Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sunday Salon: What About That Ending?

A friend and I had a conversation this past week about the endings of books. She has read several books in a particular series and enjoyed each of them. That is, until she read the author's most recent book in which a major character was killed. The series is now counted among my friend's least favorite of all time. She refuses to read further in the series.

Her strong reaction startled me. I cannot imagine turning against a series I like based on the ending of one book. I have read books where favorite characters died (not to mention the tears I shed over them), and yet it has never driven me to so despise a book, much less an entire series. For my friend, the ending is everything. It can ruin even the best of books. And I can see her point. At least in part. An ending can certainly make or break a book.

Endings come in all varieties. Sometimes we are left wondering while at other times everything is wrapped up so neatly, it might as well be tied with a bow. They can be happy or tragic, ambiguous, thought provoking, offer an unexpected twist or be totally predictable. There are endings that take our breath away and those that make us smile. I cannot tell you the number of times my eyes have welled up as I reach the final page. Some of you may have a strong preference for one type of an ending over another. I know my friend does. She prefers the happily ever after variety.

I, on the other hand, like a bit of everything. What is most important to me in regards to an ending is that it fits the rest of the book. A ending should reflect the tone of the entire book. It should match up so that it does not seem forced or too good to be true. Reading a book is like going on a journey. I begin at one spot, experiencing the adventure along the way. When reaching the end, I hope to have gained something, including a bigger appreciation for the entire experience of reading that book.

The topic of endings arose because I was trying to sort out what it was exactly I did not care for about the ending of a book I read recently. I actually enjoyed the book quite a bit. The final outcome was fitting given the circumstances, and yet there was something about it that still did not sit right with me. I am still struggling with what exactly it was that bothered me about the ending. I am all for a Miss Marple ending when it is appropriate--the one where everyone is gathered into one room and the why and how is revealed along with who committed the crime. The ending of the book I read was a variation of that sort of ending, but in this case it felt like it came too soon and a bit too easy. There were also little details given that I felt weren't necessary, having been rehashed throughout the novel at various different stages during the investigation. I am probably making it sound worse than it was. My complaints about the ending are actually quite minor in this case. As I said, I still enjoyed the novel. It has so much else going for it.

It did get me thinking, however, about endings in general. I remember being a tad bit disappointed in the ending of Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. While I liked the book overall and was not disappointed with the outcome, I found the ending to be rushed and not in keeping with the flow of the rest of the book. This is perhaps one of my biggest complaints about endings that leave me slightly dissatisfied.

An ending that at first I did not like but came to appreciate later was that of My Sister's Keeper. The ending by many is seen as a cop out, but I disagree. Looking back now, I have a better understanding of why Jodi Picoult went in the direction she did. Her books consistently broach topics that are controversial and she aims to present multiple viewpoints and sides to any issue she addresses. It is up to the reader to form his or her own opinions.

Endings with twists, both big and small can be quite appealing. Crime fiction novels most often offer twists throughout. I have a habit of figuring out the whodunit long before the end though--something that usually will not hamper my enjoyment of a book fortunately. I love reading about the process, how someone got from point A to point B. When a book can catch me off guard, it's an especially praiseworthy moment, however.

I do not mind cliffhangers, but prefer to know about them ahead of time; I do not mean I want the details, just the fact that there is a cliffhanger at all. In times like that, I want to be prepared by having the next book handy. I do not always have the patience to wait until diving into the next book to see what happens next. I clearly remember the moment I finished reading Anne Bishop's Daughter of the Blood, I rushed out to buy a copy of the next two books in the trilogy. For a book that I wasn't even sure I liked during the first half, that's saying quite a bit. It turned out though that the rush was not necessary. I was reminded that sometimes cliffhangers may seem impossible to let go at the end of one book, but when picked up in the next, they may turn out to be rather anticlimactic.

