Where a Good Story/Memoir Ends
In the previous post, I discussed the movie, Lady Bird, and its ending. I think a weak ending has a ripple effect back to the rest of the piece and seems to deflate what might have been a plot that was bopping along well. (There might have been three mixed metaphors in that sentence. Ah, well.) Where a story ends is the topic of this post.
How do I know where to end?
The great thing about writing generally is that you can end your piece anywhere you like. I know I have harped on making sure that you meet the expectations of the reader by including all the component parts of a story arc. However there is lots of wiggle room within that framework. This is also true of memoirs. You need to build the story of your life and end it where it works for the story you are telling.
Endings, like beginnings and the whole writing thing, are so flexible that the best I can do is present my list of probable Dos and Don’ts.
DO end the story as close to the climax as possible. It sometimes works to have a long denouement where all the bits and pieces are neatly connected. But too long a one can leave the reader with the feeling of yeah, yeah, I got it—the butler did it.
DO end shortly after the main character has experienced the major life-altering realization or event that you were aiming for. It sometimes works to continue past that point but you need to decide. For example, will illustrating in detail how the protagonist has changed her life strengthen the story or make it feel as if it is tapering off into oblivion?
Don’t feel you have to resolve every question your novel raises. As long as the main and most important ones are satisfactorily dealt with, the reader won’t be that put off. Example of question you can leave dangling: Did the secondary character’s husband’s sister really die of cancer? Memoir writers especially need to rein in the idea they need to tell everyone’s story which touches their own. You do not.
Don’t feel you have to take things to the literal or figurative death bed. It is perfectly acceptable to portray a slice of a character’s life and end it when it feels right to you.
Don’t spell out how you want the reader to feel about the ending. This is partly a tenet of show, don’t tell. You just show it and allow the reader to decide how he feels about it. This approach can give extra pleasure to the reader as he explores his own reaction to your ending.
The ends need to justify the means
So, generally, your ending needs to be as strong as the plot which is resolves.
Having said that, endings are, I think, particularly idiosyncratic. You may feel the story ends at a different place than I do—as I did with the movie Lady Bird. You may be right; I may be right; we may both be right; there may be no right answer.
If you feel that your ending is a strong one and really speaks to you, by all means go ahead. I have already discussed the annoying phenomenon of authors who break the rules and make it work fabulously. Your ending may be in that category.
But if you’re not sure, then my Dos and Don’ts might help to hone in on an ending which will be as satisfying as the rest of your story.