Does my Ending Work?
Now, whether it works is to some extent in the eye of the beholder, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. Your finale may not work according to this post but does according to your readers. Go with your readers. These are only guidelines.
Although types of endings can be parsed in many ways, I am going to concentrate on two.
I certainly know the feeling. I’m coming to the end of the novel. I know the hero is going to get his comeuppance but I’m dreading it. I want him to succeed even though I know that everything is stacked against him. I’m yelling at the page, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” But he does and suffers the fate I feared for him.
With this type of story, even though you may not be happy with the ending, it is nevertheless satisfying and feels correct.
The opposite but equally satisfying ending is unexpected for the reader. The story proceeds so that the reader thinks she knows where things are going. And then the conclusion is not what was anticipated.
For this ending to work, the novel has to be constructed so that the hero’s startling choice makes sense. That is, there have to be clues throughout the novel that he might choose the unexpected path but you have cleverly disguised them so that the reader doesn’t notice them while reading.
If you don’t do that, you run the risk of your reader tossing the whole book because the ending seems to come out of the blue and therefore is not credible. Establishing once again that Fiction is Not Life.
What doesn’t usually work
Deus ex machina
It literally means a god from a machine since plays in Ancient Greece used a crane to create the illusion of the gods descending from the heavens (did you really want to know this?). Anyhow, in present day fiction, it means an unexpected event which saves a hopeless situation. Your hero has to choose between his fiancée and the woman he is falling in love with (yes, Downton Abbey). Luckily, the fiancée gets the Spanish flu and is carried off by it. You can just see that crane yanking the fiancée out of the picture.
Seeing it coming from a mile away
On the one hand, with inevitability endings, you want the increasing doom (usually doom—happy is different—see below) to build over the course of the novel. Each action the hero takes pushes him down the inexorable path. On the other hand, you need to tread a fine line. Inevitability becomes boring and predictable and not worth reading if the reader can forecast the ending half-way through. You need to build tension without hitting the reader over the head with what’s coming. Not easy.
Happily ever after
I’m sorry, but as I pointed out previously, happy endings have rather fallen out of literary favor. I’m not saying it’s right but there you are. If the prince proposes to the surprised young thing and they live happily ever after—it’s all too pat for the modern reader. If you really really want a happy ending, you’d probably be better off trying to write a happy ending with a surprise finish. Give it a try but don’t say I didn’t tell you.