I once read in a writing manual that the most important part of a book was the opening. Readers had to be drawn in, seduced, convinced that this was what they wanted to read. The ending? Well, a good one would be nice...
And yet, as readers, we’re still scouring the book reviews and canvassing friends for feedback before we hand over our money or start to read. That book everyone’s talking about: will it repay hours of concentration, hours in which we could be reading something else?
And what’s one thing guaranteed to turn us off? News that the ending sucks. That after investing all those hours – snatched from demanding work schedules, family life, and sleep – we’ll find ourselves disappointed. We don’t have time for that.
So what makes a good ending?
The first rule for crime and thriller endings would seem obvious: answer the question you asked at the outset. Yes, there are novels that can withhold an answer – present to the reader a greater truth, that sometimes we just can’t know – and still be satisfying. But who’s murdering young women in The Silence of the Lambs? Why are monks dying in The Name of the Rose, and why are their fingers stained black? Can you imagine finishing either of those books, without finding out? That answer mustn’t be too convoluted. We don’t want to wade through pages of exposition. We may get bored or we may sense the author’s trying to sell us his or her ending. However complex the plot, the answer must be simple.
But a good ending doesn’t just satisfy intellectually; it satisfies emotionally too. It’s not just correct, but fitting. Often that means the answer has to be earned. Not by the reader (we’ve done our bit, investing time and energy in the book) but by the main character. In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling is sent to Hannibal Lecter because he may know who the killer is. If Lecter had handed over the name on a piece of paper which Clarice somehow managed to forget until the crucial moment at the end, we would have felt monstrously cheated. Clarice has to work to get her answer. More: she has to suffer. Humiliation, rejection, risk to life – the protagonist may go through all these things, to earn their answer.
Clarice does, and that leads to the final confrontation of that book – one that I didn’t see coming. And here’s another key good ending element: surprise, or shock. A twist. Often it’s the antagonist’s identity – the last person anyone would suspect, though crime readers are good at this game, and look beadily at seeming-innocence. But the shock may not necessarily be whodunnit. It may be why, or how the scene plays out.
Back to the confrontation itself. Antagonist and protagonist are brought face to face – another essential element. What happens next? It has to be a culmination of everything we’ve read so far – not just in terms of who-did-what, but as an expression of the world of the novel. In the golden age of crime – the age of Christie, Sayers and Allingham – that world was often based on moral certainties, and so the endings came in black and white: the good guy won, the villain got punished. But crime novels today often inhabit worlds where moral greyness is the dominant tone – where good and evil are no longer certainties, and where justice is flawed and partial. Muted, morally complex, even ironic endings are increasingly common. And we as readers accept, even love, such endings – but only if they’re true to the rest of the book.
Perhaps that’s the key thing: a good ending, for all its clever shocks, must feel like the ending the book just had to have – even if we didn’t see it coming until the very last page.
The Distance by Helen Giltrow is out now from Orion.