As I approach the end of a first draft of my current work-in-progress, endings have been much on my mind. With the provisional title Flying Blind, the novel is based on the life of my grandmother, a life which ended at ninety-one with her leap from a fourth-floor window. Obviously there can be no happy ending for this story. But can an ending be sad without being depressing? Can a novel (I’m talking generally here) leave you feeling uplifted without having a conventional happy ending?
The feelings of a reader may not reflect those of the main protagonist(s). As a reader reaching the end of a story, you might feel thoughtful, emotional, disturbed, sad, uplifted, angry, disappointed or a range of other emotions. A surprise twist may leave you stunned or shaken. There may be a wow factor in response to a satisfying but unexpected ending; there may be a feel-good factor at the happy conclusion of a romance beset by problems along the way, the triumph of persistence over adversity or the successful outcome of a quest.
The ending of a novel is almost as important as the beginning and as difficult to write. It has to feel complete even if not everything is resolved. For most novels, the ending shouldn’t be totally predictable but there are exceptions, including my current project, where my grandmother’s suicide is revealed on the first page. The end can lead you in a kind of loop back to the beginning, the pages in between having revealed what led to that conclusion. In his satirical novels, George Orwell produced some powerful endings. Animal Farm ends with the sentence: The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which. The chilling final sentence of 1984 consists of only four words: He loved Big Brother. Both these endings are predictable: they follow inevitably from what preceded them but are no less potent for that.
The surprise factor, an unexpected twist close to the end can also be very effective, especially if clues have been left along the way. But both twisty and easy-to-anticipate endings can be thought-provoking and satisfying. Some novelists deliberately choose ambiguous endings that allow space for the reader’s interpretation – implying rather than stating the outcome or leaving it open to their imagination.
A non-genre novel doesn’t need to fit into a rigid formula, making all kinds of ending possible. But even for genre novels, there may be more flexibility than there used to be. For example, romances no longer need to end with a wedding as they once did though they should probably end on a happy note. In crime fiction, justice should be done but maybe not entirely. Heroes and villains don’t need to be so black and white when in real life there are shades of good and bad. Almost everyone has some redeeming features and equally, flaws can be found even in the most saintly.
Unreliable narrators can result in endings that deceive or disappoint, as in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, where the narrator reveals that the events she described took place in her imagination. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles offered three alternative endings for the reader to choose from. Kate Atkinson did something similar in Life after Life. She experimented further in A God in Ruins, with a surprise twist that negated the whole story in a similar way to Atonement. I can’t say I found these endings satisfying. In the case of A God in Ruins, I felt not just disappointed but angry. Having loved the story up till then, my pleasure was snatched away when I reached the final pages. It was like being hit with a shower of cold water.
Some novels set up a conflict or question, to be resolved at the end. In Secrets of the Pomegranate, one of the questions I set up at the beginning was whether Deborah, the main protagonist (in a coma after being caught up in the 2004 Madrid train bombings) would survive. The other was the secret she shared with her sister Alice. I escalated the tension right up to the final denouement and for some readers at least the ending came as a surprise, bringing feelings of hope as well as sadness. The dilemma facing Alice had a resolution, if not exactly the one she had wished for. “I loved the ending of Secrets of the Pomegranate,” one of my readers said. “I felt that you were very merciful to the reader, with the mounting sense of threat and dread as the book progressed and then, at the end, that all evaporates and there is a triumph of human decency!”
I can’t say too much about the ending of The Red Gene without giving it away but again I built up the suspense through many chapters, leading my readers to root for a particular outcome. If some were disappointed, I think they all agreed that the ending I wrote was the right one. “You defied the reader’s hopes and expectations and it worked because it could have easily become corny and melodramatic,” one reader said. Another expressed a similar feeling: “I was so disappointed they… (deleted). But I don’t think it spoils the story at all, it’s more realistic this way.” The ‘right’ ending is not necessarily the happiest. Bittersweet endings are a personal favourite of mine.