The Writer, the Novel, the Ending

Two guests from afar.

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I want to talk about “novel endings” but first a bit of history. Back in the nineties, I taught a course in Modernist Literature. Here’s the reading list.

  • The Sun Also Rises                                     Hemingway
  • Ethan Frome                                               Wharton
  • 1984                                                              Orwell
  • The Trial                                                      Kafka
  • Invisible Man                                              Ellison
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God               Hurston
  • The Great Gatsby                                       Fitzgerald

While I don’t want to spoil a possible “first” reading of any of the above, I will repeat one student’s question before we started our final novel, The Great Gatsby. The young lady raised a weary hand and asked, “Is this another depressing story?”

I tried, half-heartedly, to evade the issue, but let’s face it, the Modernists weren’t into the “feel good about yourself” narrative. As it turns out, much of the Modernist harangue is still with us. We still hear from well-intentioned writers, Hemingway’s advice to “kill your darlings.” And publishers continuously echo Ezra Pound’s maxim: “Make it new!” And don’t forget Anton Chekhov’s famous command to “Show, don’t tell.” Finally, there is that lingering Modernist theme that REALITY is a stained, dirty note reminding us all that life sucks.

Even now, we receive tons of novels that deliver “gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, tragic endings.” I usually steer away from them. I no longer need my heart broken or my gut wrenched. But I do enjoy novels that make me think or give me some insight into human nature—sans tragedy.

Novels chronicle struggle, the necessity to overcome some barrier to gain a desired state of being. Now we know that life is a relational experience: I am happy because I know what unhappiness is. The depth of your understanding of “happiness” may well depend upon your experience with unhappiness or misery. Your ability to research and/or empathize broadens this knowledge.

Beneath the lamp, you write and write. You intensify your protagonist’s struggle through a series of conflicts. Finally, thousands of words and hundreds of pages later, you arrive at the crossroads—the point of ultimate action, the climactic point. Now, something has to give, and you write your ending—happy with success or sad with failure.

The ending of your novel, I believe, has to do with your writer/audience relationship. Here’s two examples:

First, as a writer you compose with a strong desire to expose your readers to the wrongs of the world, but leaving them with a conquering/successful/fulfilled protagonist, that is to say, a “feel-good” novel that ends happily. Your goal as a novelist isn’t to lead your audience into a nightmare that deprives them of sleep for the next week or drives them into a three-day drinking binge. Indeed, you want to mitigate the horrors they already face as citizens of a cowardly, old world.

OR

Second, as a writer, you perceive your goal as one similar to Kafka’s, who said the novel should be “the axe for the frozen sea within us.” That is to say, your novel liberates readers from their hide-bound comforts and forces them to face the terrible and difficult issues of our human existence. Your narrative ends with separation, confusion, terror and/or loss. You recognize the hard realities of life, and you want your readers to do the same.

The two above possible endings reflect self-vision. The first: you are a writer who stabilizes. You are an ever-shining beacon that guides the anxious reader through the storm and safely into port. The second: you are the writer who interrupts. You are the storm that roughly and without apology smashes the boat and tosses the hapless reader into the raging foam, into the swirling dark.

What are your thoughts blogger friends? What’s your preference: happy or tragic endings? How does it affect your own writing?

Now, here’s a happy ending–from my own back yard!

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17 thoughts on “The Writer, the Novel, the Ending

  1. calmkate

    you’ve read my posts Paul … I prefer to lift people up from their daily challenges .. I sincerely believe people need entertainment not more conflict, add a bit of humour or a surprise twist … we need an escape altho many seem to prefer the darker side I am not one 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    Reply
    1. Paul Post author

      Oh I definitely read your posts! 🙂 The older I get the less inclined I am to jump into a terribly depressing story. It’s just not worth it. I lean now more toward the novel that ends on the uplifting note and keeps the horrors of life at bay.
      Thank you for reading!

      Liked by 2 people

      Reply
  2. daleydowning

    I am definitely the one that writes/reads the happy ending — even if there’s some hard stuff before the ending, I can live with it. There’s a big difference between representing reality by having the narrator/protagonist experience *some* death or loss or setbacks — and just making it, “So the whole of Armageddon is going to land on this character’s shoulders, and tough *@#$%^, readers.” You know I’m certainly not a fan of those.

    Liked by 3 people

    Reply
    1. Paul Post author

      Exactly. I’ve gotten to the point where I want to learn something about life other than the fact that one aspect is that it’s horrible and mean. Two people look at a flower. One says. “It’ attracts bees and wasps. Pull it.” The other says, “It ‘s beautiful and gives life. Nurture it.” Like you, I’m in the latter group.

      Thank you Daley. It’s always good to hear from you!

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  3. Tina Williams

    Hi Paul. Once again, an interesting topic you’ve brought up.

