What's The Value Of A Great Ending?

In art school, when building your portfolio they tell you to start strong, end even stronger, and bury any weaknesses in the center. Opening strong gives a good first impression and encourages interest, and closing strong is vital because the ending is what people remember most when they walk away. For me, and I would wager for most, the same is true of books. And since it takes a great deal longer to read a book  than to flip through a portfolio, a strong ending becomes even more important.

A great ending is one that makes sense but manages to be unexpected. Something that feels earned, that effortlessly ties together everything up to that point. Even better is an ending that you never saw coming, but when you look back on the book it's all right there, and you kick yourself for not having figured it out.

I’ve been thinking about this art school lesson a lot, because I've recently read several books that I liked very much, until I got to their endings. Without discussing any spoilers or getting too specific, the four books that prompted these thoughts were: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and Divergent by Veronica Roth.

Each of these books have a particularly fantastic premise that drew me in immediately. In fact, I’d say that these four books have some of the best hooks of any of the books I’ve read in the last year. In brief:

The Night Circus: Two gifted magicians locked against their will in an elaborate battle of talent, strategy, and endurance.

The Knife of Never Letting Go: A world full of endless noise in which one boy finds a girl filled with silence.

Divergent: A dystopian society segregated into classes where a young girl breaks ranks with everything she knows for a different life.

Gone Girl: A ‘he said, she said’ tale of a husband and wife and the dramatic tragedy that befalls their marriage.

All are compelling premises filled with potential. They passed that first art school lesson with ease. Then came the endings.

While trying to write about what didn’t work for me without spoiling these books, I found it was easier to talk about three ending types that I have enjoyed in the past, and how each of these books could have been so much better had they followed suit.

The Ending That Changes Everything

And I don’t mean one of those endings that comes out of nowhere and makes no sense. I mean those endings that make complete sense and feel completely earned yet make you think differently about everything that came before, and maybe even make you think beyond the pages of the book. These kind of endings are rare, but so fantastically rewarding when you get them. One of the best examples I can think of is Robert Matheson’s I Am Legend, which is an okay book that has such a killer ending that it elevates everything that came before and gives an entirely new spin to everything you thought you knew. Though I was never blown away by I Am Legend until the end, I will never forget that ending, and thus the book has lodged itself in my brain permanently.  Perhaps unfairly this is the kind of ending I had hoped for in both Flynn’s Gone Girl and Morgenstern's The Night Circus. Both books are structurally very interesting, filled with beautiful prose, and powerful mysteries lie at the center of each. But in both cases the endings began to feel like foregone conclusions, and not particularly compelling ones. I kept hoping that both Flynn and Morgenstern had an ace up their respective sleeves – a final trick that would reveal everything to be not quite what it seemed – but in the end there were no aces, and one ending was incredibly unsatisfying for both the main characters and readers while the other held no surprises in a book that should have been all about surprise. 

The Slow Devastating Build

Some books have endings that are obvious from the outset but still manage to make that ending absolutely devastating thanks to a combination of powerful writing and investment in characters. In Daniel Keyes’s Flowers For Algernon, you can see the ending coming a mile away, but that doesn’t keep me from crying my eyes out every time I read it.  Flowers For Algernon is so emotionally investing that you spend all your energy and time praying that it will go another way, even as you know that it cannot, because it would be disingenuous of the book to do so. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has a similar foregone conclusion that kills as it delivers what you pray it won’t. Patrick Ness's The Knife Of Never Letting Go had all the potential to be a book with a slow devastating build, but the ending, even though it was expected, couldn't live up to what Ness had set up. Ness's antagonist was crafted to be a truly epic villain, pursuing our heroes almost impossibly throughout the novel, and in the end that conflict resolved itself with a whimper rather than the requisite bang needed. And after that whimper the attempt to raise the stakes for the next part of the series ended up feeling tacked on and frustrating.

The Smart Series Set Up

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins does not have the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read, but I found the plotting and characters riveting, and the ending seamlessly tied up the conflict and sufficiently raised the stakes for future installments. I hate buying hardcover books (curse you dust jackets!) but when I finished my paperback copy of Hunger Games I immediately went out and bought both Catching Fire and Mockingjay, stupid dust jackets and all. Divergent already had a second book out when I finished the first, but the lackluster ending, newly raised plot threads, and characters I didn’t care about did nothing to compel me to buy it (and certainly not a dust jacketed hardcover). Where The Hunger Games effortlessly hinted at where the rest of the series would go with smart world-building and solid character development, Divergent just dropped readers at the end with a conflict that leads to an even bigger one, in addition to a protagonist that was hard to root for. 

