When I read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake during my undergrad days, discussion trickled in like a broken faucet. No one had anything to say—that is before everyone finished reading it. The conversation we had was ambivalent; some argued that the lead up was anti-climactic while others delivered eloquent reasoning for the lack-luster sequence of events in favor of a detonating finale. It conclusively came down to one thing: the conclusion and its effects on the novel as a whole.
In this last year of reviewing books, I’ve included endings as a part of my criteria and had considered the concept of a book’s conclusion without too much thought, but then I started to wonder because of my own novels that I’m writing. For years, I’ve mulled over how my story will end. Comprised of three books, my novels involve several, ambitious characters seemingly familiarized with what they want only to have their circumstances abruptly change. While I’ve known how each book ends, I didn’t know where these characters would end up, or if they could end up in a place so unexpected. This lead me to think about the nature of endings, the misplaced certainty they hold, the satisfaction they bring, and their pseudo finality. In other words, can endings really ‘make’ or ‘break’ a novel?
The first thing I noticed: endings are not a natural occurrence in novels. They are literary devices that significantly and noticeably change the trajectory of stories. We know intuitively when we are approaching an ending, signified by a story’s climax followed by a quick procession of events leading to a conclusion. Sometimes these conclusions provide answers, refute our preconceived notions, or abandon us, giving us yet another wrinkle in our foreheads and a void of uneasy answers. Endings are intentionally perplexing because we perceive them as a natural occurrence, when endings are inventions that are part of a sequence in the art of story-telling.
The functionality of endings, however, is a very interesting phenomenon. Have you ever noticed that the endings cannot be found or preserved in the real world? It’s because after we say our goodbyes or part ways with people, the novel discontinues following the characters’ lives, which subsequently creates a kind of time capsule that readers can revisit. But we know that life keeps going; we just can’t witness it in books and nor should we. It’s not only impractical (because no one wants to read that many pages…), but the art of writing the novel would quickly and abysmally become perfunctory and would be incapable of evolving as it’s done over the years. As much as we want to argue that some books accurately reflect the condition of living, we can’t overlook that endings makes us self-consciously knowing that they don’t.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines endings ‘as the last part,’ a ‘termination,’ or ‘death.’ It’s true life has beginnings and endings, i.e., we are born and then we succumb to the side effects of mortality, but when we perceive endings in our lives such as graduating, relocating, or losing a job, we redefine it in a different context. When something ends, we perceive it in subsidiary terms in hopes of finding closure. Even though that specific event ends, the effects from that experience insert itself in your already cultivated thoughts from living. Thoughts bleed into our everyday moments and can easily throw us back to that moment in the past by something as small as a green scarf or white pearls. This is why we cannot have real-life endings: our thoughts are too complex.
A book’s ending also has the uncanny effect to work externally and internally. For example, the last line in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is famous for a single piece of text that’s been analyzed and interpreted in a hundred different ways to mean a thousand different revelations:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
It gorgeously aligns with the tragic character Gatsby who yearns to relive the past, but most readers will agree, we extricate meanings from books and compare them to our lives. We are existential creatures trying to find the hidden patterns and place meaning to them. The endings found in literature reflect this ideology and before a philosophical debate erupts, it’s also this quality about ourselves that allows us to create stories and invent endings to aid us in defining the moments in our lives.
So it’s not surprising why we put a great deal of stock in how books ends. Stories are perhaps one of the most successful instruments in devising meanings, construing symbols and metaphors, and cataloging life. There’s a lot we can take from a story and decipher; yet, an ending acts as a wild card, an independent variable from the rest of the story. It has the unpredictable way of sabotaging a story by abruptly changing it and leaving us alone with our thoughts. It’s no wonder, including myself, why endings cause readers to vehemently purge their cathartic feelings and feel emotionally bruised for days.
But I still haven’t answered my question from earlier. Do endings ultimately decide the value of a story?
The answer is: well—yes and no?
I’d be remised if I overlooked the other contributing aspects of a book that unify and create a coalesce piece of work. Characters and the writing are bolsters in any story, and I’m more forgiving of an ending that breaks my heart and ditches me in my own pit of despair.
On the other hand, there are some stories that do not try or are afraid to take that plunge into the scary, dark cave and opt to take the bridge with a rainbow arching over it. There are endings that remove the characters in favor of something more exciting and morph into something utterly different. When this happens, I do take offense, not only as a writer, but as a reader who’s invested her time in reading said amazing prose and getting to know these characters only to feel cheated by the author’s reluctance to follow through with the story.
And that’s the sad beauty of stories: the unsaid commitment that these books will end in xxx number of pages. And if you’re lucky, you’ll read an ending that will stay with you and replay in your head countless times before calling it quits.