    As a reader, if I’m investing a lot of time into a novel and its characters (besides the aforementioned “classics” that don’t always end well) I prefer a hopeful ending. It doesn’t necessarily have to be happily-ever-after. Just give me some hope. Short stories can go either way for me, as long as I take something away from it–excellent writing, a good scare, a good cry. I want to be moved.

    As s writer, in the couple of novels I’ve written, and the one I’m planning now, I like to end them with the protagonist overcoming his or her obstacles. I’m spending a lot of time with these people, and I want things to work out for them. Short stories–well, let’s just say some end well, some don’t! I feel a bit freer with short stories, that I can show a broader spectrum of life–the good, the bad, and the ugly.

    Liked by 3 people

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    1. Paul Post author

      Thank you for your insightful reply. I feel very much the same way when it comes to novels-my own and others. Last winter I read Zusak’s novel THE BOOK THIEF. I was put off by the fact that it was ANOTHER Nazi novel. But it had won all the awards and rave reviews–so I read it. The first page and I realized Death was the narrator, so okay…that means a lot of folks are gonna die and then it is a WWII setting and Nazi’s everywhere…But, as it turned out, I loved the book, and the protagonist made it.
      As it turned out Zusak’s ingenious idea of Death as a narrator solved a lot of problems.

      So, like you, I can handle the hard stuff as long as there’s a sense of hope at the end.
      Interesting about short stories isn’t it. I think the very “shortness’ of the narrative allows us to deal with the not so happy ending. We don’t invest so much time with them but enough to enjoy a good read.
      Thanks again for reading! 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

      Reply
      1. Tina Williams

        I just read a book called The Shadowland by Elizabeth Kostova. One character in it is sent to a forced labor camp in communist Bulgaria in the 1950’s, and it’s tough to read. He was a brilliant violinist, and he could have gone far in his career, except this awful thing happened for no reason. His talent was wasted and his life was deeply altered by it. But his strength of mind and integrity shone through the experience, and probably saved his life. So, some things can be difficult to read–it’s hard to face the ugliness of life–but it does help you appreciate the good and beautiful things in it, too. Anyway, as we said, if there’s a bit of hope at the end, it’s worth the read.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Paul Post author

        Totally agree. I too enjoy a well-written work that chronicles struggle and loss as long as there is some kind of humanity at the end of it. In a world where often it appears that nothing makes sense, it’s good to be reminded that somewhere down the line things do work out. I’m definitely going to look for Shadowland. Thanks for the heads-up! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Moushmi Radhanpara

    I guess most people jump into reading to get lost into an imaginary worls and hence I’d prefer a happy ending. Iur own life is enougj to show us the depressing side of life, a novel on the contrary giving us positive feedback for a change would be really fulfilling.

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. Cynthia Guenther Richardson

    The last two novels I have been working on too long reflect and dissect the miseries of life as well as triumphant transformation. I had thought I was emphasizing the latter until a rather well known editor informed me my female protagonist’s voice was so dark and interior that she could barely read more despite appreciating quality of the writing. “But wait a few more chapters,” I suggested, “and see what happens, also, in until Part 2.” “WAY too late”, she declared. And she was right. I have been restructuring it ever since…
    There are so many lessons for me to learn about writing when reading each type of novel mentioned–with endings built of either brutal and unmitigated insistence on accepting dire fates…. or a compassionate and brilliant flare of smallest victories. I prefer the second because I believe in the same as a human being. We do not need more grievous ruin in our lives on printed page or elsewhere–seems unnecessary and counter-productive!
    As always, I appreciate your excellent essay and found it comforting as well as instructive.

    Liked by 2 people

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  6. Miss Gentileschi

    Hi Paul,
    first: I love the birds 🙂
    second: I was shocked that I only read 2 of the books you´ve mentioned in the beginning of your post (1984, The Trial) and I really need to start getting into Hemingway soon! I always wanted to but somehow there are always so many books to read and my must-read-list gets longer and longer 😉 Anyway, I think both endings have their appeal and it always depends in what stage of life you are in, both as a reader and as a writer, whether you prefer the one over the other, as you said. As I´m getting older I rather prefer the happy ending type too, in contrast to my teenage years for example where a book couldn’t end too gloomy 😉
    I´ve read The Book Thief a couple of month ago too, and was reluctant at first because of the very same reasons you´ve mentioned! But in the end, it really was brilliant and I´m happy I did read it. Also I rather like reading books that are hyped so much a couple of years later when everything has calmed down a bit. And I was amazed when I read exactly the same sentiment in “Night train to Lisbon” – about 3 or 4 years after it came out 😉
    I´m currently reading “The Muse” by Jessie Burton and it shakes me a bit, makes my sleeping troubled and all that, but I can´t lay it down and go for another book that comforts me more 😉 I´m not sure how it´s going to end and to be honest, that´s exactly what makes it so intriguing. That, and that it´s mostly about a woman painter in the 1930s 😉
    Wish you a beautiful Sunday! 🙂

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