How many of you have found a book has been ruined by its ending? Me too.
Turns out that in fact we are hard-wired to wait for that pay-off, that final few moments of the story when it gives us its meaning. Here’s what a scientific experiment told us about endings:
The Peak-end Rule
The peak–end rule was proposed by Barbara Fredrickson and Daniel Kahneman. This model dictates that an event is not judged not by the entirety of an experience, (in our case a novel) but by remembered moments (or snapshots) which dominate the actual value of an experience. Fredrickson and Kahneman’s theory was that these snapshots are formed by
a) the most intense moment of an experience and
b)even more often the feeling experienced at the end. (From our point of view; the climax and the ending).
In brief, Kahneman and Frederickson proved this by doing some experiments. In a 1993 study titled “When More Pain Is Preferred to Less: Adding a Better End”, participants were subjected to two different versions of a single unpleasant experience. The first version had subjects plunge their hand in freezing water for 60 seconds. The second trial had subjects submerge the other hand in 14 °C water for 60 seconds, but then keep their hand submerged for an additional 30 seconds, during which the temperature was raised to 15 °C.
Subjects were then offered the option of which of these trials to repeat.
Subjects were more willing to repeat the second trial, despite a longer exposure to uncomfortable temperatures, because of its ‘happy ending’. Kahneman’s theory: “subjects chose the long trial simply because they liked the memory of it better than the alternative”, in other words the ending where the temperature was more comfortable, was remembered. From this we can see that the ending is what lets us make sense, or meaning from the story. (For more info on Peak-End Theory go here)
So, how do we make an ending memorable?
For me, one of the first criteria is resonance. The novel has to feel as though it means something, and that it hasn’t just stopped randomly in the middle of events. Series writers often have trouble with this as their book does need to stop in the middle of a plot. Resonance can be achieved by using the key theme and image for a book, and for a series, this image can overarch the series.
Resonance can also be achieved by examining the opening pages of the novel and looking for the promises implicit in them. Many historical novels use their settings and the history to place the story in a greater context at the end. Often the reader knows what happens next, and most readers have great imaginations which can be needled into action by an apt image. For an ending, the image of a character standing at the executioner’s block is usually better than the one describing the execution in graphic detail. Particularly in tragic endings, we can let the reader do the work for us, as with great events, they know what comes next.
In the picture at the top of this post, the moment just before the crown is placed on the head is the poignant one. It would be much less so if the crown were already on the head.
Endings shouldn’t be too neat or they will feel contrived. A reader likes to be left with food for thought, so that the book continues to grow in the mind. This makes for memorable fiction. An understated ending is often better than one which is over-dramatic. Even a small thing can have resonance – your novel builds to this single moment funnelling everything towards it. So make it an image or a sentence or a paragraph to remember. Also try to give it some movement, something upon which the reader can travel out of the book, so that the reader can segue away naturally.
Here’s one of my favourite endings:
‘She stared intently up at the low ridge of hills ahead where rumour had it that the Communists camped out, as if she could keep him safe by sheer force of will alone. She sent out a ripple of her own.
The train growled to a start.’
– Kate Furnivall, The Russian Concubine
It works because it shows an intense emotion. It also has forward movement. The train is taking us out of the world of the book. We are also hopeful that the Lydia sending out her will to Chang An Lo will enable him to survive. As for the ripples – earlier, Lydia says that ‘Everyone who touched your life sent a ripple effect through you, and all the ripples interconnected.’
Have you a favourite ending to a book?
My latest History Post – The Problem of Letters for a Historical Novelist is on The History Girls Blog
Want more on writing? Try my posts on the sins of Historical Fiction: