I’ve been giving a lot of writing advice lately. On Sunday I talked to you about the difficulty of writing beginnings in fiction, and last night I gave you some thoughts on finding conflict in a story idea. As I work on revising some recent short projects of mine (details will be coming on my email newsletter in a few days) I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the process and craft of writing. Tonight we’re going to deal with endings: climaxes and denouements in stories. In my own mind I usually call this portion of a story the “finale,” meaning both the dramatic/story climax, and then the tying up of whatever “business” remains to be done after the climax is over. “Finale” is used more in show business, especially to describe the last big number of a musical or the end of a TV series season, but I think the concept works here.
You could say I’m a strong believer in endings. Most of my stories are written around the finale: it’s the part of the story I plan first, and that everything else builds up to. I sometimes hear authors say, “I have no idea how a story is going to end when I begin writing it.” While I don’t doubt that happens a lot, I simply can’t fathom it. To me, starting a story without a clear idea of what the ending will be is like taking off in a plane without having decided what airport you’re going to land at, or a surgeon cutting open a patient without knowing which organ he or she is going to operate on. “Oh, I think I’ll do a triple bypass today!” isn’t something your doctor says after you’re on the table with a rib spreader stuck in your chest. You may not know precisely which blood vessels to pinch off, but you’d better have an idea what you’re doing before you start.
The famous ending of the film Gone With The Wind (1939) is pretty faithful to the novel. This is a strong example of a story that absolutely must end this way.
That said, it is true that a good climax must grow organically out of a story. The end result of a story is baked into its fundamental DNA. As an author you must gain a sense, which is almost preternatural, of where a story “should” end. In Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell, for example, the story must end with Rhett Butler leaving Scarlett O’Hara. The way Scarlett is built as a character, the relationship Mitchell builds between them, the obstacles to the stability of their love–ultimately insurmountable–make a “happy” ending impossible for this story. This accounts for the artistic and critical failure of the 1991 novel Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley, a sequel to Gone With The Wind officially licensed by Mitchell’s heirs. Once Rhett dumps Scarlett there’s nowhere else for the story to go. Ripley ignored this basic truth of Gone With The Wind at her peril. It didn’t work (though it did “move units,” in sales parlance).
But even if you know where the story should end, you can still botch it. A really great example for studying endings is Jaws. Almost everybody knows Jaws from the 1975 Steven Spielberg movie of it, which is justifiably a classic, but I want to talk first about the 1974 novel Jaws, written by Peter Benchley, on which it’s based. Jaws presents a uniquely insoluble story problem: figuring out how to do the ending right is extraordinarily difficult. Jaws is a fairly simple story, based loosely on a true incident, involving a great white shark that terrorizes a stretch of beach where there happens to be a summer resort community. The repeated shark attacks present an existential crisis for the town. Great set-up. But how do you bring this story to a satisfactory end?
It’s not hard to tell where this story should end: the shark must ultimately be destroyed. But note what we have here: an antagonist (the shark) that’s basically a force of nature, which has no conscience and whose actions are morally blameless. “To be enraged with a dumb thing is blasphemy,” says a character in Moby-Dick (clearly a literary progenitor of Jaws). That’s just the problem. After going around for the whole book killing people, including a 6-year-old boy, and nearly destroying the town, what vengeance can a human being wreak on a fish that will be morally and dramatically satisfying to an audience–who is emotionally invested in the characters and the situation, and who will demand that investment be adequately recompensed at the end of the story? It’s my understanding that most sharks are caught, as many fish are, on hooks and lines. Hooking the shark and hauling it out of the water, like a swordfish or tuna, just isn’t going to work as a climax for this story.
The original book Jaws by Peter Benchley, published in 1974, presents an unusually difficult story problem regarding endings. Benchley did not get it right the first time, but got a second chance.
When he wrote the book in 1974, Peter Benchley was unable to solve this problem. The book Jaws is actually very strange. In parts it’s very gripping, but it’s also padded with a lot of unnecessary filler, including an utterly pointless subplot involving an affair between oceanographer Matt Hooper and the wife of the protagonist, Chief Martin Brody. At the very end of the book, tacked on almost as an epilogue, is the “hunt” for the shark, directed by Quint, a veteran shark fisherman. At the end of this hunt, while the shark wrecks his boat, Quint gets entangled in the ropes of a harpoon he’s plunged into the shark. The shark pulls him under but eventually succumbs to its wounds, and Brody watches the shark sink into the depths with Quint’s body following it down. Brody, like Ishmael in Moby-Dick, is the sole survivor, and he swims back to shore.
Despite the general strength of the story, this ending just doesn’t work. Harpooning the shark is better than catching it on a hook and line, but it still feels incredibly meh, and adding the Moby-Dick element of Quint getting tangled in the lines (the same thing happens to Ahab in Moby-Dick) doesn’t help much. But in Benchley’s defense, it’s a tough, tough problem. I can imagine him staring at his typewriter in infinite fury before trying to write the ending of Jaws, and the one that’s there feels tacked-on. You can imagine Benchley’s editor calling saying, “Peter, when will that last chapter be done?” and he just threw something on the page to be done with it.
The ending of the film version of Jaws (1975) is an improvement on the book’s, but something still feels not quite right about it–possibly the fact that it’s physically impossible.
When Jaws was made into a movie the next year, 1975, Benchley got another chance at the ending. He worked with screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, and he (plus director Steven Spielberg) collectively arrived at the famous climax of the film. In this version, Brody somehow manages to toss a compressed air tank (!) in the shark’s mouth, then fires at it with a rifle. Scoring a direct hit, the shark literally explodes. This is an utterly ludicrous ending–the physics, for starters, are impossible–but at least it’s much more satisfying than the book’s ending. Movies operate on different rules than books; a film ending must not only be dramatically sound, but visually spectacular. In creating the new ending, Spielberg is reported to have said, over Benchley’s objections to the new idea, “I want them [the audience] on their feet screaming!” As logically silly as it is, the explosion of the shark is emotionally satisfying. It’s still not a perfect ending, but Jaws is so difficult a story problem that it may be the best ending possible.
There is a kind of strange magic mojo to endings that’s tough to figure out and resists the application of easy rules–like much else when it comes to good fiction writing. My best advice for endings is, plan ahead, way ahead, and be sensitive to what “feels” right and what doesn’t. When in doubt, write several versions and give different endings out to different test readers to see how they react. But always remember, the ending is likely to be the thing your readers will remember most about your story after they’ve put it down. It has the potential to make or break you. Be careful and, as always, good luck.