Another ending that stands out in my mind is that of a horror novel. While there may seem to a resolution, that last sentence or epilogue suggests otherwise. I am sure this is a common trait of many horror novels. Back in my high school days when I read every John Saul book I could get my hand on, I ran into those types of endings quite frequently. In my most recent instance, it was a Stephen King novel. I read the novel for an online book group and was reminded of why those bloody/gory slasher horror novels and I don't always get along so well. It's not that they scare me; rather they tend to amuse me. I can suspend my disbelief with just about everything I read, but it's hardest for me with certain types of horror novels these days. As can be expected, the ending of this particular book was left wide open. Good seemed to conquer evil, or did it? While the other women in the reading group were adding a happy ending of their own, I took it in the opposite direction, deciding that things definitely got worse for the characters after I finished the novel. I could not help myself.

Ambiguous endings tend to earn a lot of criticism, but I confess that I am a fan of them. They are often the types of endings that have me thinking of books long after I have finished reading them. Not to mention, they are more realistic. That isn't to say I do not like a good wrap up either. I certainly do and some books just wouldn't seem right without them. As I have said before, it all depends on the book.

I just finished a book with an especially sad ending. Those types of books always leave me feeling a bit melancholy for awhile. After reading a book like that, I am put in the mood for something more uplifting.

The most satisfying of endings are the ones that come full circle. They help put the entire book in perspective. You can always tell when I especially like the ending of a book. Upon closing it, I gently pat the book once, nod my head and let out a sigh.

What about you? Do you prefer a certain type of ending? Are there any endings that especially stand out for you--either good or bad?

Be sure and stop in tomorrow for my review of Precious by Sandra Novack!


  1. I think I most dislike anti-climactic cliffhangers! I'm not a very patient person, so if I've waited for the next book and gotten excited about it, I don't want it to turn into just a literary device to get me reading the next book. I'd prefer it to be a genuinely important facet of the story.

    I'm split between preferring the ambiguous ending and the endings that tie everything up neatly in a bow. I just read a book, The World In Half, which had a rather ambiguous ending as we don't really learn what's going to happen to the main character next, but we've learned enough about her to think about it for ourselves. Life is unpredictable and I think it's only appropriate for some books to turn out that way, too.

    That said, if all books ended ambiguously, that would take some of the pleasure out of my normal relaxation reading, so I do like to have some books that wrap up neatly!

  2. I think I know the book your friend got upset about. There were many who deserted the author. Killing off a major character is something all authors need to think very carefully about.

    Similarly authors who chose not to properly tie off all the threads of a novel, run the danger of dissatisfied readers.

  3. The ending is not as important as the writing for me. A major character getting killed is preferable to a mushy ending. I hated the way Rowling ended her series. I would have appreciated it more if she had left some lose ends, open for interpretations.

  4. I'm like you: I like all sorts of endings, as long as they remain true to the tone of the book. I like them happy, but not too miraculously happy. I like them sad, but not too bleak. I like twists, but not ones that come out of nowhere. And ambiguous and bittersweet endings are some of my favourites.

    The ending can change my impression of a book as a whole, but it happens more often that a good book is ruined by a lousy ending than that a bad book is redeemed by a great one.

  5. Hi Wendy :D

    The quality of writing and storyline should be what is important. Like in life endings in books can include the death of a major character.
    I suppose if a reader reads to escape life, killing a beloved character isn't so good...for me it does not matter, I just like a well written book.

  6. I like all kinds of endings. What I don't have patience for is when it seems that the author runs out of steam or gets lazy, or something predictable and contrived. I love a good twist, or something that isn't "happily ever after".

  7. Similarly to you, I want an ending that fits with the rest of the novel. I don't want the author to "create" either a happy or sad ending just to have the book end that way - I want it to make sense with what has happened up until that point. In real life, sometimes people die - but sometimes things turn out great. I don't have a problem with either one, as long as it doesn't seem out of place.

  8. I think how I react to a disappointing ending depends on how much I like the author or the rest of the book. I loved The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. When I read his I am a Messenger I didn't know what to think of the ending. I really didn't like it, but since I love The Book Thief I was more forgiving.

  9. Meghan - In Anne Bishop's case, the ending of her first book in the trilogy really was important because it set up a big part of the story for the second book. I think what made it anticlimactic for me was that there was no immediate resolution once I started reading the second book in the trilogy.

