Whenever you write, whatever you write, never make the mistake of assuming the audience is any less intelligent than you are.
— Rod Serling
Last evening I had a discussion with members of the book club at the Albert Campbell Branch of the Toronto Public Library. One of the many interesting questions from one of these readers was about the ending to my short story “Porcelain Doll” from Beyond the Tripping Point. And the ensuing discussion got me thinking.
I’ve blogged about the beginning and middle of short stories and novels, but endings are just as important for the writer and especially the reader. You want to have your readers hanging onto every word of your story but you don’t want to disappoint them in the end. That doesn’t necessarily mean a main character shouldn’t die but…
Let’s look at endings. Without completely spoiling the ending of “Porcelain Doll,” when the protagonist Sarah Holden is reunited with her father she has mixed feelings – relief, love – lots of heavy emotions – but when she sees him being led out in handcuffs and sees ”a glimmer of the old Daddy in his eyes,” she shudders. (Copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford Beyond the Tripping Point)
The book club member and I explored this ending where Sarah Holden has these mixed feelings about reconnecting with a father who for years she thought was dead because of her, a father who was a nasty piece of goods in that he was verbally abusive to her and especially to her mother. But he had one redeeming quality – he loved his daughter. He found it difficult to express his love so did the one thing he thought would please her – try to win a big porcelain doll through a poker game.
This ending works because it brings out the mixed feelings Sarah has for her father. If she completely forgave him and ignored the pain he caused her, particularly for deserting her and her mother which left her with feelings of guilt, it wouldn’t be realistic. His arrest is minutes after she is reunited with him so she has little time to digest all that happened and is happening. Perhaps if it was a few years after the reunion and Daddy and Sarah got to know each other…maybe.
What can we learn about endings?
1. They must be logical and follow through with the plot and characters.
2. That point doesn’t eliminate surprise endings but again the plot and characters must point towards what happens in the surprise. Killing off a bad character or even a superfluous one because the author can’t figure any other way to deal with him or her doesn’t work. Killing off a bad character in a “shoot-out” type of scene might work if the antagonist corners the protagonist and it is a “kill or die yourself” situation.
3. Happy versus sad endings – both can work, but being a so-called “romantic” at heart (some of you will have a hard time believing that), I think often the sad ending could actually be turned into a better ending, even of hope – especially if the author is writing a series. For example, a steamy relationship that occurs in the novel or a blossoming relationship, is ended at the story’s finish. Why not leave it up in the air somewhat for readers and give them some hope and a hook to read the next book. Pamela Callow is good at that in her thriller mystery novels, Damaged and Indefensible. The protagonist has professional run-ins with a former lover, whom she still has feelings for, in both novels, but there is also a blossoming relationship with another character.
4. No long drawn out endings. We don’t need a line-by-line account of the “steamy relationship” couples’ marriage or an injured protagonist’s recovery. Watch this with Epilogues. It can bore the reader. Just a few sentences or a few paragraphs where the fellow proposes and the woman just had to say “yes,” or “of course we got married six months later.”
5. Balance – with plot and character – is the key word.
I discuss some of my characters in this Liquid Lunch interview part.
Sharon A. Crawford