Part 4: Boom vs. Whimper: How do you end it?
First off, many thanks to Theo who helped me wrap my brain around this section.
You’ve come to the end of your series. You’ve reached the last book wherein all ends of the loose variety must be tied and all Big Bads must be dealt with. (Note: This doesn’t mean you have to kill them, only that you need to find some sense of closure. Unless you don’t. Your mileage may vary)
So, should your hero end it all in an epic blaze of thermonuclear glory, or should Brave Sir Robin gallantly scamper off to fight another day?
That is the question. (none of this “to be or not to be” crap)
The answer depends on what future you see for you’re your hero. Even if you never write another book, story or dirty limerick about him, you should at least have an inkling about his life after. (and it never hurts to give your readers some of those hints too, we love that stuff!)
I should first point out that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the world implodes. I mean, if that’s where you’re headed, cool, but there are smaller and just as effective booms.
A “boom” ending is simply one that gives a definitive answer. YES, the bad guy is really dead and gone. YES, the hero lives (or dies). YES, the moon is really made of green cheese (and Jorge’s long-lost father lives there! Who knew?) YES, this is really the end of this tale.
It is possible, after a “boom” ending, to have another series set in the same world, or with the same characters, but it should be an entity in and of itself. The first series doesn’t necessarily need expansion.
One of my favorite illustrations of this is through Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series. The first trilogy, following Phaedre and Joscelin, comes to a nice and satisfactory conclusion. Yes, she’s laid the seeds throughout for a continuation with other characters later (and accomplishes it rather nicely with the second trilogy following Imriel), but I don’t think anyone was left thinking “But what happened to them??” The second trilogy stands on its own (though we get tantalizing glimpses of our favorite folk from the previous trilogy), and also ends with its own little boom.
A whimper ending is something that is much more open-ended. Was it all a dream sequence? Did the bad guy really die? And who was stealing all of Jorge’s shoelaces?
Sometimes, the whimper ending is used simply because the author isn’t sure they’re really done with that world/characters. They leave themselves an opening, just enough to slide back in if they find they want to. Sometimes, the author is trying to make a point with the ambiguity of it all.
The risk with a whimper ending is disappointing the fans. There are almost always two camps to the fans, one that is ecstatic that there is potential new material in the future, and one that is disappointed that they didn’t get more resolution.
The ending of the TV series The Sopranos, is a good illustration of this. It just ceased. Stopped. What happened? Where was the closure? I never watched the show myself, but I watched the aftermath of the finale with great interest. Oh, how people howled over that plain cut-to-black ending.
So, whimper is bad, boom is good?
Nope! Both styles of ending, when used deliberately, can serve their purposes quite nicely. A whimper ending, as I said above, can leave things open for a return to a beloved world, or provide a thought-provoking commentary. A boom ending can deliver a visceral sort of satisfaction, allowing the reader to move on to the next big thing without being left wanting.
The care an author must take is in being deliberate. An accidental whimper ending can leave the fans tearing their hair out (“What do you MEAN Jorge was really a human sewer worker in a coma all this time??? What kinda B.S. is this???”). It’s like leaving someone hanging on the “shave and a haircut” knock. The satisfaction they’ve been craving never materializes, and they don’t care if the author returns to the world again because they’re ticked off and they’re not going to take it anymore!
You can argue that real life doesn’t always have a satisfactory ending, happy or otherwise. And you would be right. But there’s a reason we call this fiction, folks. It’s a reader’s chance to find that resolution, that solution, that end, that we don’t always get in the mundane world. Escapism, I loves it.
There’s also such a thing as too much boom. A boom that kills off the main character (or even a beloved sidekick) can yank a reader out of the story. This isn’t to say you can’t kill them, but be very aware of what your intentions are when you do. Did it fit the story and character, or are you just doing it to keep the Kleenex industry in business?
There is also the type of boom wherein the reader is denied the chance to “participate” in the world that comes after. Who doesn’t imagine themselves as a Jedi or Sith or whatever in the Star Wars universe, long after the characters we know and love have gone? (What do you mean I’m the only one who does that?) There were quite a few fans of the Harry Potter who were displeased with the epilogue in the final book. Sure, Rowlings tied up everything neatly, according to how she viewed her world, but in doing so, she eliminated the chance for the fans to envision those things on their own. She shut them out of imagining a world they’d grown to love, by dictating how it was to progress.
And speaking of endings, we’ve almost reached the end of this series. The next and final piece will be Part 5: How to destroy a series. I’ve already touched on some warning signs and missteps to be wary of when writing a series, but I’ll try to wrap it up neatly in the next installment.
Or, will I?
Coming soon: Part 5: How to destroy a series