    Like you, I do like a good mix of different types of endings--not so much for relaxation purposes though, but rather to keep things interesting--and of course, the ending must fit the book. All of my reading is relaxing to some extent, regardless of the ending.

    Kerrie - There was quite a bit of hoopla over it when the book came out, I remember. I haven't read anything by that particular author and so really can't say for sure how I would feel about it, other than I am not sure it would be enough to ruin the entire series for me.

    It did poise an interesting question though--how much an author should cater to the reader versus staying true to the story. Either way, as you said, whether to kill off a major character is certainly worth thinking carefully about.

    There is one series in which I liked quite a bit for awhile there. One of the major characters died and that was fine. What irked me was when the author brought the character back to life. That wasn't the downfall of the series for me, but it does mark the beginning of my loss of interest in the series. I gave it up completely for other reasons, but I do think that that moment was the beginning of the end for me in some small way.

    Certain books do demand that most threads be tied off. Crime fiction often being the case in point for that by the very nature of the genre. Still, I've seen it done both ways with great success.

    Gautami - You are not alone in your feelings about J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter ending. Many people share that opinion. I have mixed feelings about it, really.

    Nymeth - Something you wrote in you comment--liking sad endings but preferring they not be too bleak: I thought of that too as I was writing my post for today. I like, even in the saddest of endings, for there to be some sense of hope.

    And I agree with your final statement. The ending definitely can influence my overall impression of a book, in particular if it is a book I am enjoying. A good ending rarely turns around a bad book though.

  10. Sylvie - Yes, quality of writing and storyline are important factors--that and wanting to know more about the characters and share in their experiences.

    I shared a story idea with my husband once many years ago and he told me that the best ending would be for my main character to die. I was stunned at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how right he was. That really was the only logical direction the story could go.

    Sandy - Contrived is rarely good, I agree. I hesitate though to say I don't like predictable endings because of my penchant for figuring out the twists before they happen--but then, even in those cases I can recognize a good twist.

    I read an author's blog post recently (I wish I could remember whose) in which the author discusses having less patience for certain types of books because she knows all the literary tells and can see the direction a book is going to go before it gets there. Whether that is part of my problem or I'm just good at putting the pieces of the puzzle together (probably a combination of both), I think that's why my placing so much value on the journey itself saves so many books for me.

    Elizabeth - I'm with you. I think you've said it perfectly. As long as the ending doesn't seem out of place, then I am likely okay with it.

    Kristy - That is a good point. It goes along with my ability to tolerate and even miss problem areas I might have noticed if I hadn't enjoyed the book so much.

  11. I am really not very fussy about endings, at least till now I haven't read a book and dissapointed in it just by the ending.

    I hate cliffhangers in series books though. The only author I can overlook in this case is Nora Roberts. Mostly coz even her series books are published really fast and moreover they are readily available here.

  12. If a character is 'killed' off in a book it often makes me love the book more.

  13. Very interesting topic. There's a lot to think about here. I'm not a very big fan of series that can't stand on their own (each book as its own complete, important book) so it's been a while since I've had the problem that one book in the middle really bothered me, but it's certainly frustrating and odd that a reader might abandon an entire series simply because one single ending didn't suit his/her liking. I know many readers feel that books and endings are tailor made for them but ultimately I prefer endings that suit the story, whether or not they personally fit to my taste. Some books can end abruptly and properly - others can't. Some can end with calm winding downs. Some can end with a confusing scene. And all of these endings can be excellent. Even books that end in deaths do, often, fit the book. Readers need to step out of this complacency bubble. Ultimately, it does depend on a book but after enjoying an entire series, ditching it simply because of one moment is just kind of ridiculous.

  14. Violet - There's something be said for starting a series or trilogy only after several books have already been published. Then cliffhangers really aren't much of an issue, especially if I have the next book on hand.

    Zetor - I know what you mean. Sometimes it really is appropriate and makes the book all the more meaningful.

    An Anonymous Child - I couldn't agree with you more about endings that suit the story. I may not always like it on a personal level, but I can appreciate it more for being true to the book.

