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Don’t Tell the Ending! What Makes a Good Ending?

We hear a lot about how stories should end: the ending should be inevitable, and yet we shouldn’t be able to guess exactly how it will occur (see Macbeth). It should be consistent with the story’s other elements (see Romeo & Juliet). It should make us cry without embarrassment (see King Lear). It should make us laugh in spontaneous recognition of its mischievous incongruity, wedded organically to the preceding scenes (see Some Like It Hot).

rathmann_10 minutes till bedtimeAs dispassionate as we story lovers try to be in reasonable discourse, we get pretty personal when it comes to endings. I don’t want anyone to tell me that It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed is a waste of my tears. Nor Peggy Rathmann’s 10 Minutes till Bedtime a waste of my echo-off-the-walls-at-home-alone laughter.

Just as a beginning is a promise that must fulfill itself in the pages to come, an ending is empty without the exquisitely right heft of the story that precedes it. “Hm . . . eleven o’clock in Grover’s Corners. . . . You get a good rest too. Good night” is not interesting to someone who doesn’t know the story of George and Emily and the rest of the precisely drawn characters in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. For some of us, it is the perfect ending, bringing us a little calming distance from the consuming pathos that has gone just before.

Of the questions we can ask about endings, a particularly meaty one is: should the ending take a moral stance?

monster myersIn the last pages of Walter Dean Myers’s Monster and Margaret Bechard’s Hanging on to Max and Chris Crowe’s Mississippi  Trial, 1955, we say our pained goodbyes to boys who are hard at work figuring out how to be their best selves when the world will let them be far less than that.

As Judith Viorst and Arnold Lobel’s I’ll Fix Anthony draws to a close, we see a preschool boy doing the same thing, stretching to a humane height that only moral illumination can make possible. And in Kevin Henkes’s Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, Lilly finds that humility and apology can be part of her ethically expanding world: “Mr. Slinger was right — It had been a better day.”

Such stories of the young learning to live with confounding ambiguity grant us endings so nutritious that when we walk past the books later, some discomforting impulse disturbs our momentum. These unsettling members of the story family are enlarging us.

levine_wishA ten-year-old devoted reader told me what makes a good ending by citing Gail Carson Levine’s novel The Wish: “In the end she doesn’t get everything she wants, but she’s happy with what she has.” I believe this young reader is talking about the quality we most hope for in the world: equilibrium.

And a thirteen-year-old boy explained what it is that many of us seek in an ending: “It’s not exactly a Wow! or an Aha! but it’s a cross between them, a Whoa!

As these kids read on through their lives, will they apply their increasingly keen assessments to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, to Tolstoy’s War and Peace? And to demanding books that we don’t know about yet? We can hope so.

Any good book and its ending must support the closest, most rigorous reading. A young mother and psychotherapist clarified Runaway Bunny for me this way:

It’s the consistency of the mother’s response: she’s creative, adaptable, she affirms without ever repeating herself. She’s  receptive, has lots of frustration tolerance, and is so matter-of-fact. Her bunny is free to go out into the world, venture, fantasize, live boldly, and the mother will meet him where he is. It’s her steadiness. In the end, the bunny feigns  disappointment: “‘Shucks,’ said the bunny.” His real emotion is relief in the return to the safety of the burrow.

And the bunny’s carrot is ready for him, exactly as Max’s supper is, when he returns from Where the Wild Things Are.

Should a book end in a way that has us turning back to its first page without so much as a stop to get a sandwich and a tangerine? This urgent need to wrap ourselves in a story again right away may begin with Chicken Soup with Rice, but from there it evolves variously in each of us. Young readers often repeat Harry Potters and books by Philip Pullman, letting the stories’ vigorous allure permeate them again and again. And the graceful circularity of Jacqueline Woodson and Hudson Talbott’s picture book Show Way almost turns the pages back by itself.

paterson_bridge to terabithiaWe recognize the symmetrical paradox at the end of a thoughtfully executed story. Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck family must move along, away from Treegap once again, leaving their readers listening to the tinkling music-box melody and yearning for more. Jess Aarons must point out to his sister May Belle “all the Terabithians standing on tiptoe” to see her. Charlotte must die, and we must celebrate her 514 children. Barbara Robinson’s hopelessly delinquent Herdman children must bring their charity ham to the Christ child in the church manger. Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, in motion at the same time that they are at rest, must keep on expecting Godot.

Whatever the ending, I want the passion, the rush, the flush, the skipped heartbeat. I want not to be able to speak right away.  If I give myself over to a book and let it absorb me, I want its ending not to let me go back to the self I was before I read it. I want to reach out in my sleep for the story I hoped wouldn’t end.

We deserve the privilege of saying our own version of Whoa! Authors owe us that.

From the September/October 2006 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

About Virginia Euwer Wolff

Virginia Euwer Wolff is working toward ending her Make Lemonade trilogy. She is also the author of The Mozart Season and other books for young readers.

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