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Satisfying (Or Not) Ways to End Your Novel

05/22/2013 04:23 pm ET | Updated Jul 22, 2013

Beginning a book is easier than ending it (at least for me.) A beginning is exciting and glittery, filled with excitement and hope. First sentences are sexy. They pop into my mind all the time. If I only had to write the first lines, I could write a million books

But then you have to end it.

Wrap it up.

Like a television finale?

Television shows are (unknown to many it seems--considering how much attention they are given) actually written. By writers. Writers can build characters that induce sympathy for the devil (Walter White in Breaking Bad) and then, if they choose, shatter that sympathy into distaste for the devil (Don Draper in this season of Mad Men.)

When, where, and how to choose that ending? That is the question.

End too soon and it's rubbery, underdone. Blech. You want to spit it out--and who wants readers to spit out their books?

Do it too late and you got yourself some burnt book. Yech. Charred remains of blackened overdone gone-on-too-long just-like-this sentence endings. Do you want your readers to say "Thank God it's over," when they close your book? Television shows and novels are certainly different, but they're from the same species. Stories--long, long stories, which at some point must end.

But how?

Fade out . . .ending?

The most memorable fade out?

The Sopranos.

The screen went black. Everyone thought something had gone wrong with their television. At the time, I found it enraging. With time, I've decided it truly worked. I certainly didn't want to see Tony die at the end. No matter how awful he was, and how awful his deeds, the writers did a phenomenal job building sympathy for that devil and there was no place to go. Happy ending? How? This open-ended ending let us imagine either Tony's just desserts or envision how, once again, a bad guy can get away with the most awful of crimes.

Take away? If you go for a risky ending, some will love you; some will hate you. This is an artistic decision--one your editor may fight to death to prevent, or, she will love it.

Horrible sadness ending?

Roseanne ended with Dan's death. To me, it was an unfair ending, disrespectful of an audience who had fallen in love with this couple, with the family--with the conceit of the show. There really should be a rule: no killing off a main character as a way to wrap up a sitcom. Comedy, folks. We don't come for the death.

Take-away? Don't try turning a satiric comedy into a Shakespearean drama in the last chapter.

Upbeat everything is wonderful ending? Leaving a sense of future ending?

The other night I watched the final episode of The Office--a show I've always enjoyed for it's slightly squirmy humor mixed with sentiment (and with the spice of some truly odd characters (Dwight, Angela, Dwayne) put head to head with 'normal' ones (Oscar, Pam, Jim.) It was a show that always poured equal measure of discomfort and romanticism. The ending satisfied--because it kept the promise of the show and took it too a conclusion that (for me) offered the satisfaction of tying up loose ends (will Dwight and Angela ever get together?) with a sense of a everyone's lives going on in a forward motion.

Like the fractured fairy tale it always was, we were given a fractured happy ending, a joining of the Meta (bringing together the documentary film makers who'd been the off-stage members of the cast) with the day-to-day lives of the show members. There were no loose ends. We can leave these people without worry (even ever-depressed Tobey and round-heeled Meredith seem to have some hope, when we see then flirting in the background.)

A happy ending works and satisfies--but only if it stays true to the character's quirks and story throughout. If The Office ended with Pam and Jim winning the lottery, it would have been like eating overly sweet cake. We'd get queasy...maybe even throw up.

Tying up all the loose ends ending?

Most satisfying television I've ever watched? Six Feet Under, where we saw each character through to their final moments. In a montage where I could barely blink for fear of missing a moment, in my memory I saw the ultimate outcome of every main character. Did I cry? I sobbed like a little baby. The episode wrung me out. In the best possible way.

Take-away? Keep track of all your story lines. You don't have to follow your characters through to their death--but your plot lines should have some resolution.

Bleak ending? Why did I bother ending?

Seinfeld. Need I say more? No matter how much Larry David defends it, this was an ending that took a great show and flattened it like a pancake at the end. The finale felt as though the writer was having too much fun at the viewer's expense.

Take away? I believe the writer has a covenant with the reader. You provide the best possible stories--they will bring you into their heart. And come the day you separate, the moment it's time to say goodbye, do you want to break their heart?

Or do you want them to sigh, close the book with regret that it's over, and think how they can't wait for your next novel?