Endings in stories are incredibly important, but many would-be writers get lost in a labyrinth soon after starting and never make it to the middle of their tale, much less the end.
It helps if we imagine the conclusion of a story as a resembling a giant black hole, sucking all the plot strands and character issues together into a collapsed single point. Not only do we find out what happens, but we discover what has really been going on, what the right choices have been and what all of it has todo with the central characters.
In the final volume of Tolkien’s epic masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, Dark Lord Sauron unleashes a heavy assault upon the forces of good. A large array of characters experience the pull of a growing darkness: the Steward of Gondor, Denethor, deceived by Sauron, commits suicide in despair; Aragorn feels compelled to take the Paths of the Dead; meanwhile, Sam rescues Frodo from the tower of Cirith Ungol, and they set out across Mordor towards Mount Doom, the physical representation of the ‘black hole’ of the tale. Once there, Frodo is at the last moment unable to resist the Ring any longer and claims it for himself. However, in an ensuing struggle with Gollum, the depraved creature, a walking ghost and shadow protagonist, seizes the Ring by biting off the finger on which Frodo wears it before losing his footing and falling into the fire, taking the Ring with him. The Quest is completed: Sauron is undermined, his chief servants, the Nazgûl, perish, and his armies are thrown into such disarray that Aragorn's forces emerge victorious.
The black hole is filled: Aragorn is crowned Elessar, King of Arnor and Gondor, and marries his long-time love, Arwen, daughter of Elrond; the hobbits, upon returning home, raise a rebellion and overthrow Saruman. Merry and Pippin become heroes, Sam marries Rosie Cotton and uses his gifts from Galadriel to help heal the Shire. Frodo, though, has not fully had his internal character issues resolved and remains wounded in body and spirit before making the journey to the Blessed Land across the Sea. After Rosie's death, Sam passes on the account of Bilbo's adventures and the War of the Ring as witnessed by the hobbits and goes west over the Sea himself, the last of the Ring-bearers.
Tolkien’s work is so throughly detailed and meticulously crafted that the extended ending certainly seems like the consequence of everything that has happened before, and yet he is still able to surprise the reader: Frodo, who has remained steadfast to his quest throughout the tale, suddenly is unable to do so and it is Gollum’s ‘accidental’ death which accomplishes the destruction of the Ring upon which Sauron’s power is based.
All the many plot questions are answered, from the kingship of the Two Kingdoms down to the marriage of Samwise Gamgee.
The major mystery in the novel is intriguingly what is occurring in Frodo’s mind. We see Sam and Gollum as external players, symbolising to some extent the internal psychological struggle which is taking place inside Frodo, but we rarely get a glimpse directly into Frodo’s mind after his experience upon the hill of Amon Hen, right back in the first volume of the trilogy. Tolkien takes us right up to the brink of the Cracks of Doom before revealing that the hobbit has lost his resilience and has effectively been overwhelmed by his own inner ‘black hole’, constantly exacerbated by the power of the One Ring. Released by Gollum’s attack, Frodo returns to himself immediately and mystery disappears. The protagonist has won (at the cost of more physical harm); character and plot issues have merged.
What happens at the end of a Tragedy? Vacuums are not fulfilled, emptinesses and questions are supposed to remain. Macbeth gives us a typical example:
In the final act of Shakespeare’s play, Lady Macbeth enters in a trance with a candle in her hand, like the phantom typical of many female companions in stories. She tries to wash off imaginary bloodstains from her hands, and unconsciously gives clues as to the terrible things she knows she and her husband have done. She leaves, and the doctor and gentlewoman marvel at her descent into madness. Meanwhile, in England, Macduff is informed by Ross that his ‘castle is surprised; [his] wife and babes / Savagely slaughter’d' (IV.iii.204–5) and his own character motivation is magnified to the point where it will push him into action. He vows revenge and together with Prince Malcolm, Duncan's son, and an English army, he rides to Scotland to challenge Macbeth's forces. Before Macbeth's opponents arrive, he receives news that Lady Macbeth has killed herself, causing him to sink further into the deep psychological vacuum which has haunted and motivated him all along. Clinging to straws as the enemy advances upon him, he boasts that he has no reason to fear Macduff, for he cannot be killed by any man born of woman. Macduff declares that he was ‘from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd" (V.8.15–16) - that is, born by Caesarean section and Macbeth realises too late that he has been deceived by the witches' words. He continues to fight but Macduff kills and beheads him. Malcolm discusses briefly how order has been restored, declares his benevolent intentions for the country and invites all to see him crowned king.
