Sticking the Landing

Here’s a post at Kill Zone Blog: Endings: Words of Wisdom

In this post, Dale Ivan Smith says:

“Sticking the landing” with a novel can be tricky. Wrong tone, wrong payoff, a cliffhanger that withholds some of the payoff and especially emotional resolution, too long a resolution are just examples of endings that don’t work as they should. Endings which can leave your reader unsatisfied.

My novel Empowered: Rebel, the fourth in my Empowered series, ended rather abruptly, immediately after a huge reveal which threw the entire series into a new light, and changed everything for my hero, Mathilda Brandt. Not only did I think this was a fine way to end the novel, I thought it was a fine way to end the series. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Fortunately, I saw the light and wrote Empowered: Hero, the actual final novel for the series, which resolved the series arc, but also had an ending which worked.

With that in mind I’ve found three posts from the wonderful KZB archives that discuss different aspects of endings to share today. Michelle Gagnon asks if thrillers need to have a happy ending, Clare Langley-Hawthorne ponders whether or not you need to provide a resolution, and Joe Moore gives a rundown on the elements of an ending that work.

My immediate take on the questions posed by the first two of these posts:

A) A thriller does not need to have a happy ending, but if it has an unjust ending, you will lose ninety percent of your readers. If the ending is tragic but just, then you’ll lose only half your readers. Half is still a lot, so maybe you should consider an ending that is at least ambiguously tolerable rather than tragic.

I basically think the above applies to most genre fiction. Literary readers may have a higher tolerance for nihilistic messages and bleak, pointless, or unjust endings. (I may not be quite fair when I say that, but there’s a reason I have this impression of literary fiction.)

I see the author of this post is conflating happy endings and pat endings. Well, she should cut that out. An ending does not need to be saccharine to be happy, just as a character does not need to be one-dimensional in order to be a good guy.

This post specifically refers to In the Woods as a book with a dark or ambiguous ending. Great choice! Here is my personal reaction to In the Woods. If you click through and read the linked post, you will find that I specifically think this was a terrible, horrible, awful, repugnant ending. However, the book itself is beautifully written at the sentence level even though we never solve the central mystery and the killer gets away with everything, and I guess this somehow works for quite a lot of readers. It is still a terrible, horrible, awful, repugnant ending.

B) For crying out loud, yes, you have to provide a resolution, and it needs to be a satisfying resolution. I mean a resolution of a whole story arc, not necessarily of a specific novel in the series.

How can that even be a question? I guess I’ll click through to the post and see what the author says about this.

Here is the basic conclusion:  Something has to occur that will give your readers the feeling of satisfaction that the journey was worth the investment of their valuable time and money.

Yes, that’s what I said, basically. Yes, you have to have a resolution. That’s not the same as a happy ending. The post continues with suggestions about how to be sure you include a resolution. Consider ending with a moment of insight. Your character has gone through an internal metamorphosis that causes her to learn an important life-lesson. Her growth throughout the story leads up to this emotional insight that makes her a better or at least changed individual. This is all very well, but this also illustrates why I don’t think suggestions are particularly helpful, as a rule. Include a moment of insight, sure, great idea. Let me add that this insight had better emerge organically from the character and the story, and it would be nice if it is consistent with some central theme. There you go, now that this has been suggested, you’ll certainly find that kind of ending easier to achieve.

Granted, I do that by feel, the same way I do almost everything. Maybe other writers do outline the ending and make notes about the insight they plan to include and would find it helpful to actually think about how that insight emerges from the character and ties into some theme or other.

Okay, great endings! I have one. (I mean, other than Tasmakat’s ending, which I revised over and over and am still very happy with.)

My very first pick for outstanding ending: The Scholomance trilogy by Naomi Novik.

Another superb ending: The Phoenix Feather series by Sherwood Smith

Another: The Book of Atrix Wolfe by Patricia McKillip, who is not otherwise always known for truly sticking the landing, but I think she did in this one.

One more: The Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy by Martha Wells.

What books leap to your mind when you think of great endings?

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11 thoughts on “Sticking the Landing”

  1. The ending of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice/Sword/Mercy series was unexpected and extremely satisfying. Most of the story arc of the series is pretty grim, but the positive, or at least hopeful ending fits.

  2. Ann, I agree, and that’s a fine example of a trilogy where you’re like, How can this POSSIBLY work out? And then Leckie sticks that landing. Such an impressive trilogy.

  3. I was happy with how things wrapped up in the Queen’s Thief series, and in Kate Daniels (although that one has started up again).

    Still waiting to see how Wen Spencer does with the Elfhome books – it’ll be the first time she actually finishes a series, since she acknowledges that she wrote herself into a corner on her first one, and then the rights got screwed up on the next book she intended to continue on with.

  4. Loved the ending of Phoenix Feather! Queen’s Thief, too. And, yes, the Ancillary Justice trilogy had such a surprisingly satisfying ending. (I know people who didn’t like it because it wasn’t epic enough, but that was the whole point. Anyway.) All these series succeeded in gathering all the main and most of the side characters together, not tying everything up in a neat bow (well, Phoenix Feather is pretty tidy) but setting everyone in new workable relationships with each other and their world. So you can walk away and not have to worry about anyone!

    I finally read the Scholomance trilogy over the holidays, and yes, very satisfying ending, very well set up. But, again, I’ve talked to several people who were disappointed by the ending (the whole last book, some of them) because they were expecting something else. It’s not a standard fantasy Good Guys Defeat Bad Guys In Climactic Battle ending, by any means. And I liked it all the more for that. It relies very much on each character making a choice, and their choice mattering to the outcome. (I read the whole trilogy as a response to LeGuin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and was very happy with her treatment.)

    The Hands of the Emperor has a great come-full-circle, almost apotheosis ending (except maybe the opposite, because he’s rejoining his community, not rising away from it?) that effectively uses all the symbolism and resonance she’s been building throughout that long book.

  5. That was how A Diabolical Bargain tricked me.

    Even before I got to where I first planned to stop, I realized it was not the novelette it pretended to be. But I got there and my hero told me he was not happy.

    So I worked out what happened next and got him another ending. He still wasn’t happy.

    Third time, I finally got him happy.

  6. Oh, just remembered the Raven Cycle – I think liking the ending was part of why I am having trouble working up enthusiasm for the second set of books with them, because I liked where the first set left them.

  7. Is this the Raven Boys quadrilogy by Stiefvater? Because I’m not sure the ending of that worked for me all that well.

  8. All this talk about endings reminds me how nervous I am for The Book of Dust Volume 3…

    Can I recommend a graphic novel? I was really satisfied with the way Vattu by Evan Dahm ended. It’s a long story with lots of moving pieces and some difficult things happening, and I didn’t really see how it could come together into an ending that seemed just (to borrow Rachel’s term), but it did.

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