“I can’t figure out how to finish my novel. What should the ending be? Happy or sad?” —Nicky the Novelist
As with roller coasters, no one remembers how novels end. Sooner or later they just run out of gas. And pages. If it’s a mystery, they catch the killer. Or did they? Is anyone ever really caught? Until the next episode, maybe. Books are generally too long and too full of bullshit. And endings are usually cheap and too-cute. There are very few epiphanies in real life. No one in real life lives happily ever after. And love is never really the answer to all of anyone’s problems. It is, generally, an introduction to a bunch of new problems. But these days you have to be a novel, a graphic novel or a video game to be a movie. And everyone likes movies, even crappy movies.
Where ever you are in the writing of your latest book, even if you are on page 1, you are closer to the end than you think. Did I need seven 900-page books to tell me what I already know? That Arya Stark will sit on the Iron Throne as Queen of the World at the end of Game of Thrones? I didn’t. Even though I like reading George R. R. Martin books, they were definitely 900 pages I didn’t necessarily need to read. And could use if I ever got back. Do I really need a red herring plot about another Targaryen heir to the throne? I do not.
The best thing about writing novels is writing a bunch of novels. Narrators are basically perfect versions of ourselves who always say the smartest, funniest things. Who hopefully can have many different adventures, all the while keeping me off the streets. And hopefully get laid a lot more than I do in real life. What’s the point of having a fictional avatar if they just kind of hang out on the couch every night watching “NYPD Blue” re-runs? Like I mostly do? No one would really ever want to read a novel about a guy like me. A bookseller who dreams about lunch for half the day then naps when he gets home from work. And is still trying to beat the NBA Jam game on his phone. How does my story end? I probably get hit by a bus while jaywalking for some Chinese food. Worst ending ever! I didn’t even get to eat the food!
But even the most iconic endings in books and movies always seem less than what they could have been. I hate to break this to you. But Godot never comes in Waiting for Godot. I hope you weren’t waiting too long. You can tell the difference between literature and popular culture in how things end. Terrible endings: literature. Good guys winning: Avengers movie. Anti-hero letting the love of his life get away for the 2nd time? Casablanca. Loves don’t come around every day. But it makes sense that he lets her walk. He’s kind of old and bitter. And I guess wants to get back to that whole old and bitter lifestyle. He just wants to give her some big long speech. That is definitely real. And as a guy who loves to break up with people before they break up with me, well played!
Don’t kill your characters off at the end. That’s weak. It’s the easy way out. When people die in real life, it represents nothing and just is normally cruel and horrible. In books and movies, death is a sign that they can’t figure out how to end someone’s story. And they think they can make everybody else’s story more interesting by killing someone off. This happens a lot in teen movies, now. Someone’s got cancer, but then the other kid dies. It is shocking and stupid and is nothing like real life, when people die of pizza burns to the tops of their mouths. Novelists and screenwriters are not authors, they’re custodians of the way things really are. Very rarely would the ending of Hamlet, a big pile of dead bodies, be something that happens in real life. But after three and a half hours something has to happen in that play or audience members would start killing cast members just to break up the boredom.
Do not go for complicated denouements. I once wondered what happened to everyone I went to middle school with. Most of them fell in love, got married, had a few kids and got divorced. A solid narrative arc. We’re all of the right age to have all of that happen. I fell in love a bunch of times and instead of getting married just got tacos. Way better! I still would like to meet someone great, but I still mostly want tacos. I am a static character, like Candide. The best of all possible worlds involves tacos, almost definitely.
And don’t get too cute! I hate that. There are two kind of endings: unsatisfactory and set-up for a sequel. A sequel is always good, because that’s more movies or seasons on HBO. There’s nothing good about unsatisfactory endings. Like you’re building and building to something and then, instead of a resolution that fits most of the problems you’ve presented, there’s just an image of me eating a taco. How many secretaries died when the Death Star blew up? A lot. That place was huge. And all they did was show up to work. Think about that! And you cheered!
A better ending for the Star Wars trilogy would have been Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker he was only kidding. He wasn’t really his dad. He was just messing with him. You can’t please everybody but you can continue to bullshit your way through. And isn’t that the greatest ending of all?
Jim Behrle lives in Jersey City and his story never ends.