Must thriller novels end on a happily-ever-after note? Or can authors follow a darker path? Along with several other authors, I considered those questions in an online roundtable hosted by International Thriller Writers.
Here’s my take on how novels should end:
Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls has stuck with me since I was a teenager, in large part because of its very un-Hollywood ending. The story concludes with Hemingway’s character Robert Jordan in a moment of relative quiet, weapon at the ready. You know he’s about to fire that weapon. You also know he’s toast. But Hemingway doesn’t need to tell you that explicitly. So much of his strength as a writer derives from what he leaves unsaid. The strength of the English language lies in understatement, and nobody understood that better than Hemingway.
I drew inspiration from Hemingway when I wrote the ending to my debut novel, The Mullah’s Storm. Without giving too much away I’ll just tell you that it ends with my main character, Michael Parson, also in a moment of relative quiet, waiting to fire. His situation is just a little more hopeful than Robert Jordan’s, but his fate remains in doubt. I wanted the reader to think about what was most important to Parson: he had completed his mission. Everything else–even his own life–came second. Like many real-world military people, he knew he was expendable, and he was prepared to die for his friends and his cause.
The novels I have written since then–Silent Enemy (2011) and The Renegades (coming July 2012)–have more definitive, conclusive endings. The narrative arcs led naturally to endings with more finality. But does that mean I’d never again write an ending like that of The Mullah’s Storm? Not necessarily. It all depends on the story. Art imitates life. And life’s events (military missions in particular!) don’t always end with the perfect coda, ready to cut to commercial.
An ending can do a lot of things: It can wrap up the story once and for all. It can serve as a cliffhanger leading to a sequel. It can make a thesis statement. The ultimate question is this: What final thought do you want to leave with your readers?
(For the full discussion, please visit The Big Thrill website.) http://www.thebigthrill.org/2012/04/coming-april-30-may-6-is-the-reading-public-expecting-a-happily-ever-after/
Tom, thanks for your comments on this subject. In my book, endings are the most important part of a story. That said, I hate to see most novels I read end because they are so good. Especially yours. I must say that I have noticed some writers seem to be coming to an abrupt end lately. This is especially disappointing with one of my all-time favorite authors in his last 2 or 3 novels.
Is this a new trend with writers or are marketing factors at work here (as I suspect)?
Thanks for those kind words, Shawn. I certainly appreciate your support. As far as abrupt endings are concerned, I’m not aware of any particular marketing force at work. I’ve never heard one kind of ending sells better than another. You’re probably seeing something that reflects the author’s own style and taste. Some modern novels end less conclusively than traditional novels, but an author can get away with only so much. After all, every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end.