    I really can't see giving up on a favorite series based on one book either, but I suppose that is just another case of readers having different tolerance levels. I have a feeling my friend will give in eventually and try the series again. It's just a matter of time. :-)

  15. Very interesting post! I'm like you: I like all sorts of endings, as long as they fit with the book itself. I will say, though, that I'm particularly fond of ambiguous endings. I love it when an author puts the characters on the right path and lets them head off to make what they will of the future. I love knowing that these characters have continued on. I may not be privy to their adventures anymore, but there's still room for more.

  16. I have to admit that I like tidy endings. By that I mean I like to know how things are resolved and don't like to be left wondering. Having said that a bad ending won't cause me to dislike a book.

  17. I don't mind variations as far as endings go but I do feel that the ending must fit the book. If it seems rushed or a main character pulls something out of left field, then I feel disappointed by it.

  18. I think I prefer a somewhat ambiguous ending to one that seems to tie things up a bit too neatly. The first tends to keep the story on my mind a little longer (as it does for you), while the second just makes me impatient sometimes. I like the ending to be consistent with the story overall - which doesn't mean I don't like a twist ending; I just want to be able to work back and understand where the twist came from, rather than feel it was just thrown in.

    I tend to agree with you about the ending of My Sister's Keeper - I think it wasn't the ending a lot of people wanted, but I thought it made sense.

  19. Endings bother me. I can love a book and end up hating it because of the ending. It's not necessarily the death of a character, that is a natural part of the writing process, but just how an ending is carried out. Sometimes books have a really good story but have a horrible ending. A big problem, for me, is if it is really rushed. It's like the author lost steam near the end and just wanted to finish things. I have been left wondering if I really like a book just because of an ending, though. It isn't that I will hate the book, but it will make me like it less...

  20. I don't know if I like ambiguous endings or not. The only one I can think of right off the top of my head, Life after Genius. I hated. I wanted closure after spending so many pages in that story!!

    If my favorite character was killed off in a series I might stop reading. I don't know. I've definitely stopped watching television shows for less! :)

  21. Great post!I enjoy various types of endings as long as they fit the style and pacing of the book. What I dislike are endings that feel rushed, as if the author had run up against a deadline or rub out of steam. Somehow I feel cheated, even if I have enjoyed the rest of the book.

  22. Memory - I know what you mean. I like to think of the characters continuing on too.

    Kathy - At least some resolution to any novel is a must, I think. Otherwise it doesn't feel like there's an ending at all, does it? Sometimes I do prefer a tidy endings. It often depends on the type of book for me.

    Ti - I don't like rushed endings either. And yes, those curve balls can be annoying, especially if there was nothing to lead up to it. My favorite twists are the ones that I might not have seen coming and yet when I go back and think about the book, I can see exactly how it could happen.

    Florinda - I'm the same way about those twist endings. I like to be able to go back track marks, however faint they may be. A twist thrown in just to make the ending possible without any warning seems too implausible more often than not.

  23. Kailana - Yes, a bad ending certainly can influence my take on the entire book. Like you said, it wouldn't make me hate the book, but it might impact my final opinion of it.

    Amy - I do understand the need for closure. You spend so much time with the characters that you want to know that something has worked out for them. I think there are degrees to ambiguity, some of which are more acceptable to me than others.

    Your comment about not watching a television show for less than a favorite character being killed off reminded me of how I felt a couple of weeks ago in regards to the possibility of a particular American Idol contestant being kicked off the show. LOL I don't think I actually would have stopped watching, but I would have been tempted. :-)

    Gavin - Thank you. Pacing! Yes, that's the word I was looking for in regards to Memoirs of a Geisha, I think.

  24. As long as the ending fits the book, I like all kinds of endings. I tend to prefer books with happy endings, though - not necessarily all tied up in a bow and riding off into the sunset kind of endings, but at least something ending on a positive note.

    I think my favorite endings are the ones that come too fast - you know, the kind of book you just don't want to end, because it's just so good!

  25. Ingrid - I wish I could ride off in the sunset right now.:-)

    I remember a book I read earlier this year that I felt ended much too soon. I wanted to spend more time with the characters.

