Story endings are difficult. Sometimes they’re difficult to read, either because you’ve enjoyed the story so much you don’t want it to end, or because the ending isn’t what you expected or hoped. But most often, they’re difficult to write. I guess some writers find endings easier than others, but for all the times an ending has come naturally and perfectly, there have been a dozen where it’s been dragged out a word at a time, or rewritten over and over, or just never felt right, no matter how you twisted it.
I think the best endings have confidence. If you believe in your ending, it’ll show, even if readers hate it. And I think when you know it’s an ending that will divide opinion, confidence is everything.
I recently finished Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. (MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD. IF YOU INTEND TO READ IT OR HAVEN’T YET REACHED THE END, GO AWAY, FOR YOUR FATHER’S SAKE.)
~ You never intend to read it? You don’t care? Okay. *grumble grumble* Your loss.
~ Just in case you’ve changed your mind. Last chance.
Right. Let the spoily-spoily fun begin.
Now that was an ending. A magnificent, inevitable, divisive, heartbreaking, hope-filled ending. I adored it even as I hated what it meant. Roland goes through all of that, a quest which has consumed his entire life, killed most of his friends, tormented him physically and mentally, and finally – FINALLY – reaches his destination… only to be sent back to square one, with the whole thing still ahead of him. It’s a vicious, brutal cycle, which he briefly recognises he’s already lived countless times. He has to start over, and even though his memory resets with his surroundings, we as readers know what he’s been through. We know that it abruptly lies ahead of him yet again. It’s devastating.
And yet. It’s also hopeful. It’s hopeful because his last-minute realisation is that he’s messed up, somehow, on the previous times, and this is his new chance to get it right. It’s hopeful because he begins again with something he didn’t have on his last try, something he has already realised he needed. And it’s hopeful because now we know there’s a chance the whole ka-tet may yet make it to the end. Maybe Eddie, Jake, and Oy don’t have to die this time. This is a chance for the happy ending the previous cycle could never have had, even if something glorious had awaited Roland at the top of the Tower.
This ending understandably divides opinion. I can sympathise with people feeling cheated by it to some degree, although I didn’t feel remotely this way myself. But I’ve also heard people call it a lazy ending, an easy way out, and I couldn’t disagree more with that sentiment.
The ending to The Dark Tower might just be the bravest ending I’ve ever read.
Remember that thing about confidence? Just imagine having the confidence to write that ending. The confidence to say to your readers, ‘Yeah, I know, this sucks. But it’s right. It’s how it had to end. I’m sorry, but there it is.’ You think it was heart-rending for us readers? I guarantee you it was a damned sight more heart-rending for Stephen King, who had been writing that story for over three decades and who knew Roland and his obsession far better than any of us. It was the only way the story could end. The clues were there throughout. Even as I hated it, I knew it made sense. And the fact that it ends on a shining note of hope means the disappointment and shock is immediately lessened.
For me as a writer, this is an incredible lesson in trusting your endings, even if they’re not what you expected them to be. It’s a perfect example of realising what’s going to happen and then letting it happen, even if it hurts, and even if your readers might hate it. I have yet to write anything remotely as encompassing as the Dark Tower series, but I can still employ this lesson in my shorter works. The key to a kick-arse short story is so often its ending, and such endings can be elusive.
But however they arrive, I intend to imbue mine with confidence from now on.
[Also, I highly recommend this brilliant analysis of the Dark Tower’s ending, if you want a more in-depth look.]