Ending a Book (Do’s and Don’ts)

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I said two weeks ago I was going to talk about what I’d been reading lately, but I got distracted and posted about other things last week. (Welcome to conversations with me.) So here are some of the last few things I’ve read: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, The Alienist by Caleb Carr, and The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore. All three are historical fiction, and all mystery/thriller in some way or another. I adored the first 2/3 of The Luminaries, the way the story was told, the style and atmosphere, and the setting. I adored the first 2/3 of The Alienist for its plot and pacing, characters (including Theodore Roosevelt), and attention to detail. Unfortunately, in the case of both these books, I can only describe the last third of each of them in terms of Johnny Rotten:

I almost stopped reading Catton’s book (which I never do once I’m past the first 100 pages), though strangely I forgot how disappointed I was in the last section of it afterward. Which does speak volumes about Catton’s writing skills, since her style, characters, and world completely overshadowed a black hole in the plot. Props for that! As for The Alienist, I was willing to go for it up until the very end. And then the chapter that needed to be there…wasn’t. It’s like if a Sherlock Holmes book stopped before the part where Holmes explains to Watson how he figured out the mystery. Sure, we know who the killer is, but what we’re interested in at that point is what was going on in the detective’s mind when he was working on the solution–or in this case, the Alienist’s mind.

The Last Days of Night, I’m happy to say, was consistently good all the way through. A legal thriller set during Thomas Edison’s lawsuit against Westinghouse (with Nikola Tesla sort of caught in the crossfire), it’s very well-written and clearly well-researched. In fact, everything I thought was a bit far-fetched in the story turned out to be true, according to Moore’s detailed afterword.

The part of a book I struggle with the most is after the set-up and before the first major shift happens, rather than the ending. That said, endings do require a lot of decisions. How far after the climax do you go on? How do you give readers enough extra without dragging on too much? What’s the most emotionally satisfying point to end on? Do you show an action, a scene of dialogue, or narrative reflection to wrap up? Oh, and of course, is there going to be a sequel? Personally, I’d say a good ending should have the following properties:

  1. Resolves the main conflict in a way that makes logical sense within the rules of the story world.
  2. Resolves or shows the promise of resolution for secondary conflicts.
  3. Shows or reflects on how the events in the book affected the world of the story.
  4. Shows or reflects on how the events in the book affected the main character(s).
  5. Reflects at least one significant change in the main character(s).

Because you don’t want your reader to leave feeling like this:

cheated

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