12 February 2018

Is That All There Is?

by Steve Liskow

Why did over 100 million people watch the Super Bowl last week? Certainly, many of them were rooting for the Eagles or the Patriots, but many of them just wanted to watch the last football game of the season, featuring two good teams, to see who won.

That's it, isn't it? The final score. As writers and readers, that's what we care about, too. How the story ends.

How often have you heard someone say, "Well, the story was pretty good, but I hated the ending." Mickey Spillane said the first chapter sells the book and the last chapter sells the next book. It's hard to argue with that. If you don't like a book by an author, how likely are you to pick up another one?

The punchline of a joke should make us laugh. If we don't laugh, it's not a good punchline or ending. Simple, huh?

Obviously, if you go to a production of King Lear or Romeo and Juliet expecting lots of pretty girls doing a kick line at the end, you're going to be disappointed, but most people have a clear idea of what to expect. You set up the expectations, so you should meet them.

There are only a few kinds of bad endings.

The first is the Letdown, which I see more often in short stories than novels. The story, usually quasi-literary, doesn't really go anywhere, and it finally stops completely as though the writer has reached the word count he was aiming for. Sometimes, the ending is ambiguous, bit it's usually more indecisive than anything else. "The Lady or The Tiger"

fails because you can support (or NOT support) either choice equally badly. When my students tried this nonsense and I called them out on it, they always told me, "I left it this way because I wanted to make the reader think." I always asked, "What do you want him to think ABOUT, and what do you want him to think ABOUT IT?"

Several excellent writers end their books with something left unsaid, but they give enough information so we can figure out what happens offstage or after the curtain falls. My recent novel Before You Accuse Me ends with Woody Guthrie and Megan Traine discussing the consequences of the crime they've solved. We don't know exactly where the fallout will land, but we can make several solid guesses, none of which involve those pretty girls and kick lines.

Another bad ending involves a deus ex machina, the information that comes out of nowhere at the very end to tie things together (Thomas Hardy and Nathaniel Hawthorne got away with this constantly--or maybe not: we don't know about the after-life yet). In mysteries, this may be the missing piece of information we didn't even know was missing. One Ellery Queen novel has a solution built on our not knowing that the murder victim wasn't really a twin: he was a triplet. That's cheating. If you can't even give the reader a hint, look more carefully at your plotting.

Does anyone remember the TV show Burke's Law? One episode ran long, so they cut another minute to fit in the last commercial...and accidentally deleted the clue Gene Barry cited in the final solution. I understand the TV network's switchboard lit up like a nuclear blast that night.

Another ending is the one built on inductive reasoning instead of deductive reasoning. The detective (Rex Stout used to do this with Nero Wolfe all the time) starts by positing that a particular person is guilty, then looks for information to confirm that theory. It's too much like the police deciding person A did it and overlooking exculpating evidence. At Crime Conn several years ago, a detective who worked cold cases told us, "A cold case always happens because someone made a mistake." More often than not, some piece of evidence was overlooked or misinterpreted. Call it art imitating life if you want, but I disagree.

The opposite, which I see less often is the Perfect ending. The writer gives us intricate subplots and tons of detail, and none of it is extraneous. Every single miniscule thing fits together to create the main denouement. It's impressive and very difficult, and at some point I see the author's hand turning the characters into puzzle pieces instead of people and the thread suspending my disbelief starts to unravel. If it fits together more tightly than a Wagnerian crescendo, it's too much.

OK, so what does an ending need? That's pretty simple.

Your opening should make the reader ask questions about the plot and characters. Your ending answers those questions. It resolves the issues, just like a song should end on the beat and on the tonic chord. It will feel complete.

Remember "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" from the Beatles LP Abbey Road? It repeats the last melodic figure over and over and over, but instead of fading out, it ends suddenly...NOT on the beat or the tonic note or chord. It's a jarring musical joke. You're not the Beatles, though, so you can't get away with it.

If you're writing a mystery, you need a logical solution. If you're writing a romance, the two protagoni should be together at the end, or you need a clear reason why they aren't.
Death works, or jail. Time travel might work, too, but that gets into sci-fi, and that's a different union.

If you write comedy, the reader should laugh. Especially at the end.

Even if you write a series and you're planning the next book, this one should have a definite end to the current issue. Some issues can continue, but win this battle and carry on the war next time. Don't make me buy the next book to figure out how this one ended. I'll be ticked enough not to buy it.

Or maybe by the time that next book comes out, I won't even remember that I cared. That's one of the perks of getting old.


  1. Steve, you hit on a lot of good points. But the one that really strikes me is the deus ex machina. Somehow the sleuth finds a clue or clues that just sort of appear out of nowhere and voila: case solved. Drives me nuts.

  2. Good advice. Personally, I find beginnings easy, middles very hard, and endings are either nearly impossible of a complete gift

  3. Janice,
    I usually begin writing with a general idea of the ending, but it often changes. My biggest problem is figuring out how my sleuth will get that last vital clue. I'm always struggling to avoid the deus ex machina I mentioned above.

    I think Chris Knopf once said that he usually writes the story with two or three possible endings in mind and eventually chooses the one that feels like the biggest surprise. Then he goes back and changes the details that would interfere with it.

  4. On the lady or the tiger, though: My all-time favorite mystery short story might well be Stanley Ellin's "Moment of Decision," which has that open-ending that will force readers to think beyond the last page....though as I've argued in class, it's not hardly unfinished (and that's the beauty of the story really).

  5. Great piece, a subject I don't remember reading about (which is hard to find after so many years of blogging). I loved "The Lady or the Tiger," but it is a stunt. Not really repeatable, although Ellin, a true master, did a nice variation, as Art said. There was an episode of Law and Order: SVU probably a decade ago, in which the entire case was a he said/she said situation between two awful people. The episode ends with the jury announcing they have reached a verdict. The End. And the point was: It doesn't matter who wins, they are both still awful.

    I used to wonder how Columbo always knew which suspect to start following around and annoying. Did he just pick the richest person?

    I always say a great ending should make the reader say: "I never saw it coming, but that's the only way it COULD have ended."

  6. Great post, Steve!

    Aristotle said (I'm paraphrasing, here): "Endings should be unexpected but inevitable." Good long-ago advice.

  7. I hate deus ex machina endings. Even in Greek plays, which invented them. (Although they probably go back to Sumer...)
    Good post.

  8. I hate deus ex machina endings. Even in Greek plays, which invented them. (Although they probably go back to Sumer...)
    Good post.

  9. I'm one of those writers who always start with the ending. Then I go back to the beginning and work forward. I need to know the twist that will center my short story. For this reason, plots often percolate in my head for months until I find just the right ending. Then I sit down to write.

  10. Melodie, I can sympathize with the percolating. Before You Accuse Me, which came out last month, has notes going back to 2004. The premise and title stayed constant, but almost everything else changed several times. Fortunately, I knew it had to be at least the fourth book in the series so there was plenty of time. Interestingly, I don't think the ENDING changed much.

  11. A good ending is one you go back and read again. Later, after a long time, you read it again and it still works.


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