I’m getting close to the ending of the first draft of the book I’m working on, and that has me thinking about endings. There’s a frequently repeated bit of writing advice about how the first few pages sell this book and the last few pages sell the next book. You want readers to get to the end of the book and want to immediately read the next one. But what, aside from a huge cliffhanger, has that effect? As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve come to the conclusion that it has to do with leaving a reader feeling something.
I discovered one trick for this a number of years ago when I was reading books to judge for a romance contest. I ended up with a book by a top-selling author, and I’ve got to admit that I wasn’t impressed. The book was doing nothing for me, but then I got to the end and read the resolution with a tear in my eye, and I realized she got me, in spite of my misgivings. The next year, I got another book by that author in my selection of books to judge. I read that book on a plane. Near the end of the book, something bad happened to a kid, and it was a real tearjerker moment. I just had the final scene or two of the book to read when the plane got to the gate and I had to put the book down to get off the plane. Then I had to get out of the airport, take the train downtown, get to the office of the friend I was visiting, get shown around her office, then go to a nearby bookstore cafe to hang out until she got off work before I was able to pick up the book again and read the ending. And that ending left me cold. That’s when I realized what she did. She’d have some really emotional thing that didn’t even have anything to do with the plot happen just before the ending so that you read the resolution of the romance and ended the book with a tear in your eye, and that gave you the impression that the book had really touched you. It was so quick from the tearjerking moment to the end that I may be the only reader who put the book down at exactly that point, since I had to. If you separated the ending from the previous scene, there was nothing special about it. She’d done a similar thing in the previous book, only it was an old person with a health crisis.
In my recent Star Wars viewing project, I was also looking at the endings because I recall always leaving the theater after one of those movies excited and wanting to see it again, even when the movie itself wasn’t actually that great. I remember feeling that way about The Phantom Menace, and I can barely sit through that movie. I’ve noticed that there’s a sequence in the last part of almost all of those films that I think has a lot to do with the way people react to them (the rest is due to John Williams because the music really helps). The last quarter or so of these movies builds to a climax with intense tension and high stakes, resulting in a cathartic moment that releases the tension (usually, it involves reaching safety in some way). After that, there’s celebration and connection, usually with hugging. And then there’s something to create a lingering emotional impression that has the audience feeling something as they leave the theater (again, with some help from John Williams).
Take the first movie: We have the space battle with the ticking clock — will they destroy the Death Star before it destroys the rebel base? — with the space station blowing up being about as spectacular a catharsis as you get. Then they return to the base, and there’s lots of hugging. Our final emotional impression is one of triumph with the medal ceremony. You get a similar sequence in Return of the Jedi and the sequel trilogy. Battle, something blows up, hugging, then a big emotional hit. The Empire Strikes Back works a little differently, since there’s no clear victory. Our cathartic moment is the ship going to lightspeed, which means they’ve escaped and will be safe, but we get the bonding and hugging before that, when the Falcon rescues Luke. The prequels are all a downward slide. We get the regular sequence in The Phantom Menace, with that final celebration mirroring the first movie, right down to ending with everyone lined up on the stairs. The lingering emotional impressions are mostly nostalgic, since we’re seeing things happen that we’ve heard about or known must have happened, like Obi-Wan taking on Anakin to train or the start of the Clone Wars. Revenge of the Sith goes for full nostalgia, with a repeat of the twin sunset moment from the first movie, but with baby Luke and his aunt and uncle.
I’ve been looking at how this works in other movies and books. It’s less obvious in books, since they don’t have visuals or John Williams, but I have spotted it in some books. In The Mummy, we had the frantic escape, the “whew, we’re safe” moment, and the bonding, since that’s where the romance was resolved, though I don’t think the lingering emotional impression was as strong.
Oddly, the one of the Indiana Jones movies that does this the best was the most horrible. I rewatched Temple of Doom last weekend, and I kept pondering turning it off because it was so unpleasant, but then I found myself weirdly happy at the end and realized they’d done this sequence. We had the big action sequence, ending with the defeat of the villain (one of the few times Indy has something to do with that) and the cavalry showing up. Then they return to the village with the captured children and there’s lots of hugging as all the families are reunited. Our final impression is of Indy and Willie kissing, with Short Round on the baby elephant in the background, and everyone is happy. Doing a satisfying ending can salvage even an unpleasant movie.
I need to look back at my favorite books, the ones that have me wanting to either re-read them or read the next one right away, and see what the lingering emotional impression is. And then see if I can figure out how to use this. What do I want readers to feel when they close each book?