This post originally appeared in our CEO, Deborah Natelson's, blog.
There is a thriller movie starring a famous actor based on a novella by a famous writer. The main character is also a writer, and a major plot point in the movie is the importance of having the right ending. It is not enough to slap an ending on; if it’s not the right ending, it’s not good enough. It must be fixed.
Ironically, the movie has a different ending from the novella—and, in my opinion, a much better ending. You see, the novella ends with a slapped-on happy ending: a minor cop character from a hundred pages earlier reappears at exactly the right moment, having figured everything out, and saves the day. (See my last month’s post, Stop Cheating Your Reader.) By contrast, the film ends with . . . no one coming to save the day. The person in danger has to fight for life herself and win or—as in this case—lose on her own merits.
I like happy endings, personally. I like my media to have the possibility of hope throughout the narrative, and to end happily. But more important to me than something ending happily is it ending appropriately: no deus ex machina.
I once saw someone write that a deus ex machina never works except in Diana Wynne Jones’s Dark Lord of Derkholm, but I would argue that that book doesn't have an ex machina: it clearly establishes at multiple points in the narrative that the gods in the world could take action under certain circumstances. (On a side note, Dark Lord of Derkholm is one of my very favorite books by my absolute favorite author; 100% recommended.) My point here is: having powerful characters come in at the last moment to lend aid isn’t cheating your ending or a deus ex machina if those powerful characters aren’t coming in out of nowhere—if they’re established throughout the book and then called upon. The only time I think a deus ex machina isn’t horrifying is when done in a comedy or parody . . . but even then, presumably the rules of the universe have been established to show the audience that sharp turns and randomness can come out of nowhere, so it’s sticking with its premise.
And, for the record, I’ve always hated the ending to Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
But I’m digressing. Let’s go back to right endings. In this case, to one of my own books: The Fifth Tunnel. Many authors have a book they wanted to write before they died. For me, it was The Fifth Tunnel (which I always called Waste Pit). I was originally inspired by a dream when I was 12. Knowing I needed to write it, I figured I’d better get it over with soon in case I died early, so I wrote the first draft at 17.
The Fifth Tunnel does not have a traditionally happy ending. In fact, it has by far the most tragic ending of all of my books. It is full of melancholy and loneliness. Although I did not understand this while writing it, in many ways, the book is about depression: about the downward, reinforcing spiral of depression and its inevitable end, if it is not stopped.
When I told my mother, while I was writing it, the ending, she said she couldn’t believe any story could realistically end like that and she was sure it wouldn’t be right. When she finally read the book, she was forced to concede that it was the perfect ending for the book—although she hated the ending and wished it were happy. But I got her to agree that a "happy" ending wouldn't have been appropriate.
I wish the ending were happy, too. I wish it could have been both right and happy, but it couldn’t—and, when given the opportunity, I will always choose right over happy. In life and in books.
. . . And now I am feeling rather melancholy, although I didn’t mean to go down this path. So I’ll just leave you, fair reader—and you, who may be a writer—with:
Let your ending be the right one. Let it be the inevitable, truthful one. Let it be the deserved one, the one that does not cheat or ex machina. Let it fit your tone and your message and your characters. Let it fit. Please. I would rather shed tears over honest sorrow than be left cold by false joy.
Although, mind, if the truthful ending is a happy one—I’d like that even better.