Monday, November 30, 2009

You Must Be This Tall to Understand the Ending

So I've wanted to be a writer since ever, but I haven't always wanted to be a writer of young adult fiction. Not until I started heavily reading YA books as an adult did I experience the attraction one feels when she meets her soulmate--in art form.

These days most of the books I read are YA fiction, but occasionally grown-up fiction (Adult fiction sounds creepy.) slips into my reading list. Reading an adult book always makes me meditate on the difference between adult and YA fiction. Last night I pondered endings.

See, YA novels sort of have to end positively. It's kind of a rule. In her Wall Street Journal article on YA fiction, Katie Roiphe explained that writers of the dreariest YA fiction "are careful to infuse the final scenes of these bleak explorations with an element of hope."

I love that hope. I wondered how Ellen Hopkins would create it in Tricks, if Laurie Halse Anderson would be able to do it in Wintergirls. They did, and with a style that seemed to my outside eyes effortless (which means it took TONS of effort).

After I read most novels intended for adults, I dwell on the endings for days. I ask myself: What really happened? Anything? The character changed, so I suppose that's something, but I just can't say exactly...

So, are endings of adult books supposed to be more complex than endings of YA books? Not so easily understood? More thought-provoking for our gigantic, well-aged brains?

Sometimes I read an ending a second time and I still don't get it. Sometimes I think a book is remarkable despite its ending. And it's not because adult fiction depresses whereas YA fiction brightens. Endings in most YA novels are just clearer in my opinion.

Let me be unmistakable about what I love about most YA fiction endings: The main character's catharsis happens in such a way that I can explain it to someone else without sounding like a dumbass. I believe there is something in the average YA reader that will not accept ambiguous finales, and that YA fiction writers respect that.

Here's one of my all-time favorite quotes about YA fiction:

"Teen books are like adult books, without all the bullshit."

New York City librarian Jack Martin said that during a panel that explored where exactly YA belongs in my mind, in bookstores, on library shelves, etc. But are cloudy endings bullshit? Or something beyond my ability to comprehend? Or just not my taste?

My meditation on endings breeds new questions:

Do YA novels need to end hopefully, positively? What are the requisites for endings in general?

I'd love to hear how the rest of you approach your endings, be they YA or adult or anything else. And am I the only one who doesn't "get"
some endings?

What makes a great ending?


  1. I think *all* books should have satisfying endings.

    That's why it's fiction and not real life. Because real life is often unhappy, and I read to escape all that... um... "bullshit."

  2. YES! This is exactly how I feel. I like to get to the end of a book and KNOW what happened and feel satisfied that the character changed and that hope won out and good conquers evil or it will in the next book and that it wasn't all for nothing, there was a reason for fighting or living or loving or at least trying. I hate when you read a book and you're in the same place at the end as you were at the start. Why would anyone want to read that? Life isn't stagnant, our books shouldn't be either!

  3. Christine: Satisfying is a great word. And I think you might be onto something by comparing unsatisfying fiction to real life. When a book leaves me unsatisfied, I feel like I should've cleaned my kitchen instead of reading it. I'd have more satisfaction and a clean kitchen.

    Frankie: I am going to comment-nap from you because what you said is perfect: "I like to get to the end of a book and KNOW...there was a reason."

  4. Oh man, I'm not smart enough to answer this question this morning :). I love endings that make me think about the book for weeks afterward but NOT because they don't tie up the loose ends. Does that make any sense? I thought not. I don't mind depressing endings if they're done brilliantly. I loved Ethan Frome because the ending is so ironic, so fair, and so horrible all at once. But I also love plain old happy endings and I love when the characters have changed for the better by the end of the book.

  5. Great quote. And I ditto Christine's belief that great endings must be satisfying.

  6. This is a great post! I'm currently trying to figure out where my WIP fits genre-wise ... while my protags are young women, their conflicts and struggles are written in a rather ironic, impending misfortune kinda way, and my ending (which has yet to be rewritten) may leave the reader with some head scratching. So I don't think I'm writing YA fiction! ;-)-

  7. Wow, I appreciate the responses to my comment! I want to just make the point that "satisfying" doesn't necessarily mean "happily ever after." I am seriously considering letting my hero die at the end of my book, because it is a very heroic death that completes what he has basically seen all along as his purpose in life, and I have an idea for an extremely cool way to do it.

    And it would free up the heroine for the sequel.

    But I'm not sure yet.

    I agree with Marie about the clean kitchen. Much better to have sparkling appliances than to feel depressed about something you spent all that time on.

    P.S. I may be wanting to kill my hero because I've been working on the book for nearly three @#$#! years. Perhaps it's a subconscious desire to kill the book! LOL!

  8. Ha,ha, Marie. I call it "grown-up fiction" too. Since I work in the Children's Dept of the bookstore, sometimes people ask me for, say, My Sister's Keeper, and I'll say "Oh, that's a grown-up book. You'll have to go up front for that."

    I used to think the reason I loved YA and MG books was that I'm a sucker for a happy ending. But "satisfying" is definitely a better term (thanks, Christine). Even if a beloved character dies (think Dumbledore), the ending can be satisfying if it's the RIGHT ending, a CLEAR ending, if all the plot points are resolved and every character is where they should be. I also agree with what Frankie said about there having to be a reason for all of it.

    I would add that a satisfying ending is one in which you don't feel manipulated. Boy in the Striped Pajamas, I Am The Messenger, and the aforementioned My Sister's Keeper, I thought, all fall into the category of manipulative endings. Anyone else ever feel that way?

    I also hate murky endings. And you're definitely not the only one who doesn't "get" some endings. Mostly, this seems to happen with grown-up books.

  9. Hey Marie,

    Sometimes a nice apocalyptic ending can be pretty satisfying, Oryx and Crake (I know, adult fiction...sorry, give me a couple years). I still don't know how I feel about that book, as a whole. I was happy everybody died in the end. They were all assholes.

    I guess that ending does have a satisfying amount of closure, but no hopeful ending. Well, except for the weird purple crotched-hybrid people, they survived.

    You're right, adult fiction is kind of creepy.