In the end, I still like all four of these books. There were a lot of powerful and beautiful things about each of them, but I confess that, based solely on lackluster endings that didn’t deliver on their potential, I’d rate them all a full star lower than what they could have earned. On the whole what I remember most are those endings. And disappointment.

So how important is the ending to you? Does a mediocre one ruin the whole book for you or just diminish it slightly? What’s your favorite kind of ending and what are some books you would say have poor endings, or great ones?

Image of Flowers for Algernon
Author: Daniel Keyes
Price: $8.60
Publisher: Mariner Books (2005)
Binding: Paperback, 336 pages
Image of 1984
Author: George Orwell
Price: $10.47
Publisher: Berkley (2003)
Binding: Paperback, 368 pages
Image of The Hunger Games (Book 1)
Author: Suzanne Collins
Price: $7.69
Publisher: Scholastic Press (2010)
Binding: Paperback, 384 pages
Image of I Am Legend (SF Masterworks)
Author: Richard Matheson
Price:
Publisher: Gollancz (2010)
Binding: Paperback, 162 pages
Kelly Thompson

Column by Kelly Thompson

Kelly Thompson is the author of two crowdfunded self-published novels. The Girl Who Would be King (2012), was funded at over $26,000, was an Amazon Best Seller, and has been optioned by fancy Hollywood types. Her second novel, Storykiller (2014), was funded at nearly $58,000 and remains in the Top 10 most funded Kickstarter novels of all time. She also wrote and co-created the graphic novel Heart In A Box (2015) for Dark Horse Comics.

Kelly lives in Portland Oregon and writes the comics A-Force, Hawkeye, Jem & The Holograms, Misfits, and Power Rangers: Pink. She's also the writer and co-creator of Mega Princess, a creator-owned middle grade comic book series. Prior to writing comics Kelly created the column She Has No Head! for Comics Should Be Good.

She's currently managed by Susan Solomon-Shapiro of Circle of Confusion.

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Comments

Pearl Griffin_2's picture
Pearl Griffin_2 from Portland, Oregon is reading Les Miserables September 17, 2012 - 2:42pm

Endings are extremely important, and I hate to read an amazing book that just fizzles out. Neil Gaiman has a tendency to come up with great premises for his books that then end in unsatisfyig ways. I was disappointed in both American Gods and The Graveyard Book for this reason. Another book I read recently that was decent up until the end was Run by Ann Patchett--it had good potential and then just skipped five years into the future to show the aftermath of grief instead of the grief itself. I was actually angry upon finishing it because I felt like I wasted my time. 

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like September 17, 2012 - 3:38pm

I think endings are important. If I get to the end, it means I've liked the book enough to finish it, so I'd already say it's a good book. But, for me, the ending is often the single most indentifiable factor which can make a good experience into a great experience.

Jane Wiseman's picture
Jane Wiseman from Danville Virginia is reading News of the World, by Paulette Jiles September 17, 2012 - 4:28pm

Agree about "Night Circus"--beautiful, compelling buildup and then pffffft.

1979semifinalist's picture
1979semifinalist from California but living in NYC is reading Joe Hill's NOS4A2 September 17, 2012 - 7:09pm

@Pearl Griffin_2:  You know, I love American Gods, but you're right that the ending is not as good as everything that comes before.  Also, I've been staring at Ann Patchett's Run on my shelf unread for over a year - you just helped me decide to never read it - thank you!

@J.Y.: Exactly, that was so me with I AM LEGEND

@Jane Wiseman: Yeah, my disappointment with Night Circus was epic. So sad.

JonnyGibbings's picture
JonnyGibbings September 17, 2012 - 10:38pm

Speilburg once said that if you can still shock people, or deliver something truly unexpected in the last seven minutes of a film, when they have been sat for an hour and a half - you have gold.

Prose is one aspect of writing, sure - some can write pretty. For me it takes no prescient over the craft of story telling. A good ending is key I think. A bad ending can kill a book. The two companies who wanted to make the film of my book - both said the ending is what ciliated it.