How to End a Novel

The March 1971 issue of National Lampoon contained an article, “How to Write Good,” by my favorite writer at the mag back then, Michael O’Donoghue. In that article, in the section titled “Lesson 2 – The Ending,” O’Donoghue writes:

All too often, the budding author finds that his tale has run its course and yet he sees no way to satisfactorily end it, or, in literary parlance, “wrap it up.” Observe how easily I resolve this problem:

Suddenly, everyone was run over by a truck. -the end-

Imagine my surprise when, as I’m reading through the fiction submissions to Vegas Lit, I find out that it’s not uncommon at all for writers to actually end their novels that way—to literally knock off the main character at the end, if not by hitting him with a truck, then by suddenly killing him in some other way that has nothing to do with the story.

And if the writer doesn’t kill off the main character, he suddenly kills off the main character’s enemy in some random way. Have you read Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger? If not, you saw the flick. How exciting would that film have been if Bond’s mission suddenly ended because Goldfinger, an obese codger who’d spent his life drinking hard liquor and smoking cigars, died of a coronary before he made it to Fort Knox? It would be logical for a guy like that to have a fatal heart attack, so why not? Fleming could have saved himself the anguish of trying to figure out how the hell Bond was going to get out of the jam he was in, and America’s gold bullion would be right there where Glenn Beck wanted it. But just because an ending’s logical doesn’t mean it’s satisfying.

Other novels that don’t actually kill off the main characters do something that’s the moral equivalent—the writer backs out of his plot predicament (you just know he’s sick of working on this book!) with an announcement that everything is suddenly back to normal. In these manuscripts, none of the conflicts are resolved, they just disappear. The partners who were going to kill each other suddenly decide to keep working together, or to stay married, or to end their quest and go home. The big change is never explained to the reader’s satisfaction. Some flimsy excuse will be provided by the author, but it won’t be anything that developed over the course of the novel.

The problem is that many writers don’t understand the concept of plot, meaning a story that goes from point A to point B in a way that is satisfying to the reader. In her book Feeling and Form, the great philosopher of art, Susanne K. Langer, identified two great dramatic forms (or plotlines)—the tragic rhythm and the comic rhythm. For Langer, comedy presents “the vital rhythm of self-preservation,” the struggle of an organism to “keep its equilibrium amid the bombardment of aimless forces that beset it, to regain equilibrium when it has been disturbed, and to pursue a sequence of actions dictated by the need of keeping…their structure intact.”

In other words, comedy is about a character’s impulse to survive, and reach some new equilibrium, when something has thrown him off balance. Once again, think James Bond. Every James Bond story is a comedy.

Tragedy, by contrast, presents the vital rhythm of “self-consummation,” according to Langer. Its rhythm is that of the life of an individual, where “each separate body… having completed its growth…becomes decadent and finally dies. Its life has a definite beginning, ascent, turning point, descent and close…and the close is inevitably death.”

While comedy is about what the world brings to the man or woman, tragedy is about what the man or woman brings to the world. Langer says, “What [the tragic hero] brings is his potentiality: his mental, moral and even physical powers, his powers to act and suffer… Tragic drama is so designed that the protagonist grows mentally, emotionally, or morally, by the demand of the action, which he himself initiated, to the complete exhaustion of his powers, the limit of his possible development. He spends himself in the course of the one dramatic action.”

In other words, don’t be killing off your protagonist to end your novel unless you’ve written a tragedy in which the death is the inexorable consummation of the action that the character initiated. And if you’re killing off a tragic hero, there should be some level on which the hero has also succeeded, even though the success led to his death. Moreover, the success should be on a level that’s important to both him and the reader. A good example would be Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. McMurphy triumphs, but pays the full price. In a tragedy, the death of the hero is never surprising. In fact, we wonder how the hero managed to survive and succeed as long as he did.

If you’re trying to figure out what your novel is, it’s probably a comedy. A comedy doesn’t have to be funny, like a sit-com.  A novel with a comic structure can be a romance, a Western, a mystery, a thriller—anything written according to the comic rhythm. Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho is a comedy.  So are Black Spring and Gone With the Wind.

If you’ve written a comedy, there should be something about the final adaptation achieved by the hero or heroine that is surprising (or at the very least, amusing) to the reader. There should be some kind of a twist that the reader wasn’t expecting, because if the adaptation to the problems thrown at the hero by the world is resolved in too easy or predictable a way, the hero’s struggle was never worth a novel in the first place.



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