Authors, Like Gymnasts, Don’t Always ‘Stick the Landing’

Nick Youngson/Alpha Stock Images

Many excellent novels have excellent endings — conclusions that might be upbeat or downbeat but are done well, feel satisfying, and make sense in the context of the books as a whole. Among the many famous novels with fine finishes are The Great Gatsby, A Tale of Two Cities, The Grapes of Wrath, The Brothers Karamazov, and Silas Marner.

Then there are excellent novels that don’t quite “stick the landing.” Their endings are either too positive or too negative for the story lines, or too rushed, or too drawn out, or have other flaws. I will discuss some disappointing finales, while not revealing too much in the way of specific spoilers.

Why are some conclusions less than top-notch? No author is perfect, of course; sometimes, it’s just hard to end a novel well. Or perhaps the author has a deadline, or is tired of the book, or wants to get on to her/his next book, or…

This topic occurred to me last week while reading John Grisham’s Sooley — a very good novel about an admirable African teen named Samuel Sooleymon who comes to the U.S. to play college basketball. The book had compelling feel-good elements and wrenching tragic elements, but the ending just felt wrong and out-of-character for the protagonist. A problematic conclusion can obviously affect one’s feelings about an entire book; in the case of Sooley, that single jarring late scene in a 368-page novel bumped it from an A- to a B- for me.

A similar thing happened a few years ago when I was reading My Sister’s Keeper. I found that Jodi Picoult novel to be absorbing and heartbreaking as we saw a child conceived specifically to be a medical donor to her ill sister — and watched that younger sibling grow to understandably resent her “purpose.” Then, as in Sooley, a late plot development came out of left field and had me going “Whaaat?” The result was another B-, this time dropping from a full A.

Not that the unexpected is always bad. For instance, the twist in (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother — to name another sibling-themed novel — was ingenious and more realistic than where I thought the story was going. And of course mystery fiction can often have great concluding twists, aided by red herrings along the way.

Do thwarted couples in various novels get together at the end, or not? Either finish can make sense, depending on the book, but I thought Edith Wharton made the wrong choice in her otherwise terrific The Age of Innocence.

When Margaret Atwood decided to write a sequel more than 30 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, I wondered how close it would be in quality to the initial novel. As it turned out, pretty close — The Testaments was really good. But the concluding pages seemed rushed after the previous parts of the novel unfolded just right.

There was an opposite issue with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. After the breathtaking drama in most of the trilogy, the last few dozen pages felt like an extended epilogue. Poignant, with some insight into what we would today call post-traumatic stress syndrome, but things seemed too drawn out.

The Harry Potter series? I had no problem with the exciting and cathartic ending of the seventh book, even as some earlier parts of that final book in J.K. Rowling’s series dragged at times. But then the author tacked on an epilogue showing the teen characters as adults a number of years later. Interesting to see, but it felt kind of clunky and “summarized.”

I’ll conclude by discussing a couple of 19th-century novels.

The House of the Seven Gables ending came off as too positive for the earlier parts of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s mostly melancholy book. Very glad I read the novel, though.

And Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was going along amazingly — with the pitch-perfect depictions of Huck and Jim, their relationship, and the memorable supporting characters they met while traveling on the Mississippi — until Tom Sawyer entered the picture in the latter section of the novel. He was annoying, things got too “slapsticky,” and the book went from an A++ to an A. It almost made one wish that Tom didn’t escape the cave in the earlier novel in which he starred. πŸ™‚

Any examples you’d like to mention of great novels that could have ended in a more satisfying way? 

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about some weirdly fantastical fake upgrades to my town’s school buildings — is here.

108 thoughts on “Authors, Like Gymnasts, Don’t Always ‘Stick the Landing’

  1. Thank you for your insight on conclusions, Mr. Astor! I totally agree, with many of the books I’ve read, I always wished for a different ending or maybe I hope they would have given some more before they ended it. I haven’t been able to read many of the books you mentioned in your blog but I am familiar with the writers and the books’ names.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Arundhati Roy is an Indian author best known for her novel ” The God of Small Things “, won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1997 and became the best-selling book .

    Dave, I was thoroughly disappointed by reading the book from start to finish. Nothing good happened to anyone in any of the characters .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Bebe! I agree that “The God of Small Things” was almost totally depressing, but I thought it was a very compelling novel — with an ending that fit in with all that “depressing-ness.” Not a book to leave a person in a good mood. 😦


