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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41 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 4 people

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    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 3 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.

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    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.

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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! 🙂

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      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.

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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! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Paul Post author

      Thank you for the great reply. On Hemingway, I’d say grab a volume of his short stories and start there..that’s where his true greatness lies.
      Yeah, I too am drawn to the mysteries, especially when the protagonist is an artist or author or a bookstore owner! right now I’m reading Matthew Sullivan’s “Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore.” It’s kind of Stephen Kingy sort of novel, (I’m not a S. King fan) but I keep reading. Maybe it’s the bookstore…I don’t know. 🙂 Well, I hope you have a terrific week and thanks again!

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      1. Miss Gentileschi

        Thank you, Paul, I will definitely go for his short stories first then! 🙂
        Oooh! I love books about bookstore owners too – maybe because I wished I could have my own, rather old-fashioned one 😉 I´ve just finished reading a book that has such a lovely bookstore in its center (“The Shadow Sister” by Lucinda Riley – not sure if that´s quite your type but she really is a great writer) and look now forward to reading the one you´re just reading! I used to be not a Stephen Kind fan either, which was curious because I only ever read one book until then, but have come to change my oppinion of him since the last year when I read “The Shining” and “The Pet Semmetary” – which are both brilliant and from then I on I try to get my hands on every copy availably at my local library 😉 Now I´m happy I´ve discovered another author for me 🙂 But I have to confess that I prefer Dean Koontz whom I came across when I was a teenager, and I always will love his books much more than those of King 😉
        Oops! So sorry for all the babbling! When it comes to books, I find it hard to stop myself!
        Have a wonderful day! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Paul Post author

      Hmmm, your other reply regarding the poem post has just disappeared as well. damn.

      I can’t remember exactly what said other than I really like the poem. I do remember though commenting on the fact that while we don’t hear the daughter’s voice, her presence is quite overwhelming.
      And I was happy that you shared the poem! 🙂

      Yeah, my little bell at the top right hand corner of my WP page used to show an orange dot whenever I had a response from a fellow blogger. Well it quit doing that, so lately I’ve been missing and/or being terribly late with my responses…Jesus. Everything going to hell in. a hand basket. I’m now getting followers that are in fact business blogs. Crap like HP Tech Support and 99 Print Pack. Obviously these are not fellow bloggers who wish to chat about writing.

      Thank you for reading and replying to my last blog. It took me forever to get it done, and it’s still kinda vague and hazy. Ha! But it’s always good to hear from you Leslie. Hope you have a good week!

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      1. ruminationville

        Thanks, Paul, for re-creating what you wrote yesterday. It is true that there seem to be WP changes that don’t appear to improve our lot :). I posted another poem this evening by Ann Iverson. It made me weep.

        Always, always good to hear from you, too. Leslie

        Liked by 1 person

  7. dweezer19

    Beautiful birds. As for what a novel should end like, I prefer reality within the work with positive (realistic) outcomes. That is to say, humans making right choices even if they have had difficulties. Not contrived happy endings. I don’t like those.

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  8. Deb

    What if your goal was to satisfy you! And what if you felt that although media and social media would make us believe that this world is a sad, bad, terrible place, when in fact the negatives are less than 1% of what is really happening out there, and decide to focus on the beautiful, happy, positive aspects of this magnificent world and write about that. What if rather than following the crowd you stepped out and blazed your own trail, one that many others would love to follow as they too believe it’s a great big beautiful world. You don’t try to reach others but rather let them reach out to you, those who are on the same path and others who are trying to get on that path. I say there is this third choice, you are a writer who writes to satisfy your own desire and not worry about those of your audience. They will appreciate your originality and genuineness. Of course that is just my humble opinion. That pic of the love birds is fantastic Paul! 🙂

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    1. Paul Post author

      Well, I gotta say that’s a MIGHTY strong humble opinion! 🙂 And a very good one to hear. The world–as the media presents it to us and the “hidden” reality that we don’t hear about was the very topic of a recent discussion I had. You’re exactly correct. And that’s one reason I quit watching TV. The bias toward misery and pain is overwhelming. So thanks for a great and inspirational reply! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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      1. Deb

        Lol, thanks Paul! 🙂 I never watched the news anymore. I only watch movies or my ghost shows. It’s disappointing how much they push misery and pain, and how many people believe it. Oh you’re most welcome for my reply, thank you for finding it inspirational!! Give Cody a pat from me!! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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  10. Karina Pinella

    Good question. I tend to prefer happy endings when I read or watch whatever. However, when I am actually writing a story, depending on what kind, I do have a tendency not to always end it in a way that may necessarily be a happy ending. It is not my intention to make it not happy so much as the story somehow drives the ending. I will choose what makes a bigger impact, be it a happy or not happy ending. I don’t start writing a story with a happy or not happy ending. The ending writes itself toward the end.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Paul Post author

      Thank you for your insight. I’m constantly amazed at the numerous ways we writers approach the ending of a narrative. When writing, I almost always have and ending in mind. More than once I’ve written a story that started with an idea for an ending and then I worked towards that point. I’ll admit though there are dangers with that plan!

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  11. anotetohuguette

    I so loved reading this post, you gave both sides of the coin (so to speak!) equal measure, my thinking is that either ending is good if it succeeds in capturing our imagination or changes our inner world!

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  12. Idle Muser

    What a wonderful read! 🙂

    Beginning of a novel should be great, but the greatest of all should be the ending. For me an unsatisfying ending is not the one which is predictable or perhaps didn’t appear out of the blue and made me wonder- ‘Why did I not see this coming before?’, but a forceful ending or a half-hearted ending.
    ‘I spent these many hours/days reading you and this is how you are going to part from me?’- my instant thought on books that end poorly.

    As per my stories, Paul, I don’t decide if the endings have to be tragic or good; sometimes they’re neither. I love those endings that do not end with the book (just like Jhumpa Lahiri’s); endings that instead start a chain of thoughts in your mind when you close that book/ finish reading a story. And so I strive to end my story that satisfies me, that would make me think/ wonder/ hope/ regret if it were written by somebody else.

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    1. Paul Post author

      Thank you for such a thoughtful reply, Aditi. You make a very good point–that an ending should not only be appropriate for the narrative, but that it causes the reader to reflect back upon what has been read and engage the narrative in a mental or, dare I say it, even a spiritual dialogue beyond the printed page.

      I think you are so so correct with that idea. The WORST ending would make the reader wonder why they even started the book. The BEST ending would make the reader want to read the book again.

      Thank you again for such terrific insight. 🙂

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