Generally a work of fiction has one of two kinds of endings: circular or linear. You can think of a circular ending as one in which the hero returns home: back to where he started from. You can think of a linear ending as one in which the story conflicts come to a climax and then the story ends: nobody returns home.
Two of my favorite classic novels are Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The ending of the first is circular, that of the second, linear.
“Returning home” doesn’t mean to the exact same place with the exact same attitude. Time and events change us all, and they especially change the hero of a novel. Because somebody or something has changed, “spiral ending” is probably a better name than is “circular ending.” In a circular ending, the hero would end up at the very same point on the circle from which she started. But in a spiral ending, the hero ends up at the same spot (literal or metaphorical), but on a different plane. She could be on a spiral above where she started, or below where she started. In other words: there are similarities between the hero’s position at the beginning and her position at the end — but there are also profound differences. When, at the end of Great Expectations, Pip returns to the place he grew up, he is a very different person than the one who left that home to fulfill his expectations.
Most action and adventure stories have linear endings rather than circular ones. Moby Dick is sort of an adventure story, chasing the Great White Whale around the world. Its ending is a linear one. It ends in the middle of the Pacific Ocean rather than in New Bedford (where it began), so Ishmael does not “return home.”
When I’m reading a novel, I don’t consciously think about what kind of ending I would prefer, circular or linear. What I think is: I want the ending to be satisfying. I want it to be decisive. Please don’t let this be a book in which the author doesn’t know where to end, and so seems to end the book several times. Please let the ending be true to the story. And not trite. Please, please, PLEASE don’t let the author preach to me as the book ends. Please don’t let the author wrap up the “meaning” of the book by having characters state the obvious.
As you can infer, endings are important to me: I want them to be wholly satisfying. That’s the bottom line. I don’t care if they’re linear or circular, as long as they’re satisfying.
That’s me as a reader. Me as a writer thinks pretty much the same way. Before I start writing a book, I have lived with the characters and plot for months and months. And I know what the ending will be. I don’t know the middle, but I do know the way the story should end for these characters in this situation. And in choosing that ending, I never think, “Hmmm. Circle? Line? Which shall it be?”
But when it comes to rewriting and everything is up for consideration, that’s when I examine the ending and ask myself if it’s circular or linear. And, more importantly, I ask myself if that type of ending is good for that particular story.
The end reflects the promise of the beginning.
Linear endings are more apt to end with a bang: they head uphill, with the conflicts getting stronger and stronger, until they reach a climax. Then, a brief denouement, and the story is over with. Adventure stories are usually linear, and since detective stories are adventures of a sort, it makes sense that their ending is linear: onward to the next adventure. Each of my two mysteries, Dirty Proof and Sound Proof, has a linear ending. This makes great sense for detective stories: the case begins, the case is solved, the case is closed. 1-2-3. End of story.
A circular ending, on the other hand, is one of contrast between the main character at the beginning and the main character at the end. The circular ending establishes a new “norm.” In The F Words, for example, Cole Renner at the book’s ending is a more formidable opponent of injustice than he is at the beginning. Circular endings have been called endings of quiet strength: that seems to describe Cole’s character at the end of The F Words.
She’s on First, my first novel, also has a circular ending. In She’s on First, it is not the main character (Linda Sunshine, the baseball player) who comes back to the beginning: it is one of the other point-of-view characters. The character who started the story is the character who ends it. You could say that the situation is the same: scout and player in conflict. But an awfully lot is different, and that difference gives hope to the reader.
In The F Words, it’s both situation and character who are the same. Cole was “speaking” in the very first scene, and he is speaking in the last scene. But what he speaks, and how he speaks it, and to whom he speaks it — all these things have changed. And those changes give hope to the reader.
Which isn’t to say that all circular endings give hope. Some do not. I’ve never felt hope at the ending of Great Expectations. Only sorrow. But circle endings do give a sense of solidity to a story: a feeling that “home” matters — home being not a house or family necessarily, but a place, feeling, or stance that is vital to the main character.
Linear or circular — the ending must fulfill reader expectations. Which I hope The F Words does.
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