On endings, weak and strong

One thing that can ruin a really great book is a weak ending. But not all weak endings are created equal. Sometimes there is too much closure, things are tied in neat little bows and nothing is left to the imagination. A talented writer creates a world I want to inhabit, no matter how similar or different it is to my own world. If the story is well written I want to think about it after I finish it. If the entire future of a character is played out in the ending it leaves me with little to imagine myself.

Some weak endings are too happy. I like knowing who the bad guy is but he doesn’t always need to be caught. I like knowing the main character learned something in the course of the novel, or improved themselves, but they don’t always need to be perfectly content. How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway did this. The Japanese main character, Shoko, was shunned by her brother for marrying an American GI after the war. She seeks his forgiveness when she finds out she has a fatal heart condition and sends her daughter to Japan to find him. The story is beautifully written, the characters have all struggled in their lives and persevered but the ending was too happy, too mushy; I found it hard to believe. The brother caves and forgives his sister. He has ignored her for decades and in one short visit he lets go of his anger completely? Maybe I hold grudges too well, but I found this ending too sticky sweet, especially after the excellent writing that preceded it.

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok did not have this problem. The Chinese-American characters were struggling and making life-changing choices every day. When I got to the ending I was pleased and humbled. The main character, Kimberly Chang, made choices I don’t think I could have made, choices I am sure many immigrants have been forced to make as they strive for the American Dream. Kwok did her characters justice by giving them a satisfying ending, not a happy one.

Endings really make or break a book for me. I don’t need a twist or a surprise; I just need honesty. Even if a book is set in the most bizarre fantasy world, the characters still have a human integrity that a bad ending can destroy. Science fiction/fantasy books, in my opinion, have the greatest potential for weak endings. Usually the author has created an entire universe to give his characters the exact dilemmas and challenges that they need. When bug-like aliens attack earth and only a child can save the human race, or a small subset of America is kept free of technology while the rest of the world goes crazy with tech power, or an autistic kid is controlled by an evil spirit communicating with him via a plastic telephone anything can happen. These books have the most potential for weak endings because the author isn’t held to the rules of our world. He or she could easily tie up all the loose ends with whatever fantasy world logic that resides there. Every time I read great sci-fi/fantasy I hope that the ending is open enough for me to insert a little life of my own.

I will also say that usually sci-fi/fantasy endings are the best. I feel as though the author spent so much time creating this new world that they know things can’t possibly be completely finished there just because this particular story is finished. I think this is also the reason so many of these types or stories turn into series. Sequels and trilogies aren’t enough when you have a rabid fan base who wants to inhabit your made-up world again and again. Rereading doesn’t offer the same level of immersion that a new story does. We want to know new things about the world these authors have created. Authors like Stephen King give us such rich worlds, intertwined in all of their stories that it is a joy to see a character from one novel play a bit part in another, we get to feel as though we are in on the joke.

Once, somehow, I read a great book and forgot the ending. There was a great twist that I didn’t see coming — let’s face it, I never see the twist — and then I forgot all about it. It was Orson Scott Card’s Wyrms and I got to experience a great ending for the first time twice. I wish that could happen again. Sure, sometimes I forget details from the middle of a book, a characters exact motivations, or a side plot, but who forgets the ending completely? I think it was a once in a lifetime kind of thing.

I have endings on the mind because The Idler is ending. It has become for me a great place to share my thoughts on books and to read about sports and video games. It gave me a reason to read a new book, chose a new author, investigate a new genre. I’m sad to see it go. After leaving the bookstore I felt adrift and now I am cast loose again. But I think all of this reading and writing experience can help guide me to my next literary destination. I will try not to make this ending too sappy, it’s what I wanted to avoid. Horrible outpourings of emotion, who needs ‘em!?

So I will say this: Keep reading if you enjoy reading. Keep playing video games or watching hockey if you enjoy those things. Hell, do all three at the same time if you can. Get others to join you in your pursuits and life will be great.

Kelly Hannon worked in an indie bookstore, is editing her first novel, and blogs about annoying people at www.letterstopeopleihate.com. Follow her on Twitter @KellyMHannon

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