Is It Over? Story Endings

No Country for Old Men - Tommy Lee Jones

Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men

Writer Toby Wallis has written a thoughtful essay in Glimmer Train on story endings. He centers a lot of his argument on Cormac McCarthy’s chilling novel, No Country for Old Men, in which, as he says “the climax that the story appears to be building towards just doesn’t happen.” It (like the terrific movie made from it) may make audiences feel left hanging, and incomplete, at least until further reflection. One thing to consider is, whose story is it? The killer’s or the sheriff’s? Whether the ending satisfies depends in part on the answer to that question.

As Wallis says, “At first I was disappointed . . . like the rug had been whipped out from under me. Two hours later, I loved it.” Perhaps we’ve been led by fiction—and movies and especially television—to believe all loose ends must be, can be tidied up, there is an answer to all questions, the broken can be made whole or at least set on the path to mending. But that’s not how it is in real life, is it? We must all deal with ambiguity, incompletion, unravelings not to be reknitted. As troubling as an ending as McCarthy’s is, worse, may be the ending where you feel the author thought, “Holy crap! I’ve got to wind this up.” And does.

McCarthy’s approach leaves us pondering what happens next? Our curiosity about the story and its protagonists is not satisfied, it continues to tickle our imaginations, to stay with us at some level. Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You also ends ambiguously. She says readers are very firm in their conviction about what happened by the end, based on the evidence they gleaned in the novel. Yet their interpretations vary widely.

Genre fiction—and here I’ll speak of the genres I know best, crime novels and thrillers—approach endings differently. Thrillers generally adhere to the convention of restoring order to the world, so a tidy post-carnage ending is expected. Many crime novels are not so black and white. They leave room for doubt. Often they are critical of the status quo (corruption in city hall, incompetent police leadership, media on the take, etc.), so why return to it? A police detective may be able to solve a murder, but darker societal forces may be behind it. “That’s Chinatown.”

Outside of genre, in literary novels, Wallis says “stories are at their very best when they ask questions . . . at their didactic worst when they presume to answer them.” At least, when they presume to answer every last one of them. When I look back over the literary fiction of last year that I enjoyed most—Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Lily King’s Euphoria, Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, for example—every one of them leaves space for readers to speculate, to use their own imaginations, to engage with the author in the creative process.

5 thoughts on “Is It Over? Story Endings

  1. Good post Victioria, I’ve always appreciated a story that doesn’t answer all questions. For me though, I need to be satisfied by certain elements having some foundation…even a springboard for what’s next.

    • Oh, yes, the possibilities do need to be inherent in the narrative. But people do read situations incorrectly all the time, which makes multiple possibilities possible in a certain kind of book. And, as you can say, they can lay the groundwork for sequels–just so long as it isn’t too blatant, like you’ve been engaged in a story and suddenly the marketing department weighed in (Watch for my Next Book!).

  2. Speaking of Cormac McCarthy, the ending of his novel “Blood Meridian” — in my view, his best — reminds us that what we’ve read and experienced is more like a long anecdote. The story, and the forces behind it, continue after the last page or frame of film.

    • Good example. It’s another one where some readers are absolutely convinced it means one thing, whereas others are convinced it means something else. I like his Western writing a lot, but can’t read too much of it at any one time. It’s like taking a bath in battery acid.

      • I interpreted the ending of “Blood Meridian” to mean that evil — personified by the character of The Judge — had won and would continue to thrive in the world.

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