“That’s it? That’s all?” Words I never want to hear myself say…but it happens.
After seeing it recommended many, many times, I recently picked up Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash. Let me get the suspense out of the way right now and recommend the book; if you’re into that genre at all, it’s a classic. Despite being published in 1992, Mr. Stephenson foresaw some amazing things: the ubiquity of the internet (the “Metaverse”, in his terminology); the rise of smartphones; augmented reality; and even Google Earth, though of course by a different name. The book is also a scathing criticism of the ambition found in capitalism and the shortsightedness of government.
The story was fine by me. The thing that I found troublesome, though—the thing that broke the immersion for me—was the ending, or rather, the lack of one. Oh, don’t get me wrong; Mr. Stephenson finished all of his plot threads…but then he chopped them off as sharply as if he had borrowed the hero’s trademark katana. (Side note: “A katana in a cyberpunk story?” you may say. To which I say, when your hero’s name is Hiro Protagonist—no joke—you’re already well beyond the boundaries of convention, so do what you like!) There’s no wrapping up, no scene where the characters get together and hash out what’s taken place. There’s no denouement, no decline after the action is complete. The story simply cuts itself off. The final scene doesn’t even include the protagonist; it centers around the secondary protagonist, the female business partner of the protagonist. I liked her character, but I wasn’t expecting that ending.
It’s not the first time I’ve seen this happen in an otherwise good book. Dean Koontz’s The Door to December comes to mind, for one. Even classic literature is not immune; Voltaire’s most famous work, Candide, concludes with a sudden switch in the attitudes and circumstances of the main characters, and then simply stops. It’s as though the pilot of a plane reaches the destination, but can’t figure out how to land the bird.
It’s unfortunate when it happens, because it always seems to be a book that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. The weak ending, though…it breaks the immersion, there at the end where I want it to be most satisfying. I realize this is my preference only, but I want the denouement, the falling action, the wrap-up. I don’t want it to last too long—I want to land the bird—but I do want it to be there. I want to know that my characters will live, if not happily ever after, at least their version of it.
I followed that pattern in my novel, The Last Shot. I included a short epilogue, in which the protagonists awaken in the hospital after a very violent night. I won’t spoil the ending, but I can say that I wanted to make it clear that the right people survived, and the right people didn’t, and that there would be a future for these characters in whom I had just invested a hundred thousand words. When the story ended, it was well and truly ended. (And a five-year-old had pizza. Can’t forget the pizza!)
So, what do you think? Let’s hear your opinions. How do you like your endings? Short and to the point—maybe a little too much to the point—or explanatory and deliberate? And have you had any experiences with endings that let you down? Let me know what you think!
Happy Reading! (And to Neal Stephenson, should you ever see this post: I have nothing but respect for you, and your book was a learning experience for me. Regardless of my comments about the ending, great book!)