I like books that are exciting; stories in which lots of sensually titillating things happen. These novels build, for me, an interesting time and place; a world that I want to visit again and again. For this reason, there are, in my opinion, two essential components to the end of a great book: one of which relates to the way in which all stories should end, and the other to do with my individual preferences as a reader.
The first concerns denouement. The start of a good novel asks one or more questions or introduces a mystery. The end of the novel should mirror this in that it answers those questions, solves that mystery and ties off any other loose ends that are introduced into the story midway.
The second is all about sequels. A good novel, for me, builds an exciting world – somewhere I’d like to escape to and perhaps (safely, from a distance) inhabit for a short while. The ending to such a novel should hold out the promise of a sequel. This can be in the form of a postscript which, like an after-credits scene in certain movies, gives a taster of the next events in the story; a glimpse into the future.
A book that fulfils both those criteria is The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley. The first sentence throws us immediately into the thoughts of the protagonist: “I remember throwing away a child.” Immediately we are thrown off balance by this statement. Questions come rushing in: what kind of a world exists in which one would throw away a child? Who is this child? Why was the child thrown away? What happened to the character as a consequence of this? Did the child live? Gradually, throughout this book, the questions are answered and new ones are posed and, by the end, the denouement is complete. The reader is satisfied and can go back to the real world with some sense of having been entertained and refreshed. A short scene is then offered which looks to the fictional future. A vista is presented, expanded upon and the hint (but no more than that) of a new question is given. We can either stop at that point or journey on with these characters into the future.
A book that does not fulfil these criteria is The End of the Story by Lydia Davis. The only reason I picked up this book is that it was included (in error I think) on the list of recommended reads for A803 (Creative Writing MA). This undifferentiated catalogue of obsession is largely plotless and as such does not follow the structure of genre fiction (three acts starting media res and ending with a climax that clears everything up). There are some realist elements in that the events are set on Earth and the characters interact with each other in normal ways, but the format is more modernist in that the majority of the text consists of one conscious stream – without chapter breaks or mercy for the reader’s finer feelings. The first sentence describes the end state of the book and so there are no questions asked and no answers required. The end of the book is contrived in that it rests on an artificial device. There is nothing warm in this book and so no need for me to revisit it. This is the only novel by this author and, as far as I can determine, she has no plans to write another. I was not actually frustrated or displeased by the end of this novel; I was more pleased that I had reached the end and could exit the author’s rather cold seeming mind.
And if you want to see scenes, sections and chapters that end satisfyingly, then look no further than How to Become a Writer by Lorrie Moore. The full text of this story is available as a PDF here, and it is a delight. Each small section is in the form of a little anecdote or story. Look at the first line of each part, and then the last line and you will find that they follow on perfectly. The first line sets up the joke and the last one delivers a perfect, deadpan punchline. The whole is an exquisite jewel of a story, which is a chapter in the life (real or fictional, I do not know) of the author. I can think of no finer example of multiple, satisfying endings.