Resisting the neat ending

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about endings for stories. Sticking the landing for an ending to a book or short story is often a very difficult aspect of writing. There’s a tendency in writing to try to wrap things up in a neat bow, brought on no doubt by plenty of Hollywood and Disney classics, but some of the most gut-punching endings that I’ve encountered as a reader leave me with more questions than answers. So what makes an open-ended ending work?

Spoiler warnings here for Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, which prompted this meditation, and Malice of Crows by Lila Bowen. While you won’t get the whole plot, you will get a discussion of the end itself, so if you haven’t read these books and want to be surprised, you probably should bookmark this and come back.

I first read Malice of Crows a few years ago, and I have to say that I was crazy excited about this book when I cracked the cover. I read it all in one sitting, and the ending was a jagged splinter.

This book is the third book in a series that I’ve previously written about on the blog, and it is the book in which Rhett, the main character, finally is able to consummate his longtime affection for his fellow Ranger, Sam. The tension between Rhett’s destiny as the Shadow and his love for Sam is a key theme in the book, and one that comes to a bloody conclusion on the final pages, when Sam dies in his arms.

There’s no moment where we are allowed to process this grief, or explore it further. There is Rhett, watching Sam breathe his last. There is the circling of birds in the sky.

I had a lot of problems with this ending when I read it, not least because of the kill your gays warning flag it threw up for me, and the idea that monsters (like Rhett) couldn’t be with humans (like Sam). But that’s a separate blogpost entirely, of course. What really threw me was how the story stopped in media res. The scene was not fully concluded. No one packed their bags. There was no funeral, no grieving, no falling action that I could see.

And then I found the same thing in Certain Dark Things. And loved it.

To be clear, it’s not so much that someone dies at the end of this book, though several someones do. It is the vividness, the clear, knife’s edge of the moment that it ends on. Atl and Domingo have fought free. Atl has largely survived because of Domingo’s help, but she chooses, in the last, fraught moments of the story, to leave him behind. We see this scene largely through Domingo’s eyes. The last moments are described vividly. The way their eyes meet in the dark. The way he knows exactly what she is thinking. The way he obeys her, the way he doesn’t chase her, doesn’t speak, but cannot look away.

We don’t know what happens next, not for sure. Does Atl enter the car? Does she make it to Brazil? What about Domingo? Does he survive, build a new life with the money she leaves him? Or does he die not long after, victim of another wave of enemies, or even just random chance? The text offers us no answers.

To me, these open endings have a kind of poetry that is more often found in the short story than the novel. They are a balancing act, as all endings are, a decision to stop telling the tale. At some point you have to stop telling the tale, after all.

What makes this ending work for a book like Certain Dark Things, and not work for other stories? It may be a genre issue, or a perceived genre issue. When I was reading Malice of Crows, for example, I was reading a weird western tale, one that had strong horror elements and was arguably darker than previous books but which I fully expected to have an ending that would fit more neatly into that genre — the hero wins the day. Reading Certain Dark Things, a vampire novel set amidst drug cartels, full of gritty, morally ambiguous characters, I knew from the beginning that it was perfectly possible that the two main characters wouldn’t survive. In some ways the ending, while cutting, was a relief. It could have been so much worse.

Reader expectations certainly play a large part in how an ending resonates. But they also can’t be the only consideration when a writer is figuring out exactly what they want to say with their story. And it’s undeniable that, in both cases, these endings will stick with me.

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