  3. Interesting topic. An ending that nailed it for me was “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad. The ending of “The Glass Bead Game” by Herman Hesse was a “What? Did I read that right?” And endings that really annoy me: Deus ex Machina to wrap things up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, vanaltman, for the comment and mentioning those two examples of endings you liked and…didn’t like as much! I haven’t read “The Glass Bead Game,” but did read Hesse’s “Steppenwolf” — which had a bizarre conclusion that weirdly worked. And, yes, a “deus ex machina” ending doesn’t feel fair.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My compliments, Dave, for all these brilliant books’ ending you remember!:) While reading your post To Kill the Mockingbird came to my mind, which I you have mentioned at the end. Despite this I allow myself to add, that I was very touched by Atticus’ courage to stand by the right and by not commiting cruelties, which could destroy the life of other people and by that of Boo Ridley to stab his father to protect the Finch children. By the way, also the ending in Jane Eyre seems quite credible to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Dave, I have enjoyed the readers comments on this post. I must admit that I loved both Jane Eyre and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and I was okay with the endings. I prefer Dickens’ original ending for Great Expectations but could live with the ending he selected. The ending of IT was great for me, a giant spider just wasn’t what I wanted. The ending of The Painting of Dorian Gray was predictable so I knew how it would end quite early in the book, but I still loved the novel. I can often work out the endings to Agatha Christie’s books too but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy them. I can’t really think of other books that have really disappointed me with their endings.

    Liked by 1 person

    • PS I can think of a few books where the setting and set up has been terrific but the plot has been a bit of a let down and some of the action unbelievable. I felt like that about Brave New World and 1984, there were some really ridiculous scenes in both books. Even The Circle, was like this, great set up, not so great plot execution.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for the two interesting comments, Robbie, and for the mention of all those books!

        I liked everything about “Jane Eyre,” and even though I was not fond of the ending of “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” I’m glad I read it. If a book is great until the conclusion, it often still works for me. πŸ™‚

        Fascinating when authors change endings, as with “Great Expectations.” Reminds me that I remember reading somewhere that “The House of the Seven Gables” originally had a conclusion more in keeping with that novel’s downbeat vibe but that Nathaniel Hawthorne was talked into changing it (possibly by his wife?) to become more positive.

        And, yes, even if an ending is predictable it can work quite nicely if done well.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. A thorny topic, in some ways,in that in order to really work up notions on it, the easiest tack to take is to ignore the costs of production, marketing and distribution, and the need of income on the part of authors and publishers, in favor of arguments based on reader satisfaction– and ironically, in the case of my 2 pet peeves, the endings of which I dislike, each was made to conform to the anticipated preferences of plot resolution favored by readers of their day.

    That said, I wish Jane Eyre had collapsed and perished in a neat heap on the heath. And I wish the last chapter of “Wuthering Heights” had undergone trial by fire and become ash. To my taste, the Bronte sisters would have made better literature had they done as I wish. But their books may not have sold nearly so well had they done so, given contemporary taste. Their own financial circumstances and the pressure of publishers to produce a good return also figured into their calculations, I would imagine.

    And perhaps some books never find an audience for years, until re-introduced by a later generation of critics and writers, because they did not conform to contemporary taste or expectation. Again, that might make for better literature, but not for better or even best sellers.

    The recent publication of “Go Set A Watchmen” underscores what I’m attempting to address. To Kill A Mockingbird was made from that more complicated manuscript, thanks to the editing genius of Tay Hohoff, but also thanks to Harper Lee’s desire to put out a best-seller. Atticus Finch gets a bit more discernibly heroic,okay, a lot more, and some of the conflicts resident in a man of his class and times are more muted, if not silenced in TKAM– and that’s no small part of why the book became a best-seller and an enduring favorite among American readers over several generations.

    A while back on the blog I wrote something about RL Stevenson’s “The Body Snatchers”– as a movie. The introduction of a crippled girl and her selflessly devoted mother came straight out of Hollywood, and are not to be found in the short story. But that addition, while it may not be faithful to its source, made for a better movie– much as commercial considerations, by publishers and authors, may make for a better seller, that does better business, if not always for better literature.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! Many interesting, good points! Authors indeed often have to keep publisher acceptance, reader acceptance, and sales in mind when writing a novel. “Jane Eyre” would certainly have been a “tighter” and in some ways better novel if it had ended before the whole St. John Rivers thing, yet I still thought the additional story line worked — and the ending, while happy in a sense, was actually rather mixed (in terms of Rochester’s condition). And, yes, the edited/reworked version of the book that would become “To Kill a Mockingbird” had more audience-friendly elements. But for a 1960 novel, “TKAM” did retain some take-chances frankness about race.


      • Overall, I like the book a lot, and I know I will not dissuade you, nor would I presume to try, from your own large affection for JE– but it must be remembered that even Rochester’s condition was improving, and might improve more, under further applications of Jane’s devotion and care. And should her energies not suffice, with her newly-acquired personal fortune, she can hire help.

        As for TKAM’s take-chances frankness, I am reminded of Freud on dreams– we can only dream up to the limit of that which we can stand. TKAM was about the limit of what the American book-buying public could stand to see about itself on race matters, and thus, was at least in part, a convenient fiction. Still is, 60 years on.

