Last weekend, I rewatched the movie Stardust for about the zillionth time. That’s one of my all-time favorites, a “comfort” watch that never fails to make me feel good. There’s something about that movie that makes me sigh with satisfaction when it ends.
And that got me started thinking, what makes for a satisfying ending? What is it about this story (I have a similar reaction to the book, though the ending is a bit different) that gives me that happy sigh?
In this case, I think one thing is that it feels like everything is neatly tied up. The villains are taken down in satisfying ways, and even the irritants (not really villains, not really antagonists in the sense of being obstacles to the hero, just people who bother him) get taken down a peg. The woman who rejected him and used him early in the story gets to see what she gave up, and the one she rejected him for may not be as into her as she thought. A couple that was separated gets reunited. We even get the narrator telling us the long-term outcome. All of that comes together to give you that “yes, all is right with the world” feeling. I know a lot of people sneer at stories in which all the ends are neatly tied up, but there’s also something nice about that if it’s done well.
One thing that I think helps is if the “neatly tied up” doesn’t necessarily work the way you expected it to — it’s a way you like, but not what you thought would happen. I don’t know for sure if that’s the case with Stardust because it’s so familiar by now that I don’t even remember what I thought would happen. But I do know I love it when I’m expecting something to happen and what does happen is even better than I expected, or it happens, but in a better way, maybe with a fun twist. Of course, I can’t think of any good examples now, and I suppose it would be a major spoiler to give an example. That’s the challenge in talking about endings.
Tying everything up doesn’t necessarily make for a good ending, though. As much as I love The Lord of the Rings, I’m not crazy about the ending in either book or movie. It goes on and on after what should have been the climactic moment. The movie did help by tightening and cutting a lot. I know that all the stuff going on in the Shire when they got back was thematic, and I suppose it showed how much the Hobbits had changed in the way they handled it, but it still felt like “but I thought it was all over, and now there’s more?” I also have very mixed feelings about the very ending and the fate of Frodo and the elves. Again, I know it’s thematic, but I don’t really like the idea. There’s something about the way that saga is resolved that leaves me feeling not entirely satisfied, like there’s both too much and not enough. There’s practically material for an entire sequel in what’s supposed to be the resolution.
Another kind of good ending is the one that makes you want to read/watch the thing again, right away. I loved the end of the book To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis so much that as soon as I finished reading it, I flipped to the beginning and immediately re-read it. I’m not sure I’d say there were twists, but it was one of those things where you learn some of what really happened and what was really going on behind the scenes, so the end was a big “aha!” moment, and it was fun to re-read with that knowledge.
I’ve written before about what I termed the “Lucas ending” that showed up in a lot of the Star Wars films and one of the Indiana Jones movies — the cathartic victory, reunion with hugs, celebration. That can work really well as an ending pattern.
I find that I like it when the villain has a lot to do with his own destruction rather than the hero actually defeating him. There’s a lot of talk about how you could remove Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark and the outcome wouldn’t change much, but I think a lot of it is about the fact that he’s trying, and then I like that the bad guys defeat themselves because they don’t understand or respect what they’re really dealing with, and Indy prevails because he does and he knows what to do, and then his presence means the Ark doesn’t stay in the bad guys’ hands.
On the opposite side of the coin from the “everything tied up neatly” ending is the “leave them wanting more” ending in a series, where it’s just satisfying enough to make you happy but there are enough loose threads to make you eager for the next book/movie. You want to know what will happen next, how the characters will function with a new status quo. I’m not a huge fan of cliffhangers, though. I want there to be some kind of conclusion to each installment. I like the way that the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Deep Space Nine tended to do season finales. The end of the season would wrap up the latest arc in a satisfying way, and then there’d be one thing coming up at the very end that hinted at what the next problem would be. The good guys would get their celebration after defeating the enemy, and then in a kind of coda, we’d see a new villain or problem emerging. You wanted to know what would happen next, but it wasn’t leaving anyone in immediate peril. It was more of a teaser for the next arc following the conclusion of the last one, so things were wrapped up but you wanted to know what happens next.
Another factor in a satisfying ending is the feeling that the main characters are in a better place than they were at the beginning, both physically and mentally. I like seeing that they’ve grown and learned something. That may be why “full circle” endings work so well, where they may return to something that reflects or echoes the beginning, and that makes it clear what’s changed.
I have to admit that I struggle with endings. That’s usually what I end up revising first because my first attempt at an ending is never good. I’m so eager to be done with the book by that point that my first draft ending is usually along the lines of “and then they beat the bad guys, the end.” Once I’ve recovered from writing the draft, I go back and write something a little more detailed. And then I rewrite it again after revising the whole book.
What kinds of endings do you like best? What’s your favorite book or movie ending?