Shakespeare remorselessly makes the ending the consequence of everything that has happened earlier while managing to surprise the audience with such things as the soldiers chopping down trees to make it seem as though a wood has moved, or Macduff’s birth by Caesarean section.
Plot questions - ‘What will happen next?’ - are resolved as the impending battles are fought and the protagonist Macbeth comes face to face with his shadow protagonist Macduff. The dark mysteries of the witches’ prophecies are one by one unravelled and revealed as tricks; the audience can feel ‘released’ from their mystery, while still being fascinated by the enigmatic nature of the witches. Character and plot issues have come together, but as this is a Tragedy, they are left intentionally unfulfilled: though Scotland has a new king, Macbeth dies a rejected failure.
The same patterns to do with endings translate across to the genre of Irony, as we in J. B. Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls.
In the play’s final act,the audience is aware that, as a result of the mysterious inspector’s interrogations, each member of the Birling family and Gerald Croft have contributed to Eva Smith's despondency and suicide. Inspector Goole reminds the Birlings that actions have consequences and that, ‘If men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish’, before leaving. The Inspector is an ‘old man with a stick’, an attention commander who directs the other characters (and the audience) to the ‘black hole’ which powers the tale, but, as this is an Irony, his advice is not respected. The family begins to suspect that there is no ‘Inspector Goole’ on the police force at all, and, by implication, that there may be no dead girl. Confirming all this, the elder Birlings and Gerald celebrate, with Arthur dismissing the evening's events as a clever trick. The younger family members, Sheila and Eric, however, realise the error of their ways and promise to reform. The play ends abruptly with a telephone call, taken by Arthur, who reports that a young woman has died, a suspected case of suicide by disinfectant, and that the local police are on their way to question the family. The true identity of the inspector is never explained, but we are left with the ramifications: the Billings will be disgraced publicly when news of their involvement in Eva's suicide is revealed.
Priestley’s ending, though enigmatic, follows a series of unremittingly logical events, each of which depends on the one before. And yet he pulls off a mammoth surprise for the audience by twisting the entire story at least twice and leaving us in mystery. Yes, all the plot questions are wrapped up with the strict methodology of a police investigation. We are left in no doubt as to what happens next in plot terms. But with the power of an Irony, the central mystery is left unexplained in a satisfying way and the audience is captivated beyond the confines of the story.
The protagonist doesn’t even appear on stage. Eva Smith, fighting for some personal dignity and freedom, loses her life with savage emotional and physical consequences for both herself and the other characters. Character and plot issues have merged but are left empty at the end.
Now with Comedy or romance, we see the ‘black hole’ being filled again - namely the absence of a husband for the female companion fulfilled by marriage to the warrior companion archetype.
After dramatic events involving the other members of the Bennett family, in which their reputation is effectively salvaged Mister Darcy, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy’s aunt and the chief antagonist of Pride and Prejudice, pays an unexpected visit, having heard a rumour that Elizabeth will marry Mr. Darcy. She attempts to persuade Elizabeth to agree not to marry, believing that Elizabeth is beneath her nephew. Elizabeth - much like Luke Skywalker in front of the Emperor - refuses her demands. Disgusted, Lady Catherine departs, promising that the marriage can never take place, but later, in a rare moment alone, Darcy and Elizabeth have the conversation in which all the vacuums of the novel are resolved. He renews his proposal of marriage and is promptly accepted.
The novel closes with a chapter which summarises the remaining lives of the main characters.
Austen’s plot is a sequence of gentle plot questions, logical and measured. She pulls off her surprise for her readers because she has been so restrained in revealing their innermost thoughts that Darcy’s revelations at the end and his proposal are like unwrapping a present. Elizabeth Bennett is the female companion and protagonist and ends up with the warrior archetype who, in typical form, has emerged from the shadows and become a leader. Character and plot issues have merged and are fulfilled in marriage.
In this way, Epic, Tragedy, Irony and Comedy or romance are shown to master the patterns required to attract readers or audiences, glue attention, drive things forward and bring things together in a satisfying climax.