On Perfect Endings

May 27, 2011 § 18 Comments

I’m actually using the term ‘perfect ending’ in a negative way. By this I mean the type of ending where the long-suffering protagonist not only gets her dream but actually she gets everything she could possibly dream of. Everything. EVERYTHING.

For example. Let’s spin a romance. Hettie Bags is a lowly office worker who dreams of meeting the perfect man. Mr. Right. He’ll be charming, gorgeous, successful, well-off, loyal, loving, caring and a great husband and father. He’ll be confident and socially adept as well as sweet and generous with presents. He can fix a computer, put up a shelf, weed the garden, wash the dishes and cook the dinners with ease, and he’ll probably do all these things all the time.

Most people would have to accept that Mr. Right will come with fewer of these attributes, and importantly they’ll also have to accept that it’s okay if he does. More than okay. Mr. Right doesn’t have to be perfect.

But not Hettie Bags. She’ll proceed through a series of obstacles which will test her faith and resilience and ingenuity and then at the end she will get Mr. Right. And he’ll be perfect. Not just charming but devastatingly charming. Not just gorgeous but Apollo in mortal form. Not just well-off but fabulously rich. It may have seemed like he was an arrogant, heartless bastard in a business suit, but actually he’s a complete darling. Really. Off they go into the sunset, not riding a white horse but instead tucked up snugly in a private jet. Hettie Bags gets her dream, magnified beyond all notions of the probable.

We could try to get round the unutterable, withering crapness of this by giving Hettie Bags an apparently unconquerable prejudice towards snappily-suited business professionals with private jets, but her personal journey to overcoming her aversion to impossible wealth wouldn’t really cut it. It’s not a believable drawback to have to put with being rich.

This is the sort of book I can’t stand. I like uplifting, but this type of tale is absurd. If a book draws to a close that requires no sacrifices on the part of the protagonist, no losses of any kind, nor even any compromises, then for me it completely fails. I can’t even begin to believe in it.

I do like happy endings, the sort where most things turn out more or less well for most people. The ultimate goals are achieved, and most people get to go home and tend the cabbage beds. Perfect endings, though, are intolerable. They don’t mesh with any vision of reality, so as a reader it’s impossible to connect with them. When Lizzie Bennet finally accepted Mr. Darcy’s proposal, she certainly ended up with a fabulously rich, important, intelligent, good-hearted, good-looking husband, but he was also essentially still a proud bastard with some insufferable family connections. And in those days, becoming the chatelaine of a house like Pemberley was a demanding, full-time job for which riches and comfort may or may not have wholly made up. It’s a happy ending veering towards the perfect but it has enough drawbacks to be believable. It’s a sort of wish-fulfilment story without being blind to the inevitable fact that everything has a downside.

Drawbacks are necessary because they’re always there. Nothing in life is perfect. We all have to compromise, take the negatives with the positives and find ways to focus on the things that make us happy. If we aren’t willing to do that, we don’t deserve to expect anybody to take us as we are, imperfections and all. I think the species of fiction that offers the perfect-ending-without-drawback is even a bit dangerous; I know a few people who seem to expect life to turn out that way – happiness isn’t true happiness unless your life is completely perfect – and who are therefore permanently miserable. Stories like this feed expectations that you can reasonably expect to have everything, and until you do your life isn’t really worth much.

In place of Hettie Bags’s story, I’d rather read about someone convinced she wants a rich husband, but who ultimately turns down that opportunity in favour of the untidy but earnest and hard-working cabbage farmer. Or the shy but loyal computer technician. That would be a far more believable story because it offers sacrifices as well as gains, and it charts the growth of the main character.

Or better yet, Hettie will ride off into the sunset with the jet-setting business guy, only to find he actually is a heartless bastard after all. Or all his apparent wealth is a lie, and he’s really a charlatan. Or a criminal. Or all of those things. Tragic, but infinitely more believable.