  26. I like all sorts of endings, as long as they fit the story. I think I tend to have more feelings to a book which has a bittersweet, sad ending than a happily-ever-after one. I guess it's because it leads me into thinking and analyse the situation(s) than anything else. Some bittersweet endings can be so beautiful!

  27. Melody - Exactly! Bittersweet endings do tend to linger longer, don't they? Sometimes though a good happy ending is a cure for a bad mood. :-)

  28. It depends...if I'm reading a straight romance, I do expect a happily-ever-after ending. If I'm reading another genre, I don't always have to have that. My favorite genre is mystery, suspense, thrillers...with those, I like twists. I prefer something to happen that I never saw coming.

    I've read books where a major character got killed off and, although I was shocked and teary-eyed, I continued reading the series or the author. If it makes sense for the storyline, I'm okay with that.

  29. This is a great post, and on a subject I have been thinking a lot about lately (for a new book). I think endings are a make or break thing, so I can understand your friend's reaction. I am reminded of the "character" McKee's statement in the movie Adaptation, when he says it only "matters that you wow them in the end" and I tend to think it's true--readers can forgive earlier flaws if the ending satisfies them. I remember reading a Welty novel that I thought (gasp!) was pretty boring throughout--I had many moments where I wondered, Why am I even reading this--but the ending left me in tears. I finished reading and said, "That was a great novel!", as if every thought I had before then had been reversed. I'm thinking for my next book I should have a "choose your own adventure" ending, where if you like "Happy" turn to page X, and if you like "Thought-provoking" turn here, and if you think "All life ends in death" turn to page XX, etc. etc. :)

    The one type of ending I seldom like is the neat bow and happily ever after. I prefer ambiguity and think life is like that, too. That said, I am seriously thinking I don't want my next book to be too much of a downer, and my next ending is considerably more upbeat (though my husband laughs at this, because my notion of "upbeat" is different than many, I suspect).

    I do think a good ending casts new light over what went before in the novel, and that we can see the characters lives rushing ahead, like train tracks. Even though we might not know what lies ahead exactly, we can guess.

  30. I love this post, Wendy! You've expressed your thoughts so well.

    Well, you reminded me when you said this: "I was reminded that sometimes cliffhangers may seem impossible to let go at the end of one book, but when picked up in the next, they may turn out to be rather anticlimactic." How true.

  31. Yvonne - Romance novels do seem to be made for those happily-ever-after endings. I remember reading somewhere that was one of the requirements of a romance novel. :-)

    I completely agree about the ending needing to make sense in terms of the storyline.

    Sandra - Thank you so much for stopping by! The ending of your book certainly leaves a lot of food for thought. My poor husband has been subjected to me talking about your book quite a bit since I read it. :-)

    Your mention of the Welty novel and your change in perception of it after finishing it brought to mind my thoughts on a book I read last year--I had a very similar experience. The first part of the book was dragging and I worried that I wouldn't make it through if it continued to be on the dull side. And yet, by the end, I couldn't say enough good things about the book.

    I used to love those choose your own adventure books growing up. Of course, I'd have to read every single option because I wasn't satisfied otherwise. At least then you know you would please everyone. :-)

    I do think that what you said about a good ending casting a new light over the rest of the novel is so true. Those are the most satisfying endings to me, even with open endings. I am still thinking of Eva and what her future must have held for her.

    Alice - Thank you, Alice. It's a topic I've been mulling over for awhile now.

    I don't come across cliffhangers very often in books these days, at least not big ones. Most of them seem to be a foreboding of what may come ahead, but in a more subtle way.

  32. I've had times where I disliked the ending of a book, especially because it was in a series and they either killed off a character I liked, or a character did something that made me unhappy. But if it's a series I always stick it out, you never know if the character returns somehow (mainly in fantasy).

    But I do find that the ending can make or break the story. (For me the whole last instalment of his Dark Materials Trilogy, destroyed the story). But I always stick it through until the end. Especially long series, If I invested that much time in them, then I have to finish it.

