worst thing an author can do with an ending. The worst thing is what I saw in another book I read recently (and didn’t review here for this reason), where the author gets to the very end and undermines everything you thought the book was about. If, for instance, the whole premise of the book is that this person is being unjustly railroaded by the legal system for reasons the person couldn’t control, that the person is the victim of prejudice and because of their background is likely to be convicted of a crime they didn’t commit, and the climax is that the person is acquitted of that crime, and then at the end the author shows you that, yes, the person actually was guilty all along, you the reader have every reason to feel you’ve been wrongly manipulated.
Again, it turns on the premise of the book. If the whole premise of the book is that you’re reading about a person who does terrible things and you know he’s doing terrible things and yet you’re rooting for him not to be caught (hi, Dexter), it’s okay if you see him evade justice, because that’s the whole theme of the book. Or if the premise of the book is that you’re dealing with a completely unjust system that will never do the right thing because it’s totally corrupt, seeing someone dodge punishment for a crime he committed feels depressing, but it feels right in that context. If, on the other hand, the whole premise of the book is that people are treating the protagonist wrongly because of prejudice, and the protagonist is this pure innocent creature who’s being crushed by the system, showing me that the protagonist was in fact guilty of the crime for which they were tried turns the premise on its head. No longer am I thinking about how wrong the other people and the system were. Now I’m looking back at the protagonist (whom I’m still supposed to see as a wronged, innocent creature) and disliking the character. Not only that, this wrong ending forced me to see all the other problems with the characters and the plot in general, which I was originally overlooking because I was carried along on the premise of the book. This is, in my opinion, no way to keep a reader happy, and unhappy readers do not come back to read your later books.
The ending is the thing readers are going to remember about the book. The author needs to trust the readers with an ending that doesn’t insult them.