More often than I prefer, a novel will have an unsatisfying conclusion. The writer has asked the reader to come along on a journey with them, introducing characters and situations the reader finds interesting or unique. That journey will usually consist of over two hundred pages of carefully written and edited text, designed to keep the reader entranced or at least curious until the last page. The antagonist’s true desires will be revealed, the precious object will be found, the protagonist will complete his or her arc, and the mystery will be solved. However, too many times to mention, the conclusion will ring false or be unsatisfying.
Excuse me for a moment while I speak to the mass audience, using television as a universal analogy.
Many television critics have particular expressions for what we, as readers and humans, are unconsciously looking for. These critics claim not to like a cliched story with predictable situations or characters. They use insulting terms and phraseology to prevent the writer from creating a boring story. No one wants to read a sitcom, these critics secretly believe. Yet even the most banal television shows continue onward, season after season, because the viewer wants to know the answer to the question posed in the very first episode.
Will Sam and Diane finally admit they are in love with each other? Will the nanny find love with her good-looking and charming employer? Will the Korean War ever end, sending the funny, kind, brilliant surgeons of the M.A.S.H. unit home to get on with their lives? Will the friends ever find the perfect soul mate in the apartment across the hall? All these questions are answered because the creators and writers of the shows know exactly what the audience really wants.
When M.A.S.H. ended, the final episode was the most-watched hour of television in history. We had already lost the first commander, McLean Stevenson, to a tragic plane crash in the Pacific, then Trapper John, Frank Burns, and Radar O’Reilly. (The last in a heartbreaking episode where Hawkeye, who never acknowledged the military hierarchy, salutes the young company clerk in the middle of a delicate surgical operation.) All in all, M.A.S.H. had a happy, yet tearful ending. It was what people wanted.
Back to writing. Successful writers unconsciously know what their audience is looking for. Depending on the genre, the conclusion of a novel can be vastly different. James Ellroy’s conclusions are drenched in blood and broken hearts while Pat Conroy’s are a celebration of life, love, and the charming manners of the American South. Pat Conroy knows his readers would throw his books down in disgust if a main character suddenly shot a man for the color of his skin and then ran away with a bag full of stolen cash. There are no sex workers in Conroy’s work, but they drift through Ellroy’s work like fallen leaves on an autumn morning. They know what their audiences are breathlessly waiting for.
In a mystery novel, the first few pages present the mystery, and the last page tells the reader the answer to that mystery. Romance novels present a fantasy world of beautiful people with stunningly handsome figures and the reader waits patiently for them to come together with expressions of true, everlasting love. Two-thirds of the way through a romance, the reader expects the relationship to hit a snag but then, in the last few pages, the couple comes together to sail off into the sunset on a private ship.
The most important part of all this is the conclusion. Why do some novels become parts of our social lexicon while others drift off into obscurity? Most of us read and read and read, but there are very few novels that suddenly capture our soul. Very few that we remember for the rest of our lives or that we read at least once every couple of years.
No Country For Old Men is a wonderfully written novel, but the question Cormac McCarthy presents to us in the first section of the novel is strangely answered before the logical conclusion. Llewelyn Moss is killed way before he should be. We never see him die, we don’t know what he did right or wrong, we have no idea where he fell and breathed his last. It breaks all the rules of writing because we were following Moss to find out if he would kill or escape from Chigurh. Would he get away with the money? Would he and his wife reunite with several million dollars? No. McCarthy shocked us with a sudden, unexpected, off-page death of the protagonist. However, he is Cormac McCarthy. He knew what he was doing, and expected us to be shocked by this. I, and I suspect you, are not Cormac McCarthy, so we cannot break the rules like that.
Thomas Harris did the same kind of thing in Hannibal. He also broke the basic rule of hero and villain. He fell in love with his villain and couldn’t kill or incarcerate him. The antagonist of the novel became not the flesh-eating serial killer, but a wheelchair-bound, horribly scarred victim of Lector’s “charms.” The reader was expecting a story about Clarice Starling hunting down and defeating Lector. Instead, Lector becomes a love interest for Clarice.
For those who loved Red Dragon or Silence of the Lambs, it was oddly unsatisfying. Harris broke that cardinal rule of falling in love with your villain and then went on to explain why Lector is who he is. That, my friends, is another mistake. No matter how good a writer Harris is, I can IMAGINE Lector’s past as a far more horrifying scenario than what he wrote. I don’t want him to explain it any more than I wanted to know who or what was under Darth Vader’s helmet.
The conclusion of any novel must be planned out beforehand. The reader must be taken into account. If you, as the author, present a man and a woman in chapters one and two, then you must know how their story ends. If there is an antagonist, his or her ending must be known as well. We, as humans, want the conclusions of our stories to be satisfying. The two heroes get together, the protagonist gets away with the money, the grizzled cop catches the bad guy. Along the way, amazing things can happen. Unique things. Wonderful things. Tragic things. However, when we close the book, sit there thinking about the conclusion, dream about being good enough to make other people feel the way we feel right now…that’s the goal.
We don’t want to get to the end only to discover that the conclusion is nebulous or disappointing. The conclusion of your work is the last thing the reader reads, the last thing he or she thinks about. If it is unsatisfying, the writer has failed. Yes, the writer has written brilliant paragraphs, terrific one-liners, created memorable characters and situations, but without a good, solid, well-thought-out conclusion, future readers will turn away to the next book in the stack next to their beds.
The conclusion is vitally important. The writer has asked me, the reader, to go on a journey with them. There will be romance, gunfights, explosions, tears, anger, happiness, and many other things. But what you, as the writer, have promised me is that the destination will be worth the journey.
About the Author
Peter B. Stone learned storytelling from a visual and commercial perspective. He is a writer, editor, and creator. He has written extensively in many media forms, but primarily in comic books and children’s animation. Working with comic book legend Neal Adams as his co-writer, he learned storytelling from a visual perspective as well as solid plotting, pacing and image creation. From learning the visual aspects of modern media, Peter Stone continued his work as a visual storyteller to become a video editor for live-action, animation, and advertising, heading up a group of animators and Photoshop artists. He has worked for Marvel, Disney Education, DC Comics, Archie Comics, A.G.E. productions, Hasbro, and a host of Advertising Agencies. In addition, he has written two novels “Shattered Krystal” and “Echo” and is working on a third. “Shattered Krystal” is available through Amazon.
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