  33. I hate reading a very suspenseful book that is just building up to a great ending and then it gets wrapped up too quickly. I feel like I missed something.
    I wonder if the series with a main character getting killed is the same one I read. I remember being upset but also interested in the way the other characters reacted to that death. I've continued on with the series and am glad that I did.

  34. My feelings about the ending of books has changed over the years. I used to like for things to be tied up neatly with a bow at the end of a novel with everyone living happily ever after. Now, I sometimes find that to be superficial and unrealistic. Let's face it, life can be ambiguous at times. Things aren't always nicely resolved. As long as the ending makes sense and isn't something pulled out of the air for shock value, I'm fine with an ending that isn't what I would hope for the characters.

  35. I don't like endings that seem rushed, or rather that the author maybe has run out of things to say.

    That said, as a writer, the end is the absolute most difficult part of the book for me to write. How to wrap everything up the way it should be wrapped up. I find myself rewriting the endings of my books over and over to make sure they're just right. So that it's an ending that I as a reader would accept.

  36. I stopped reading Martha Grimes Richard Jury series she killed off one of her whodunnit characters (not a main character, a character expressly for that particular book). It was just so sad and senseless and so much like real life that I thought why bother reading? I can watch the news.

    But that said, normally deaths in books don't stop from continuing on with the series (unless that's teh character I was interested in). I like tidy endings but I'm okay with an ambiguous one if the story seems to call for it. I loathe and despise amibiguous endings that seem to be a conceit of the author though. Kind of a neener neener to the reader.

  37. Was it the Elizabeth George Inspector Linley series? Because if it is, I had the same reaction as your friend. It wasn't that she killed off a beloved character but did so in such a way as to make it over-the-top in ironic and devastating. Unsatisfying and definitely designed to sell books.

    I like cliffhangers though. It's fun to wait for the next book to come out and see what happens next.

  38. Jules - That's very true--fantasy novels especially can be tricky with those endings. Someone you think is dead may just show up again.

    I haven't had a chance to read the Dark Materials trilogy, but I think I've heard from others too that the last book spoiled the series for them.

    Framed - Yes! I know what you mean. All that suspense and tension and then it feels more like a fizzle when it ends because it happened all too fast and perhaps even too neatly.

    I think if a major character died in a book, I would probably want to keep reading too for the reason you state, wanting to see the way the other characters react and what happens in the aftermath.

    Lisa - I was that way years ago too. I hated endings that left too much in question. Whereas now, I don't mind and sometimes prefer it.

    I recently read a book with a sad and very open ending followed by one with a happy and everything's nearly tied up perfectly ending. It was a good contrast and just what I needed in that moment.

    Karen - Those rushed endings leave a lot to be desired. They feel incomplete somehow.

    I imagine writing endings would be very difficult, and probably why I have so many stories that are left unfinished. :-) You do a great job with your endings. Your hard work definitely pays off.

    Carrie K - I haven't read anything by Martha Grimes. I guess in your case, you didn't find the death necessary for the progression of the story? Gratuitous violence and sex can be a big turn off in books, that's for sure.

    Jaimie - No, it wasn't Elizabeth George's series that she was reading. I've only read one book in the Inspector Linley series. I keep meaning to go back and start from the beginning of that one.

  39. I'm a big fan of ambiguous endings too. Like you said, they're often the ones that keep you thinking about the characters even after you've finished the book. And I'm always a sucker for sad movies or books. But I agree that, most importantly, an ending needs to feel true to the story. A wrapped up happy ending has its place too. I can't stand sickeningly sweet but sometimes I just want to believe the fantasy of everything working out perfectly.

    I can only think of a couple times when the ending made me angry with the book, but in those two cases I already wasn't thrilled with the stories, and the "bad" ending (as I saw it) was like the last straw, if that makes sense.

  40. Fantastic post! I've never really thought about it before. I don't know if books have to end a certain way for me, but what I can't stand are people who read the endings first. That I just don't understand!

  41. Nat - I don't know what it is about sad endings, but I often find them the most fitting of all.

    What you said about the bad ending being the last straw does make sense. I've found that to be true too.

    Natasha - Thank you! I have never understood wanting to read the ending first either. At least for me, I think it would take something away from the rest of the book.


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