What makes a good story ending?

Having covered story beginnings and middles in previous blogs, it seems only natural to cover story endings. Whether a story ending is right or not can ultimately only be judged by the reader. If the ending is not consistent with the direction the story is taking the reader, they may well feel disappointed and let down. After all, the reader has invested his time, and emotional energy in the characters of the story.

So what makes a story ending consistent with the direction of the story? Ultimately it depends on the type of story and the expectation it generates about the ending. That isn’t to say the author can’t surprise the reader with an ending (a twist); but the twist ending should be consistent with the type of ending the reader expects.

In Christopher Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’, Booker discusses a ‘universal plot’ in which the conflict in any story revolves around a component of human nature symbolised by a ‘dark power’. How the hero/heroine responds to the ‘dark power’ determines the outcome of the story.  In the beginning of the story a hero or heroine is in some way undeveloped, frustrated or incomplete. In the middle of the story they fall under the shadow of some ‘dark power’. The ending depends on whether the hero learns to overcome his weakness, defeat the ‘dark power’ and reach his goal (positive ending); or whether he fails to change and ends in his own destruction (negative ending). Thus the universal plot is based on moral sense of justice.

The universal plot is easy to identify in many of the tragedies of Shakespeare: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. These were basically noble men whose tragic flaws led to their own destruction. Tragedies are less popular today, as Hollywood seems to have a preference for positive endings. In the positive ending, the hero overcomes his weaknesses, defeats the antagonist and achieves his goal, even if the rest of the cast die in the process (e.g. Alien).

In a recent Blog on Goodreads, many of the participants complained about Hollywood’s preference for ‘happy endings’ in many Sci Fi movies. The consensus seemed to be that Hollywod didn’t understand ‘real’ science fiction. Some eulogised over some of the more depressing endings provided by some dystopian Sci Fi literature. I can’t say I’ve read a lot of this type of  science fiction. But I think the role of science fiction is to entertain the reader and not to prophesy. China Mieville would seem to agree:

“I think the role of science fiction is not at all to prophesy. I think it is to tell interesting, vivid, strange stories that at their best are dreamlike intense versions and visions of today.”

Those movies that I have seen with depressing endings I have found disappointing. Most tanked at the box office (at least Hollywood understands money). Personally, I want to see endings that show the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the ending has to be ‘happy’. It may well be sad if that’s what fits the storyline.

For example, in Space Cowboys (2000) Corvin and Hawkins discover that the Soviet Communications satellite that is about to come out of orbit has six nuclear missiles onboard. To stop the missiles re-entering the rockets have to be fired manually. Hawkins fires the rockets and takes them to the moon. He saves the world and achieves his wish of going to the moon, only to die on the moon’s surface. Not exactly a ‘happy ending’, but a sad one, and the right one for the movie.

An author has to have a good beginning, a good middle and a good end to his story to satisfy his reader. A bad opening and the reader will not pick the book up. A bad middle and the reader will put the book down in the middle. A bad ending and he/she probably won’t look at a book from the same author again.

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