It’s possibly these sorts of opinions that make it quite hard for me to write happy endings, let alone perfect ones. Much as I love levity, I find it surprisingly tricky to draw a story to a comfortably jolly close. I always start veering sharply in the direction of tragedy. It’s possible that writing whatever comes out of one’s muddled brain is an interesting, if disarmingly informative, way of discovering some home truths about oneself. If one daren’t really expect to encounter happy endings in real life, it’s hard to believe in them when writing. I suppose this is rather the opposite of the attitude that might lead a person to write perfect endings. I’m hoping my opinion of the likelihood of happy will change in time, but for now it seems my poor characters are in for a beating every time.

What’s your opinion of a ‘good’ ending? I suppose I’d ideally aim for a balance. The ending must resolve the major problems of the book, and unless one is writing a full-blown tragedy (which I don’t wish to do) then many/most of those resolutions should be essentially satisfactory, with some particularly good outcomes. But there must also be losses. Not everyone can have everything they’d hoped for; that doesn’t work. You’ve got to send some characters home unhappy in order to produce a story that readers can really believe in.

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§ 18 Responses to On Perfect Endings

  • Ellie F says:

    Dear Charlotte

    I agree with you about satisfactory endings. Totally happy ones are completely unbelievable because life just isn’t like that. Yes, a story can be escapist, but to keep my interest, it must also have that believability (is that a word?).
    Incidentally, I’m intrigued by the Hettie Bags (I think her name is fantastic) storyline – who does she fall for? what is her back story? What other issues does she have to deal with? Can we please have a novel about her?
    Ellie F

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Ellie. Glad it’s not just me. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just being… I don’t know, picky. Hard to please. Maybe that, as well.

      Hettie Bags was spun in the space of five seconds so I don’t know the answer to those questions… but if she’s interesting, maybe I’ll file her away for later use. Thanks!

      🙂

  • TL Jeffcoat says:

    Great blog. I completely agree with the whole projecting yourself onto the story thing. There should never be an perfect ending like this. Not even spoofs or comedies. Issue resolved is a must but without sacrifice it ruins the entire story which should involve conflict and sacrifice. That’s what draws a reader in. My endings are focused towards balance. Makes the reader satisfied and yet leaves the story open for a series if more ideas come later to continue it.

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi, thanks for visiting! You make a good point about open endings. I’ve written here as if book endings are always the end to the story, which of course isn’t true. How to write a good ending for a book that will have a sequel is a different task, one that I’ve been tackling lately. It must resolve enough of the driving questions of the book to, as you say, leave the reader satisfied, but open up some more questions/leave a couple of unresolved questions to move into the next book. It’s a delicate art.

  • mapelba says:

    A perfect ending for me isn’t about how impossibly happy my character is. The perfect ending fits with the story, leaves a mark in the readers thoughts, maybe even makes the reader want to read the story again… I write endings that are happy-ish. The main character gets something she wants or needs, but it doesn’t come free.

    Funny, I just watched Pride & Prejudice yesterday. Elizabeth will spend her life reminding her husband to be sociable and Darcy will spend years enduring Elizabeth’s mother.

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Mapelba. Happy-ish sounds about right to me. Walking the middle road is sometimes a balancing act but I tend to prefer those kinds of endings to either extreme.

      Haha, that’s a nice encapsulation of the post-Pride & Prejudice story. Think of all the hundreds (thousands?) of sequels to Pride & Prejudice that have been written which abominably complicate that essential situation. I don’t read them anymore because the few I attempted ended up becoming hideously melodramatic. That’s me wandering off on a tangent so yeah… anyway… thanks for the comment!

  • This question is a hard one for me to answer because I’ve loved perfect endings, merely happy endings, tragic endings, confusing endings, and even abrupt endings that left me desperate for something more. In general, I want resolution (in other words, usually I want a conclusion), but I’m not absolute on that.

