In reading submissions for Ruminate, one of the more frustrating story failures is this: the poor ending.
- No resolution. The major story question is never answered.
- The deus ex machina solution. God or superhero or suddenly powerful figure appearing from nowhere drops a convenient solution on the seemingly insolvable problem.
- The story that doesn’t want to end. There’s a resolution, the story questions are answered, and all is well in story-land, but then the author continues on. And on. And on. Depending on the length of the story, it could be five more paragraphs or five more pages or five more chapters before the author types “The End.”
- The clichéd ending. The “whole world before them” ending has been done too often, as if everyone wants to pay homage to Paradise Lost without reading it. News flash: if you are reading my blog, then you are not John Milton. (And if you are J.M., please go back to quietly decaying in your grave, okay? You’ve ruffled my feminist feathers enough.)
Of the four problems, the lack of resolution issue sticks in my craw.
Whenever I’m reading a particularly great submission, I’m half reading and half hoping that the author ends well. If she does, great. I can click “yes” without hesitation, if all else works. But if she doesn’t end well, I am frustrated.
I need to have the major conflict resolved in a satisfactory way, one that makes sense in the world of the story. I don’t have to like it. But I need that sense of closure. Or, if the lack of resolution is deliberate, I need to sense that this was a deliberate decision on the author’s part and not a failure to include the final page of the submission.
Over at Chip MacGregor’s blog, literary agent Erin Buterbaugh has begun a new series called “How to Ruin a Book at the Last Minute.” She writes,
“(B)ut there has to be some kind of resolution (a “story” is defined at its most basic, after all, as having a beginning, middle and end), and the reader does have to be left with the sense that the author is still in control of his universe and is fully aware of the lack of resolution rather than feeling like the author has been stringing them along and dumped them in the middle of nowhere without a map, or worse still, that the author has forgotten about the plot holes, unsolved mysteries, and unfinished subplots. The former feels like a con on the part of the author, and the latter like bad craftsmanship.”
So finishing well matters.
Isn’t this also true in life?
In 2 Timothy, the apostle Paul writes to his close friend Timothy,
6For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; 8in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6-8)
I thought of these verses as I read Erin’s blog post. Paul was in prison. While he’d faced deadly perils before (floggings, shipwrecks, stoning, imprisonment), this time the end was certain: he would be executed. How had he lived his life?
However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me–the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.
1 Corinthians 9:25–26
Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.
His one desire: to complete the race well.
How? By aiming toward that end and pressing on relentlessly.
There’s a certain inherent conflict in life. We all know death will come for each of us. For the Christian, from the time of justification, glorification is the certain end.
To use story terms, that conflict is resolved. The story question—will I go to heaven?—is answered. But just because that question is answered doesn’t make the process any less important. And the ending part of that process matters just as much as the beginning.
Think about this:
In a classic murder mystery, the reader expects the hero-detective (Adam Dalgliesh or Armand Gamache or whoever) to unmask the killer. Who is it? We don’t know. How will he figure it out? We don’t know that either. That’s why we keep reading.
But we wouldn’t keep reading if Gamache just gave up ten pages from the end of the novel. Threw up his hands, declared that justice didn’t matter, and that he really just wanted to sit down with a glass of wine and a good book and vegetate.
Or if he did aimless things that had nothing to do with the case: went to the beach or partied at the nightclub. He’d end up with a nice tan or a terrific hangover, but when we reached the last page, we still don’t know whodunit.
Talk about a failure to resolve story conflict. Talk about a bad ending.
If you’re familiar with either P.D. James’ Dalgliesh or Louise Penny’s Gamache, you know that neither man would do this. They’re Pauline in their zeal for justice and relentless pursuit of the killer. There’s no aimless air-boxing or treadmill-jogging.
They want the conflict resolved.
They want that answer.
They want to finish well.
And that’s how we should be in our lives. Take aim for the finish line, pursue it wholeheartedly, and cross that finish line to hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Now that’s a good ending.