        Liked by 1 person

        • True, jhNY — Rochester was improving, even as he would never be 100% himself again. Yet he of course was happy with and grateful for some aspects of the turn of events. (Trying not to mention specific spoilers. πŸ™‚ )

          And, re “To Kill a Mockingbird,” you’re dead-on correct about many Americans being able to stand only a certain amount when it comes to acknowledging the virulently racist past (and present) of the U.S. Of course, many Republicans with their anti-“critical race theory” dog whistle can’t handle (or they make believe they can’t handle) ANY thinking about American racism.


  7. (Possible Spoiler) Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure” has a very forced and unconvincing tragic ending which is too convoluted to summerize here. It must be one the the worst plotted endings in a classic novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Now, I don’t know if this counts, but I recently finished John Steinbeck’s ‘The Red Pony’, and, although a decent story, seemed like it was unfinished. However, my copy of the book contained a short story at the end, ‘Junius Maltby’, that was good. I have no idea why that was at the end of the book, as it had nothing to do with ‘The Red Pony’.
    However, I enjoyed both stories, even if I am confused about Junius Maltby!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. For me it’s Kent Haruf’s “Our Souls at Night” which I recently read. I was in love from page one. Some of my favourite characters ever. And then Kent made them do things I didn’t want them to do. Still a wonderful novel, despite the unsticky landing.
    Posting this from my mobile phone today. Hopefully it all comes through ok β™₯️

    Liked by 2 people

  10. As you noted, a good ending for a novel is one that wraps up the story in a satisfying way. It should leave the reader feeling satisfied with the resolution of the conflict, and should provide closure for the characters and plot, be believable and appropriate for the story. For me, a good ending should leave me feeling satisfied with the journey I have taken with the characters. I am trusting the author to bring me safe home after an eventful, sometimes dangerous journey. For me, the very best endings have a hint that the characters will have further adventures, even though they may never be written.

    A great topic, Dave, huge in breadth and depth. You have kept me busy thinking about ending all day long. We all see endings differently, depending upon our life experience and personal values. And then there is the idea that endings are also beginnings. Here are a few of my favourite last lines:

    Gone with the Wind Margaret Mitchell: β€œAfter all, tomorrow is another day.”

    A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens: β€œAnd so, as tiny Tim observed, god bless us, everyone.

    The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom: β€œthat each affects the other and the other affects the next, and the world is full of stories, but the stories are all one.”

    The Bridge of San Luis Rey: Spoken by the Abbess. β€œThere is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

    And my personal favorite is from Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I am glad that it was Samwise that was given the last words. He said it all in 3 words: β€œWell, I’m back.”

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Rebecca! An excellent summary in your first paragraph of what can make for excellent endings, and terrific examples of endings to close your comment! Sometimes final lines can be wonderfully complex, and sometimes they can be wonderfully concise, as with “The Lord the Rings.” Samwise definitely took a direct approach to conversation. πŸ™‚

      I agree that every reader reacts to book endings differently depending on their personality and experiences, and that some endings are beginnings of a sort — in certain cases almost begging for a sequel that sometimes happens and sometimes doesn’t.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Rebecca, lovely quotes as always. Interestingly, I didn’t like the ending of Gone With the Wind. I would have preferred that Scarlett didn’t go all soft over Rhett at the end who had become a drunkard and a very unattractive man based on the descriptions. There should not have been any declarations of love as that wasn’t her nature. She should have moved on to another good opportunity. It ruined the book for me.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Oh, I am so sorry to hear that Robbie. What I enjoyed about that ending, was that it suggested that the story wasn’t over, that Scarlett still had much to learn, that there were consequences of selfish and bullying behaviors. There have been many sequels to β€œGone with the Wind” – one made into a miniseries staring Timothy Dalton and Joanne Whaley-Kilmer. The book was a success, but the critics panned the story.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Your interpretation of the ending is good, Rebecca. I don’t think people like Scarlet ever change but perhaps I should be more open to the suggestion that they could and do as they get older. The critics don’t always represent the view of the general public. I think people loved the romance of Gone with the Wind and the original movie played on that them most beautifully.

          Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Rosaliene! I also have vague memories of various other novels that could have ended better, but the specific titles slipped my mind as well. Probably for the best because that kept the blog post from being too lengthy. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 2 people

  11. A while back, you and I discussed how troubled I was by the conclusion of The Lovely Bones. Even though this was a novel and none of those people never existed, I am STILL disturbed by the unsatisfying conclusion.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Great post Dave and spot on re Huckleberry Finn. I found it quite disjointed there that suddenly Tom enters stage right, and as already said here, I wondered if it was because Tom was popular, in which case his appearance here didn’t exactly enhance that. But on the other hand what you say re Twain struggling to finish might explain a lot. In terms of throwing a book against a wall the ending, I’ve said before but honestly the one that made the biggest dent was Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. I am not sure which I dislike more, the ‘rushed endings’ or the too happy ones. It’s a tie! πŸ™‚
    The most disappointing ending. Hm, let me think!
    “Murder on the Orient Express” goodness that’s a bad ending on a good crime story.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Bridget! I hear you about rushed or too-happy endings. The latter works for some novels, but it can’t just feel “tacked on.”

