The Fundamentals of Endings and The Handmaid’s Tale

Reading is a very important part of my life. It should be important to every writer. I started 2014 reading a classic book, an award winning book—The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. In my review, I talked about the beautiful language and how my emotions became entangled with the character’s. I was completely enamored with the story…until the ending. “New authors would never get away with what Margaret Atwood has been praised for and that angered me.”

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Photo provided by realbig and stock.xchng

To fully understand my anger, let’s look at the fundamentals of endings from a writing standpoint. Nancy Lamb wrote, “Whatever ending you choose, you must lead up to it in an honest way. Like Hansel and Gretel, even in the simplest story you must drop enough crumbs for the reader to follow so the ending is a logical outgrowth of the path you have traveled through the book.” (88)

She’s not saying you should be predictable, nor does she tell you to avoid surprises. Surprises are great, but you must lay the groundwork for them. It’s like making a promise to the reader at the beginning of the story and then keeping that promise at the end.

For instance, I recently read a lovely story called The Girl Who Played Chess With An Angel by Tessa Apa. The narrator, Florence, is blind, but this fact isn’t revealed until the end. Once it was put out there, I mentally went back, looking for the clues and there they were. So plain.

“I know her daily routine, down to every last shuffle. Her nightly routine, down to every last slap of her slippers.” (14) It’s sound. Florence describes things using all her senses except sight. “Max has this way of waving his hands when he speaks, moving the air in small gusts against my face.” (11) It’s so well disguised that you don’t miss it until you’re told it isn’t there.

Photo provided by Ciol F and stock.xchng

Photo provided by Ciol F and stock.xchng

Through my years of studying the craft of writing I’ve heard a million rules. I’ve even heard you should learn the rules then break them. Another rule comes from Nancy Lamb and this one is about endings specifically: “No deus ex machina allowed.”

If you’ve never heard of this term—deus ex machina—it literally means “god from the machine” and comes from classical Greek drama. Lamb says it’s the literary equivalent of “being saved by the bell.”

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A god doesn’t sweep in and rescue Atwood’s character from danger or anything of that sort. But she did pull the rug out from under the reader by introducing a last minute detail that was never hinted at. It’s for that reason that I gave the book three stars instead of five. I felt cheated.

As a writer struggling to get my work noticed I’m disappointed that the rules don’t apply to established writers. Maybe it’s petty to feel this way. After all, Atwood wrote a great story. She just gave me a different ending than promised. For all I know, that’s reason the book is so acclaimed. Maybe I should toss the rules like Gaiman suggests.

Sources:
Lamb, Nancy. The Art and Craft of Storytelling: A Comprehensive Guide to Classic Writing Techniques. Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books, 2008.

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Company, 1986.
Apa, Tessa. The Girl Who Played Chess With An Angel. Auckland: Big Planet Corporation, 2012.
Frye, Melissa. A Reader Opines: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. 8 Jan. 2014 .
Frye, Melissa. Neil Gaiman says “Book Publishing Is In Free-Fall”. 13 Jan. 2014 .

  • Very interesting. I did not realize what goes into the writing. It is good to be aware of the rules to better understand the work.

  • Lady Lilith Bloodcrave

    Very interesting. I did not realize what goes into the writing. It is good to be aware of the rules to better understand the work.

    • If you’re a writer you notice things that strictly readers don’t. If you enjoy a book the rules don’t really matter. 🙂

  • mooderino

    I think readers have rules too, one of which is that you judge a book by how it makes you feel. I’ve read quite a few highly regarded books that had great ideas but very disappointing endings. I feel you can appreciate the good without having to condone the bad.

    mood
    Moody Writing

    • That’s true, Mood. I appreciated the good elements of The Handmaid’s Tale, but in the end it made me feel something I didn’t like. I’ve also read books that left me feeling good things and when I look around others hated it. You can’t please everyone. 🙂

      • Very interesting. I did not realize what goes into the writing. It is good to be aware of the rules to better understand the work.

        • If you’re a writer you notice things that strictly readers don’t. If you enjoy a book the rules don’t really matter. 🙂

    • That’s true, Mood. I appreciated the good elements of The Handmaid’s Tale, but in the end it made me feel something I didn’t like. I’ve also read books that left me feeling good things and when I look around others hated it. You can’t please everyone. 🙂

  • mooderino

    I think readers have rules too, one of which is that you judge a book by how it makes you feel. I’ve read quite a few highly regarded books that had great ideas but very disappointing endings. I feel you can appreciate the good without having to condone the bad.

    mood
    Moody Writing

    • That’s true, Mood. I appreciated the good elements of The Handmaid’s Tale, but in the end it made me feel something I didn’t like. I’ve also read books that left me feeling good things and when I look around others hated it. You can’t please everyone. 🙂