Endings: the Cliffhanger vs. the Payoff Part 1

I am excited about this one. In fact, I may even split it into two posts because I think it is worth talking about!

How to end your novel…

I have to confess that I didn’t have much of an issue with endings in my early days of writing, but that was a problem in itself. Usually, if I made it past the climax and had entered any phase of falling action/resolution I considered myself to be Charles Dickens himself and consequently halted the story as painlessly as possible, not entirely unlike a guillotine executioner. Moreover, this habit often left unanswered questions, loose ends, and unresolved conflict which I told myself was all the better- motivating my readers to read the next book (if there was a next book).

To my credit, I often went back and eventually changed these cruelly decapitated endings because they didn’t “taste right.” Aside from a few exceptions, cliffhangers never sit well with me as an author. That might be because they drive me crazy as a reader.

Minimal internet research will make any author aware that the audience really does not like a cliffhanger ending. There were a few years there where I was fooled-mainly because many of the movies and television shows that were being hailed by critics utilized cliffhangers to get their viewers addicted. But as I delved into some of them I found they had an unanticipated effect: they were wearying. What’s more, the initial flavor of anticipation and adrenaline wore off as the plot was revealed and time passed and that anticipation and adrenaline was replaced by…nothing. There was little lasting impact, and virtually no desire to go back and repeat the experience because I already knew all the answers to the questions that had kept the experience going.

In direct contrast, the television shows and movies that I find myself endlessly re-watching are the ones that delve into the characters, often take time with the plot, create a thorough experience, and finish with a satisfying resolution. It’s the difference between fast food and a full course meal (why is she using so many food metaphors?!).

The abbreviated, cliffhanger endings were appealing to me because they were easier. I have found that crafting a satisfying resolution to a complex-plot story is one of the most difficult parts of writing a novel. And I am far from having mastered it. I have heard endings are difficult because they are false. The characters’ lives don’t just end (unless you killed them all off). Life will go on for them. Your job as an author is to craft a satisfying goodbye. In life unresolved (or unexpected) goodbyes are the worst. Don’t put your reader through that!

In Part 2 of this post we will examine several different species of ending to make note of the fact that not all endings are the same (nor should they be):

  1. The Return of the King
  2. Ender’s Game
  3. Serenity
  4. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty/ Midnight in Paris

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