    For example, Roberto Bolaño is famous not only for plots that defy understanding for hundreds of pages; even his endings are somewhat mysterious (see “2666”). Tolstoy tended to intermix tragedy and happiness (and what some might interpret as bits of perfection) in his endings. “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace” are both good examples of this tendency. I couldn’t believe the perfect ending Dickens gave to David Copperfield in the novel of the same name! Yet I enjoyed that book.

    So, I don’t know if that’s an answer. 🙂 Good post and good question, though!

    • Charlotte says:

      Hello Atoms.. (it will do in lieu of a name I suppose?) – thank you for visiting!

      Resolution’s an apt word to use, and it’s fair to point out that a suitable resolution depends on the nature of the book. Then again, the examples you relate are examples of very high quality storytelling from master authors. I think the tendency to produce suspiciously sparkling endings that are ‘happy’ to the point of absurdity (and which do not necessarily make sense) is a trap poorer novelists tend to fall into. (That’s a nice, sweeping generalisation I made there…). If anyone can pull of a ‘perfect’ ending I’d expect it to be Dickens!

  • Lissa says:

    Although I’ve loved my fair share of happy endings, I’m of the opinion there are too many out there. They create unrealistic expectations within readers. My favorite series growing up was the Animorphs series

    SPOILERS
    which ended really sadly because it was all about war, and the consequences of war on children (such as death, PTSD and redeeming oneself).
    END SPOILERS

    And if the heroine in your hypothetical romance gets exactly what she’s after, then sure she’s faced a lot of conflict, but where exactly has she changed and grown as a person?
    One of the reasons I wanted to write my own series was to present an ‘unperfect’ ending.

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Lissa,

      They do create unrealistic expectations. As a form of escapism it’s a bad idea because it really does allow a person to escape altogether from the idea that life doesn’t work out perfectly for anybody. You can spend your days in a happy daydream where it’s quite reasonable to sit about waiting for Prince Charming to show up and give you everything you want. I despise that sort of passive, blinkered approach to life.

      I also think they’re unsatisfying. For an ending to really remain with me, there has to be some sense of sacrifice and loss as well as gain. Otherwise it sort of slides off and I barely remember the book a week later. I read your first page yesterday btw and it looks good. Add an unperfect ending and I’m intrigued. When are you planning to release it? (By the way how do you think this ‘open critique’ thing is working out for you? I notice from scanning the comments that a lot are possibly missing a few points quite spectacularly. Have you had much useful feedback?)

  • Jessica says:

    While I don’t find completely happy endings absolutely impossible to believe, I prefer a bit more melodrama than that. When I finish a book, I consider it’s ending perfect if you’re still wrapped up enough in the characters to feel like their world is still continuing even after you shut the book. On the other hand, if everything is left drab and full of loss, then I feel like the author just failed to show up for the final act. It’s not the happy ending nor the loss but the journey that reached those things. It’s the fights that were forgiven, the grief and anger that was overcome–it’s that journey. We want to know more about the kind of people who can come face to face with an obstacle and overcome it. We don’t care what the obstacle is, but the who and the how.

    At least that’s what I like to get from a “perfect ending.” 🙂 He-he.

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Jessica,

      Ah, melodrama. I hate it, on the surface, but at the same time I confess to also liking endings that skim fairly close to that – as long as they’re balanced out with sufficient uplifting resolutions to prevent it becoming maudlin. Or, one may say… emo.

      I’m interested in the notion that it’s the ‘overcoming the obstacle’ that’s the most important part, irrespective of the nature of the obstacle itself. That ties in with Lissa’s comment about growth of the characters. I know there are long, violent debates about character-driven versus plot-driven books but I’m squarely in the character camp myself, so I have to agree. It’s always the progress of the protagonists that grabs me, and perhaps that’s why the impossibly shining ending always misses the mark in my mind – that’s as much a case of the author failing to show up for the final act as the opposite. I suppose we’ve argued ourselves around to the conclusion that good endings are seriously tricky and requires a feat of balancing the good against the bad… no pressure or anything. Haha.

