WHAT A LETDOWN!
The opposite of the happy ending is not actually the sad ending. The sad ending is sometimes the happy ending. The opposite of the happy ending is actually the unsatisfying ending.―Orson Scott Card
For years, readers of Ira Levin’s1967 best-selling novel, Rosemary’s Baby, clamored for a sequel. They wanted to know what had become of Rosemary Woodhouse and her infant son, the spawn of Satan.
Finally, in 1997, Levin published Son of Rosemary. Like countless other fans, I bought a copy of the book, and with great anticipation, hurried home to read it.
The plot was expectedly silly. After all, the story is about the Lord of Darkness scheming to bring about the destruction of mankind. Even so, I was enjoying the book—until the last few pages.
As it turns out, all the events that occurred in Son of Rosemary, as well as in Rosemary’s Baby, were a dream Rosemary had after she fell asleep while reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula. She and Guy never moved into the Bramford; they never met Roman and Minnie Castevet (or any other witches); and Rosemary didn’t get knocked up by the Devil.
The ending left me feeling hoodwinked. Robbed. Scammed. Levin basically erased from existence Son of Rosemary, Rosemary’s Baby, and the terrific 1968 film.
The it-was-all-a-dream ending epitomizes lazy writing. Just ask fans of the TV series Dallas how they felt when they saw Bobby Ewing, who had supposedly died at the end of the 1985-86 season, magically appear in the shower at the start of the following year’s episode.
In his book, The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, Evan Marshall calls a good ending “the reader’s reward for hanging in there.” Readers deserve a satisfying conclusion to a story, and the writer’s job is to provide them with one.
Stories don’t need to end happily to be satisfying. Romeo and Juliet doesn’t have a happy ending. Neither do many of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, such as The Little Mermaid and The Steadfast Tin Soldier. You may recall that Rocky Balboa lost to Apollo Creed in the first Rocky movie. Randle McMurphy died at the psychiatric hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In Of Mice and Men, Lennie didn’t get the rabbits. And in the final scene of Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler famously told Scarlett O’Hara, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
But stories must have a sense of completeness, a payoff, if you will.
Take Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 movie, The Birds. For some inexplicable reason, thousands of birds begin attacking the townspeople of Bodega Bay. Throughout the movie, the onslaught continues without anyone ever figuring out how to stop the attacks. Yet, even as we watch Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren flee the bay as the menacing birds look on, we’re willing to accept the movie’s ending, because it has a sense of completeness.
In the children’s novel, Stone Fox, by John Reynolds Gardiner, Little Willy’s grandfather has lost his will to live. He owes five-hundred dollars in back taxes on his farm, money he doesn’t have, and the tax collector is threatening foreclosure.
Little Willy enters a dog-sled race that, coincidentally, is offering a cash prize of five-hundred dollars to the winner. With only his pet dog Searchlight to pull his sled, Little Willy must compete against experienced adult racers, including Stone Fox, a Native American, who has a team of five Samoyeds, and has never lost a race. Stone Fox uses the money he earns from dog-sled racing to buy back the land that was taken from his people.
During the race, Little Willy is able to maneuver quicker around the tight curves than his competitors. He also cuts across the frozen lake, which has an icy layer too thin for the heavier racers to risk traveling on.
As I read the book, I thought I could predict the ending. Little Willy was obviously going to win the race; he had to. If he didn’t, his grandfather would lose the farm and likely die of grief. What I didn’t foresee was the story’s shocking conclusion.
Ten feet from the finish line, Searchlight’s heart gives out, and the dog dies. Stone Fox, aware that Little Willy would have won the race, stops his sled alongside him. He pulls out his rifle and threatens to shoot anyone who tries to get past him. Then he allows Little Willy to carry his dog’s body across the finish line and claim his victory.
Although the ending is sad (I’m not ashamed to admit I teared up when I read it), I thought it was well done.
To help your students write satisfying conclusions to their stories, review previously read books with them. Discuss what made those endings work. Point out that sometimes stories don’t end happily, nor do they offer a solution or a resolution. But they must have a sense of completeness.
However, don’t let them get away with writing, It was all a dream. This cop-out ending was unacceptable from Ira Levin. It’s also unacceptable from a student.