At the age of 13, I finished The Return of the King. Because I fell in love with Middle Earth and its many characters, I wanted to learn more about its rich history. Thankfully, Mr. Tolkien left us the appendices and his son compiled his work on The Silmarillion. But even if he didn’t leave this information for us, I would have been more than satisfied at the finish of The Return of the King.
The Return of the King technically ended when the eagles rescued Frodo and Sam. Everything from The Field of Cormallen to The Grey Havens (6 chapters) is tying up some unfinished character arc’s and gives us the chance to truly say goodbye to each character we’ve fallen in love with. Some people hate it and argue the ending of the series is drawn out. Others gush with each tear-filled moment, thankful for the opportunity.
Why am I rambling like the Tolkien nerd I am?
Now that I’ve finished A Memory of Light, the last book in The Wheel of Time series, I became curious what other people thought of the ending. I wasn’t surprised that people who’ve waited 14 books for an ending had strong opinions. What did surprise me was a common reaction to the finish.
It was too abrupt.
As writers, we are told that today’s reader is lazy and possesses a short attention span. If you don’t grab their attention immediately and maintain it throughout the entirety of the story, they will throw your book down in disgust. While I disagree with the accusation of the modern reader’s reading ethic, I do agree with the need to maintain page-turning tension from start to finish.
However, I am beginning to disagree with the notion that most readers hate a lengthy denouement. After the climax, readers want mysteries solved (insert your personal LOST complaint here). They want to see their heroes happy and their villains miserable (or redeemed). Without giving too much away, A Memory of Light gave me enough of a glimpse into the future to satisfy my hopes and concerns for the characters I grew to love. However, for a 14 book series, a 17 page epilogue left many disappointed. Angrily disappointed.
This surprised me. I’m not a sales person in the book industry. I figured I was the exception to the rule in that I don’t put a book down after reading the first few pages if it doesn’t grab me. I figured my fascination with encyclopedias and appendices about fantasy worlds was just my nerd-hood rising to the surface. Maybe those sales people are right. Maybe they’re not. I have made a conclusion though.
The part after the ending is not as important as the ending, but you better give a sense of closure to the reader that doesn’t disappoint.
Some stories lend themselves to open-ended final pages. But that will upset readers in most stories, especially in series fiction. And I think particularly in fantasy stories. Just as the ending must reward the reader for their time investment, the parts after the ending must place a satisfying cherry on top.
When I finally sat down to write The Godslayer Series years ago, the first scene I wrote was the final scene. I had finished mulling over the ending and I didn’t want to lose the emotions that filled me at the moment.
It was poorly written to be honest. Lots of telling. Loads of adverbs. Despite all of this, I somehow captured the emotions I felt at the time. I only say this because when people read it, they have a very emotional reaction despite knowing nothing about the characters in the story. It’s still the most vivid scene in my mind and barring the axe of a publisher, it will be the final scene of the series (re-written for craft issues – I wrote it 10 years ago).
Randy Ingermanson states that our goal as writer’s is to give the reader a powerful emotion experience. The ending must do this, but so must the parts after the ending. Whether a plotter or seat-of-the-pants writer, I believe we must take the time to make the final scenes of our stories just as powerful as the other scenes in the book.
Yes, the main tension might be gone now that the climax is finished. But a journey doesn’t end with the plane landing at the airport. People gather their belongings and often greet their loved ones as they exit the airport. When I arrive back from a trip, I’m not truly home until I’m sitting in the passenger seat and kissing my bride.
In finishing our stories, I believe we must bring the reader home.
What say you? Do you prefer a gut-ratcheting climax followed by a quick end? Or do you long for a chance to say goodbye to the characters you’ve spent the journey with?