  • I can only say that the ending must realistically fit the story and characters. I have never finished a book and thought, “That’s just wrong”. I will say(and maybe I’ve mentioned this before) that as I was approaching the end of Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay”, I put it down with 10 pages to go simply because I did not want the book to end.

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Scott, glad to hear you’ve never been seriously put off by an ending. I have, on occasion, though it doesn’t happen often…. so I guess I should stop panicking about it.

      Have to say I’ve never heard of anyone refusing to read the ending because you want it to go on forever. That’s highly interesting. I’ve certainly felt that some books end too soon and I want to hear more about what happens after the immediate resolution of the primary problems… so I put it down feeling vaguely unsatisfied. If you put the book down, do you get the feeling that it’s still going on? Just curious. And do you ever make up your own ending, or continuation of the story? I do that sometimes if I really felt there wasn’t enough of a conclusion. Ha.

  • DarcKnyt says:

    I think I see a couple of things here. First, you’ve chosen a horrible genre for this example. One of the few fiction genres which has set, must-happen standards is romance. They are the most formulaic, predictable and impossible stories and each and every one of them must meet particular standards or it:

    1) Won’t be published
    2) Won’t be well-received by fans of that genre

    That’s the first thing. The second thing I notice is, not all writers and readers have the same mentality. For your readers, they will come to expect less-than-happy endings, or endings which can be interpreted either way, or endings which don’t deny the goal to the protagonist but don’t fulfill the dreams thereof either. But readers of other authors, like Mapelba’s readers, for example, will come to expect a happier tone at the ending. Neither are “wrong” but they appeal to different readerships.

    I like to mix mine up. I like some to be surprisingly happy, others to be tragic, some to leave the reader going “WTF? The hero goes through all of THAT just for THIS?!” And I like the idea that my readers won’t know what to expect from my ending. If it’s a series, the only thing they should expect is that I don’t kill off the central character.

    “Perfect” is certainly in the eye of the beholder, and like Mapelba, my definition of “perfect” defines how it resolves and fits with the tone, flow and theme of the story.

    Great food for thought though. As usual, you’re thought-provoking and brilliantly expressed. 🙂

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Darc,

      How true about romance. I picked it because it’s absolutely the worst offender for this that I’ve come across (which is partly why I don’t read romance novels I guess). Which leads me to the next point, I suppose… it’s not that I think marshmallow endings are ‘wrong’ – certainly some people like them – but I do think they can be mildly dangerous, especially when people read very little or nothing else. That’s a symptom of the fact that people are (I think) heavily influenced by stories. Some more than others of course. But I’m veering into a rather leaden discussion of the impact of fiction on society and that’s an entirely different topic. So I’ll stop there 😀

      I like the idea of being Unpredictable! It’s certainly fun to play with different types of endings. I actually think that one of the hardest to do well is the tragic ending. It’s very easy to slide into an ending that’s not tragic but merely miserable. I think in order to pull its weight, a tragedy has to have some meaning; killing off your main character, for example, doesn’t work if it doesn’t say something. Having your hero strive manfully against almost insuperable odds only to fall at the last hurdle because his opponent is merely stronger… that’s flat because it just feels like an anticlimax. Having the hero die at the end because he loses his personal battle with some internal, self-destructive flaw… that’s different. It has pathos.

      Rambling, rambling. Anyway. Thanks for reading & taking up the discussion! Great comments as usual.

  • RFW says:

    But “happy ending” is all relative, isn’t it? The “satisfying” ending appeals to me – with some resolution, rather than the possibilities.

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi RFW,

      I’d sooner say ‘happy endings’ should be relative; the ones I dislike are the ones that aren’t. Everything ends up so neatly perfect, nothing is unresolved, nothing is disappointing or even a little bit sad. It’s happy happy happy all the way, for everybody. Dull.

      ‘Satisfying’ is a good word; for me it denotes an ending that leaves you feeling like you’ve been somewhere that mattered and witnessed something at least a little bit important.

      Thanks for commenting!

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