Saturday, 15 September 2012

How do you like your endings?

Kate Hanney

Guest Blog by Kate Hanney, author of SAFE.

So, this is the dilemma: you try to write about life, reality, what actually happens. You try to present characters and settings that you could find anywhere; anywhere you’re curious enough to look. And although you might allow yourself a little poetic licence with the plot, you’re never going to let it turn into James Bond.

But then you get to the end. And you have to draw it to some kind of a conclusion; a resolution, a denouement. You have to finish it somewhere. But does it, unequivocally, have to be a happy ending? Even if it’s tainted with tragic realism, must there always be at least a chink of light?

People in the trade will say, unequivocally, yes, for Young Adult fiction at least (which is my only experience of this). And because they’re the professionals, they know what they’re talking about, so you have to think they’re probably right. But what about life? What about all the stories that don’t end happily?

You spend 70,000 words or so creating empathy and engagement for your characters, you try to portray them and their situations as honestly as possible; complex, real, authentic - so shouldn’t the ending be all of these things as well?

Because if it should, then we have to accept that some endings will be tragic; they’ll be sad, distressing, unfair. Because that’s what happens to some people; they go through awful things, and sometimes they don’t make it out into a blazon of light on the other side.

So in the pursuit of honesty, should we all be throwing off the shackles of convention, and running away to write hard-hitting, realistic endings because we owe it to our readers, and our characters and ourselves? Well, it’s what I did, in the beginning at least, when I wrote Safe. I wasn’t going to be governed by convention, I was going to tell it how it is.

But my journey down ‘Learning to Become a Writer Street’ brought me very quickly to a stop sign, and what is said is, ‘this is fiction; it’s different.’  And what it meant is, readers have expectations, they expect their hero to be proactive in saving his mate/his girlfriend/the world. Even if we all know it’s probably not what would actually happen in real life.

And my conclusion after to speaking to various readers? The signage is correct.

A friend of mine read one of my stories in manuscript form once, then I told her what the original (tragic, and much more realistic) ending had been in a previous draft. ‘Oh, no!’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t have liked that at all.’

So what I’ve learned is, on the whole, readers don’t want sad, they want hope, even if it’s not realistic hope. And even if we as writers stop short of offering complete triumph, un-dying love and the ultimate happily ever after, we must always offer at least a glimmer to cling on to, no matter how tenuous, if it’s there, then good things are possible ... unlikely maybe ... but possible.

And I think that’s what my strategy has become now; to try and strike a balance. To tell it how it is, inject hard reality into a story, but to always offer at least a slither of optimism at the end. However, as in life, it’s vital that slither is tenuous, a flicker, and there must always be harsh reminders that it could, and still might, end very differently.

What do you think?

For over thirteen years she has worked as an English teacher in South Yorkshire, and has had the privilege of meeting hundreds of fantastic kids. Some are comedians and some are geniuses. At times some of them are desperately unhappy, and one or two of them are just plain scary! 

Find out more about Kate on her website


  1. Endings are hard. Very hard. I spent years looking for an ending for my last book, particularly difficult as the real ending comes at the end of the sequel. I think I found it eventually, but am still wondering if it's right. However, it pretty much follows your guidelines here - telling it how it is with a slither, or perhaps slice of optimism.

  2. Hi Tricia, thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment. Finding endings for books that are part of a series must be especially hard, and I certainly don't envy you that task. I'm really pleased you found one that you are happy with - and I like to think it's the mark of a good writer that you still wonder if what you did was right; I know I review and analyse constantly. And I totally agree - if it's appropriate, then definitely go for a whole slice of optimism!

    All the best with your writing, Kate

  3. Great post! Totally agree that endings are hard, but writing about characters who would in real life be considered BAD news, Mail fodder, and the 'wasters' of society, AND managing to make us feel warmly towards them - well, that's an art in itself.
    You need to give us that slice of optimism at the end because you made us care about these guys.

  4. Fascinating post, Kate. I often think a sad ending can still leave the reader feeling uplifted or offering a flicker of hope. Story's all about characters changing, and if their journey is one of self-realisation, then that's a positive thing, I believe, even if their future looks bleak.

  5. Hi Jeremy. Thank you so much for reading and making such an interesting comment. I completely agree, and actually, you could be describing the ending of my first book here. Equally, I think a happy ending can be peppered with enough doubts to make the readers suspicious of how long it will last. And I suppose this then opens up another question: how satisfactory does the ending have to be? Should we answer all the questions, or leave the reader with something to wonder about? Ooh, I can feel a whole new post coming on ...

    Thanks again, Kate

  6. Hey Wendy! So pleased you liked it. Many people don't get close to these 'bad news' characters in real life, which is why I thought I'd try to introduce them through fiction. Thinking people might care about and understand them a little more as a result, is absolutely wonderful; my ultimate ambition!! Thank you, Kate, x x

  7. Oh, I've gone down this road often too, Kate! I like to WRITE open, up in the air endings, even quite sad ones - but readers don't want them. Readers want to know WHAT HAPPENED. Mostly, they want it all to work out okay for the good guys, and the bad guys to get their just deserts. I mean, it's even known as HEA - happy ever after! I've thought about this a lot, and something dawned on me: I like to KNOW WHAT HAPPENED, too. What I like to write isn't the same as what I want to READ. When I've read books that end up-in-the-air, I feel like emailing the author to find out what came next! I remember that, these days. Readers want CONCLUSION. What your friend said was right - this is fiction. If we wanted just real life, we wouldn't read it. Although I never want anyone to guess what's going to happen in my books, it's got to leave the reader satisfied. I often think that the ending is even more important than the beginning (oh dear, this is becoming a blog post!!!) - because the end is what stays with you when you close the book....

  8. You know, I agree with everything you say, Terry; SAFE has stayed with me ever since I first read it (because the end is what stays with you when you close the book...) and it still speaks to me. But maybe not just because of the end; SAFE is an awesome book about real life and real life can be hard and brutal.

    When I first commented on this post I did want a slice of optimism at the end, it's true, but I surprise myself now – two years later – by saying that I think it was a perfect ending. It's painful and sad and very much up in the air, but anything else (in this case) would be sugar-coating and not true to the story.

  9. Dear the very lovely Terry and Wendy.

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful and very kind comments. This is still something that haunts me really. You make such an excellent point, Terry, that as readers we crave (demand even) a different type of conclusion to that which we might prefer to write. And I wonder if it's because as the writer - the one pulling the strings - we maybe have at least a subconscious idea of what does happen to our character after that final page has been read? We are in part at least, satisfied? The poor reader however, has to make up their own mind, and whilst this was very much the point with Safe - IE: I've given you the story that led to the headlines, you're more than capable of drawing your own conclusions from here on in - I do still very much wonder if that was the right way to go. What I would say though, and here's where the incredibly perceptive point made by Wendy comes in; it is definitely a talking point. I'm so lucky to be able to read that book to kids sometimes, and their reactions are priceless. They come up with all sorts of scenarios in order to 'finish off' the story for themselves; they think of twists and turns and possibilities, and all the time they are desperately trying to balance the realities of the character's situation with their innate yearning for everything to be OK in the end. So from that point of view, it's job done ... I hope .... it's made them think and I wanted them to think.

    Would I do it again though? Well, I'm really not sure I'm brave enough. That ending was written out of sheer raw inexperience and an intensely misplaced sense of invincibility. Now I've been shaped and tamed and educated by experience and the experts though, so, I think, have my endings ...

    Thanks again so much to everyone who's commented. Like Wendy, my views shift regularly on this, and all your contributions are so, so valuable in trying to sort it all out! x x


Thanks for commenting.