I’ll be posting a series of thoughts on what makes endings great. This is the introductory one. of course, any blog about endings is gonna be one long damn spoiler alert, so I’ll mark what sources I’m about to smash the excitement out of before each post.
#SpoilerAlert: The last two Harry Potter books: The Half Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows. You’ve been warned.
Thoughts On Finality and Ambiguity
I used to end all my stories like this: “CRASH!! “Oh my god! Oh my god!” Ba-BOOM! Shaka-shaka-shaka-ZOooOOOOOM!!! “My leg!!” POW! Drip drip drip…” I was in the third grade and I would start each one with a rush of inspiration, get bored and cut them all off midstory with a onomatopoeiac massacre. Then I’d start the next one.
The ending, of course, is crucial. It’s how we writers get to leave a taste in our readers’ mouths, the final resounding note, the chance to clinch it all together or leave it blissfully ambiguous. Or it can just fall flat. The ending is the culmination of all those macro and micro tensions gathering throughout the book and whether it goes out in a whimper or a bang, it has to resound.
As a fully grown writer, the first book that had me really thinking about endings from a craft perspective was the final Harry Potter book, The Deathly Hallows. This is the ending of all endings, in a sense; after six other books of gathering momentum, increasingly intense peril and stakes that get higher with every page, the final chapter had to hit home or its flop would be epic. Let’s start actually with the setup: the sixth book, The Half Blood Prince leaves off where every good penultimate edition should, on a grim, desperate note for the good guys (see The Empire Strikes Back). Someone is either dead or frozen in carbonite and we want – no we need to find out where all this is going.
So Hallows had a big build up, both narratively and because all eyes were on it just on the basis of how huge a phenomenon the Potter series had become. It delivers. The book deepens the mythology, builds on tensions set up in the earlier books while breakin
g the Hogwarts school year mold and propelling its characters out into the cruel world in a welcome departure. The final battle, which has been brewing since at least book 4, gathers all the varied forces of good and evil (and, maybe most importantly, in between) that we’ve met throughout the journey. It is a devastating fight and because the mortality of these characters has already been shown to devastating effect, we really don’t know which of our heroes will make it out alive, if any. Harry’s own emotional journey lines up nicely with the gathering storm and he gets his moment of facing his greatest fear all by himself before the momentous arrival of his ancestors to help guide the way. His final actions against Voldemort are transcendant; they break through the simple good versus evil battlelines and still work within the overall magic of Rowling’s world. And victory feels like a sigh of relief – what’s at stake was worth saving and something larger happened to the characters along the way: they grew.
So what makes a great ending? The elements above work so well because they fit within the larger story, but which elements can we say across the board leave the right stamp on our final words? The next couple posts will be thoughts on what makes things click.