As I said last week, I'm spending most of this month on posts relating to the end of The Second Realm (a week from Saturday!). Today I'm tackling a topic that's been on my mind most of the year: what makes a good ending to a story?
I've been unsatisfied by the endings of most of the books I've read this year, or at least by the endings of most of the stories I've read this year - several of those stories have been multi-book affairs, and I don't demand to be satisfied by the ending of book 1. (Don't worry, by the way, there are no spoilers ahead).
I have to be careful with words like 'unsatisfied', of course. Literary types, who enjoy throwing stones at us lowly genre writers, are scornful of the idea of 'satisfying' and 'unrealistic' endings. What they seem to have in mind are 'happily ever after' endings where everything in the entire world is resolved and no-one will ever be unhappy again.
When I say 'I was unsatisfied', though, all I mean is that I felt the book flopped towards the end - that it lost or squandered the power built up through the course of the story.
Whether or not the endings of these books were 'happy', most of them left me feeling like one or more key themes had been dropped short of full development. Sometimes a character's motivation would shift out of nowhere, or he/she would be cheated of the opportunity to express their final development in response to the book's central conflict.
With The Second Realm, as I discussed last week, the central theme is narratives of heroism. A simple ending, then, would be some of the characters doing heroic things and saving the day - this, I think, is the kind of ending people have in mind when they sneer at 'satisfying' endings. The problem with it as an ending is that it only has one thing to say about heroism - that it happens, or perhaps that it feels good.
An ending where no characters do heroic things and the day isn't saved would be no better; it would say the opposite of the upbeat ending, but it would not say more. There's more to an ending's being satisfying, or complex, or interesting, than it acknowledging the persistence of negative emotions.
And it's possible for a complex ending to be both joyous and realistic. I read a book recently in which the Vice-President of the US, after years of being a political joke, is thrust into the Presidency by the assassination of his predecessor. He faces stiff opposition from the Senate to a liberal legislative programme including tax cuts for millions of struggling citizens and long-overdue social justice measures, but gets it all passed through a combination of political deftness, determination and skulduggery.
That's not to say everything is resolved by the end of the book; the complexities of the new President's nature threaten the harmony of his cabinet, he has earned the enmity of powerful forces in the legislature, and there's a devastating war on the horizon. The author could have written a tragedy instead of a triumph by letting the story run a little further before drawing it to a close; he chose to end on the heroic high of legislative triumph.
I promised there would be no spoilers; those aren't, they're history. The book was a biography of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro's The Passage of Power. It's not actually the last in the series, since there's one volume yet to come (one we know will have a downer ending), but it's probably the most satisfying ending I've read this year. As for whether it's unrealistic? Well, it's exactly as unrealistic as reality, which is pretty unreal some of the time...