What makes a good ending? And I don't mean just the climax, or the denouement. I mean those last few chapters that build toward the climax--where you know what it is, and you can see it coming. The author is preparing you well for what is going to happen--strapping you into your seat, warning you to keep your hands inside the ride, maybe handing you a crash helmet (or taking yours away). I've long envisioned the ms of CM as a roller coaster--some small hills at the beginning, a curve that is sharp-but-not-too-sharp... followed by some larger curves and bigger slopes... then a long, smooth straightaway for you to catch your breath, before the big hill at the end.
But today I'm going to continue an analogy that crcook and I used in our talk on Plot & Character two weeks ago: A good book is like a box of dominoes. The beginning is where you open the box, and you can only see a couple of tiles--a glimpse of what this story might contain. Then you dump them onto the table--all the pieces are laid out for you, but you don't yet know how they're all going to come together. The middle is where the author starts to pick up those tiles and put them in place--stacking them up in neat or twisting rows, where you can start to see what might happen if one domino should fall. The author must be careful, here, to line them all up, just right--one false placement, and when she goes tap, nothing of interest might happen--a few tiles may fall, but if they fail to hit the next ones in the row... nothing.
The ending begins at the moment the author flicks her finger to knock down that first tile. A ripple effect, a chain reaction--whatever you wish to call it--spreads out from that one tap, and everything begins to happen. Events, like dominoes, tumble one into the next, inevitably, non-stop. There are no more gaps, no more straightaways to pause and catch your breath. Good endings rush. They speed toward the climax without stopping.
But they shouldn't rush overmuch. Endings need speed, but they also need length. Nobody wants a six-domino ending--we must use them all, so that the finale is dramatic and satisfying, not over so quickly the reader will miss it if she blinks. Or if she is reading too quickly, because she is ready to rush along with us.
After the dominoes fall, when the great pattern is all laid out for the reader, comes the denouement--the wrapping up of loose ends. The tidying up after the hurricane. The recovery from the shaky feeling of the roller coaster. Putting all the dominoes neatly back in the box. How long your denouement needs to be is a matter of personal taste, it seems; but I kind of like a longer one. But not too long. Exit gracefully. Take your dominoes, bow to the audience, and depart. Leave when the reader has caught her breath, but is still ever-so-slightly stunned and in awe.
I'll need my dominoes back now, thank you.