      I’m afraid I haven’t read “Murder on the Orient Express” for so long that I can’t remember the ending. But, yes, Agatha Christie certainly didn’t “bat a thousand” when it came to conclusions. Coincidentally, I just read her “Death on the Nile” for the first time (will mention that in an upcoming post) and found the “whodunnit” to be very clever and satisfying.

      Liked by 1 person

      • As I recall, there several suspects on that train, and Poirot finally works out that the murdered man was stabbed by each of them, so all are murderers. The man they killed was a despicable kidnapper and child killer, and apart from their calculated act of revenge on him, the murderers were more or less upright citizens, bound together only by their desire for their own kind of justice, since each had deep emotional connections to the family and their kidnapped girl.

        Poirot weighs the circumstance, decides he cannot report his conclusion, and instead misdirects the local authorities away from the guilty. In the later Poirot stories, a despair over the general state of humanity seems to take some of the zeal out of merely solving whatever mystery is before him, and a knowing sense of the malignant secrecies that occupy the hearts of so many among us have likewise made him less convivial, and less indulgent of those around him. I though the ending was a good one.

        Liked by 1 person

  14. Speaking of “telling” rather than “showing,” the 2nd Epilogue of War and Peace just about buried me. All of Tolstoy’s philisophical ramblings about the nature of war he’d already discussed in previous sections of the novel–at length and multiple times. Dude, I got it the first time.

    Liked by 3 people

  15. Wonderful post, Dave, and very well documented. To do justice to the subject, one would need more than the space of a comment to this post. As it is, I can only mention that Conversations With Friends (2017) by Sally Rooney really started off superbly, but lost pace (and my interest) after about two thirds of the book. The storyline digressed, it seemed to lose its bearing, and the novel’s final third more or less wiped out everything I had liked about what had been going on before. Such a wet blanket! Similar with My Year Of Rest And Relaxation (2018) by Ottessa Moshfegh. The novel takes off brilliantly, plateaus at a high level of sparkling darkish humor, but fails to develop and drops off to philosophical malarky. Of course, this is a subjective view. I may have missed elements that hold these novels together to a larger extent than I was able to appreciate. From a very different perspective I was hugely disappointed by the finale of Adam Bede, by George Eliot. It seems Eliot found herself forced to pander to prevailing morality, which demanded Hetty be blotted out completely and served a final blow in the very last lines of this longread novel: “There’s a sort of wrong that can never be made up for”. And this did NOT refer to the gentleman who destroyed Hetty at the tender age at which, as a result of that gentleman’s doings, she was condemned, first to be hanged by the neck, then, by last-minute intervention, to life imprisonment.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Dingenom! And I appreciate the several excellent examples you offered. Yes, a reader’s feelings about an ending can be subjective, but we tend to “know it when we see it” if the latter part of a book is crafted less than ideally. And a great point that the very-unconventional-for-her-time George Eliot probably felt pressure to include some conventional elements in her novels. Still, I love many of her books — and the unconventionality she often did include.

      Liked by 3 people

  16. … Re: Your observation about Tom Sawyer’s arrival clunking up the end of “Huck Finn”: I wonder if that was one of the first attempts to keep a franchise’s fans happy by tossing in every old character that ever was.
    This observation is in no way, no how, no sir, prompted by finally seeing “The Rise of Skywalker” on TV the other night. Many times during the “climactic” final battle and ancillary scenes, I’d find myself wondering: “What is that character even _doing_ here?”

    Liked by 5 people

    • That’s an interesting point, Don. The earlier “Tom Sawyer” novel was so popular that maybe Mark Twain thought it couldn’t hurt to bring Tom back. I’ve also read that Twain had trouble continuing “Huckleberry Finn” at a certain point and put it aside for a while. Perhaps Tom was a bit of a “crutch” to complete the novel.

      Liked by 3 people

  17. I won’t call them “great” by any means, but I tired of John Grisham’s stuff pretty quickly because of a narrative well I thought he drew from too often: The story builds up, almost unbearably, toward a climax … and the last chapter is a couple of the main characters talking about what happened at the climax, that the reader didn’t get to see.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Don! I’ve read maybe 7 or 8 (?) John Grisham novels, and I don’t remember that happening too often. I must have gotten lucky and randomly chose books where he didn’t do that. πŸ™‚ But, yes, “telling” rather than “showing” is not an ideal way to conclude a novel.

      Liked by 4 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s