Saturday, March 5, 2016

Two Marks of a Good Ending

At the beginning of a recent webinar, the host invited us to submit questions for the presenter (writing coach Jerry Jenkins) to answer at the end. When we reached the Q&A period, our host said we had an overwhelming number of questions about endings. Many of us felt that our stories ended poorly, and we hoped Jerry could give us some pointers for improvement.

After a moment's pause, Jerry said, "Oh, my. That deserves a webinar in itself. We'll have to deal with endings another time." I could imagine the collective groan in cyberspace. This wasn't the kind of ending we expected for the webinar!

My wife felt that way at the end of many a TV drama. After an hour of plot twists and complications, the final credits would suddenly begin to roll. She would reach for the remote and growl, "I can't believe they left things hanging like that!"

In all fairness, endings are not easy. At one time or another, all of us have been tempted to try the escape hatch that some of my fourth-grade classmates used when we were assigned to write short stories. One after another put themselves in an impossible situation, facing imminent death, so that we were all on the edges of our seats. "Then I woke up," they would say, "The End!" (Our teacher banned that ending after the third or fourth time it was used.)

So what does a good ending look like? How will we know we've brought our narrative aircraft in for a smooth landing? Ansen Dibell notes that a good ending will have these two characteristics:

  1. It is fitting. "The characters seem to have gotten the ending they deserved by their actions during the story, for good or ill."
  2. It is definite. "The story's resolution is clear, appropriate, and decisive. It's really over." (Dibell, The Plot, 136-39).

This doesn't mean every loose end will be tied up, but the Problem that drives all of the action will be resolved--at least for now. It  may not mean the protagonist gets what our readers hope she will get, but if not, they will understand how she got this outcome. And it may not leave our readers feeling happy, but it should leave them satisfied. "In a given story, [if] you have to choose between happy and satisfying, choose satisfying," Dibell advises. "It lasts longer" (137).

Joe Allison has been a member of the Indiana Chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers since 2010. He lives in Anderson, IN.

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