[GUEST POST] DK Mok on Endings, and What Comes After

DK Mok lives in Sydney, Australia, and writes fantasy, science fiction and urban fantasy novels and short stories. DK graduated from UNSW with a degree in Psychology, pursuing her interest in both social justice and scientist humour. Her urban fantasy novel The Other Tree is available now (Spence City). DK’s short stories include ‘Morning Star’ in One Small Step (Fablecroft), ‘Autumn Moon’ in Holiday Magick (Spencer Hill Press), and ‘Keeping It Together’ in Midnight Movie: Creature Feature (May December Publications). Find more online at www.dkmok.com, on Twitter @dk_mok or on Facebook.

Endings, and What Comes After
by DK Mok

I tend to remember endings.

I still recall with intense clarity where I was when I finished reading John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things. Sitting at a wobbly plastic table, afternoon light slanting in through the windows, the world around me seeming to stretch and shrink and hang in that moment of silence and light.

I love a good ending, although what constitutes a “good” ending can vary immensely. Sometimes, what an author considers an apt finale can leave readers taking to social media in an unholy rage. This can occur when an ending is rushed, poorly written, or unconvincing. But sometimes, this occurs because the ending is not what the reader wanted or expected.

I’ve heard some discussions characterise this as the “upbeat” vs. “downbeat” ending, with downbeat or ambiguous endings more acceptable in literary fiction, and upbeat endings preferred in commercial fiction. In science fiction and fantasy stories, I think we tend to see a healthy spectrum of both: from the generally optimistic, but sometimes bittersweet, books of authors like Robin McKinley, Garth Nix and Terry Pratchett, to the powerful, but sometimes harrowing epics of authors like Kim Stanley Robinson and George R. R. Martin. And even Pratchett kills off his protagonists sometimes, albeit with a lethal dose of contented old age.

Whenever I think of legacies-personal or professional-I’m reminded of a quote by author and poet Maya Angelou:

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I’m like that with stories. Long after the details of the plot have blurred in my memory, I’ll often still remember how I felt when I turned that last page, and sat with the closed book resting in my hands.

Naturally, beginnings are important too. The first chapter, the first line, can determine whether or not someone will proceed any further with a book. However, it’s the ending that often decides how the reader will judge the book, whether they will recommend it to friends, or read the author’s next work.

For me, endings define a story. A great ending can redeem a shaky novel, and a bad ending can ruin a brilliant one.

A few months ago, at a writing convention, an author I admire described his experience of reading a particular bestselling novel. He said that while it had been written in a compelling style and kept him turning the pages, the story itself had left him greatly dissatisfied, and by the sounds of it, rather angry that he’d spent time reading it.

There are countless kinds of endings: uplifting, cathartic, whimsical, thought-provoking. And the brilliant thing is, there are just as many kinds of readers.

Some readers seek endings that leave them feeling comforted or inspired. Others want to be left feeling awed, even shaken. I’ve heard some people describe their favourite plays as the ones that send them shambling from the theatre afterwards, feeling dazed and disoriented.

There are few things that all good endings have in common, but a satisfying conclusion is often one of them. This doesn’t always mean closure, but it can help if it feels that something was achieved, something was learned, changed, or accomplished. If not by the characters, then at least by the writer. Perhaps a mood was captured, a message imparted, an idea triggered. This is why closing lines like “And it was all a dream” can send even the most pacifist book-nerd into a pyrokinetic fury.

Reader expectations can also play a significant role in the way an ending is received. If you promote your novel as an upbeat, waffles-and-ice-cream romance, and it ends like a scene from Game of Thrones, readers are possibly going to be upset. Likewise, if you promote your novel as gritty, pulse-pounding horror, and the finale involves a cheery double-wedding without any trace of brain-parasites/zombies/xenomorphs, readers may also be angry. However, this isn’t a firm rule-some readers like to be surprised.

It can be challenging, shaping the story you want to tell, while taking into consideration how you hope your readers will feel when they turn the last page. Whether your intention is to build trust, or leave an impact, or something else altogether, the goal is usually to leave the reader feeling that their time in your world was well-spent.

Endings, more than any other aspect of the novel, tell a reader what the story was about. They reveal the writer’s vision. They complete the message. A story that seems to be going in one direction can suddenly reveal itself to be about something completely unexpected.

I remember endings, because the end of a story is often the writer’s way of saying, “And that’s what I wanted to share with you”.