Good Endings

What makes an ending good? If we're immersed in a good story, do we ever want it to end? What will convince us that we feel good—or at least satisfied—when something is over?

In Adam, a film by writer and director Max Mayer, one ending is shown, but in the Special Features section an alternate ending is listed. I didn't want to choose the ending. I wanted the artist to be confident and present his vision. But after watching the film I was not satisfied. Without giving a spoiler, I'll just say that the writer discarded the audience's feelings with the official ending. For the past ninety minutes, two characters had a relationship and we, the audience, had a relationship with both characters; sad or happy, we needed the right resolution with each.

I originally thought the alternate ending would be a cheesy, feel-good ending, but in fact the emotional landing point of the alternate ending was an open feeling of universal hope rather than what I was left with: the mundane feeling of "life goes on, we change, isn't it great." It turns out that the alternate ending was actually the film's original ending. The commentary tells us that when the film went to Sundance, the audience didn't respond to it, so Mayers changed it. Except, in my opinion, the audience was wrong. This is why artists don't make art by consensus: the results are mediocre.

What makes a good ending? I'm still struggling with this concept in my own work, and it fascinates me. The facts that the—what? eight minutes?—of the film's ending made such a huge impact on both the story and how I felt about it suggests that there may be many other salvageable stories out there. Maybe even some great ones. Eight minutes. One or two or three sentences. Very interesting. (Related post: Between the First & Last Lines.)

A writer whose work I'm immersed in currently, and who is becoming one of my favorite authors is William Trevor. Not only is his word choice and storytelling masterful, but the endings are almost always satisfying. They make sense with the story and they seem truthful even when they are sad. When I get to the end of one of his stories I tend to say, "ah, of course," because that end seems like the only end it could have. This doesn't mean it is predictable—because it never is—but just that it is fitting.

So, check it out. If you have a story in a drawer that is finished, but doesn't feel right, see what happens if you chop off the ending and rewrite it from a few different angles. If you're not sure how it works, try reading a substantial batch of Selected Stories and ask, "What would William Trevor do?"

(Instructions for volvelle on page 123 in Making Handmade Books.)

It Wasn't Until I Saw You  (volvelle with alternate endings), 2011


ronnie said…
I like that in the alternative pictured, your story has a warm handed ending at least.... (ps I have a soft spot for the movie 'adam' - my young nephew and niece both have autism.... I'm waiting to see if they get a happy ending for their stories....)