In a novel, the ending is the logical outcome of all the previous events in your plot.
As I explained in my last blog, the climax should prove your premise. If your premise or controlling idea is that love will free the human spirit, then your climax should demonstrate that. If your premise is that a life of secrets causes destruction and the telling of those secrets sets us free, then your climax should confirm that. If your premise is that there’s a fine line between genius and madness and, when one strays into the other, the protagonist’s achievements are doomed, then your climax must prove that.
Screenwriting guru Robert McKee says a choice between pure good and pure evil isn’t worth writing about. Your protagonist must face a real dilemma, one that challenges her and forces her to make difficult decisions. What she chooses shows us her true character and her growth. That’s why it’s important to have multi-dimensional villains who present tough dilemmas and strong, complex protagonists who have the ability to make principled decisions. If the function of the climax is to test character, your novel’s resolution should give your protagonist what she deserves.
Has she struggled enough to reach her goal? Has she acted out of conscience rather than self-interest? Has she learned from her experience?
A happy ending is less important than a satisfying ending. A man’s goal might be to make a million dollars. He struggles and suffers and finally does that, only to realize it doesn’t bring him what he really wants, and he gives it all up for the woman he loves. Know the emotional need behind your character’s apparent goal. He may start out wanting to win the Kentucky Derby but, by losing the race, he’s gained wisdom, which is more significant in the long run.
In the “Hero’s Journey” paradigm, the ending is called the “Return with the Elixir,” meaning the prize or reward. The French call the ending the denouement, which translates as “untying the knot.” Tension is released. All loose ends are satisfactorily tied up. They can be ambiguous, but not confusing.
Aristotle says the ending must be inevitable and unexpected. A good example of that would be “Casablanca.” Rick, an American expatriate, must choose between his love for a woman and helping her husband escape Casablanca to continue his fight against the Nazis. We want Rick and Ilsa to be together, but Rick makes the noble choice to send her with her husband. He tells her she would regret staying with him. "Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life."
Sometimes, a story’s ending has a twist. In “High Noon,” Gary Cooper has made the decision he’ll stand up to the villains even if it means he’ll die. No one steps up to help him until after the sheriff has shot three of the four bad guys. When the fourth villain takes his wife hostage, she claws his face and Cooper shoots him. The townspeople come out of hiding to cheer and shower him with adulation. In a subtextual gesture of his disgust with these cowards, Cooper throws his badge on the ground and leaves with his wife.
There’s also the circular story form in which the protagonist returns to the beginning either literally or figuratively. In Judith Guest’s novel, Ordinary People, Conrad, the young protagonist, is so depressed by his brother’s death he can’t eat the French toast his mother makes him. In the end, when his girlfriend calls him in for breakfast, he realizes he’s hungry. The ending communicates change and growth. Conrad has come to terms with his survivor’s guilt.
The African Queen by E. S. Forester is peculiar in that the novel and the film have different endings. In the book, the two protagonists, Charlie and Rose, take a ramshackle boat along the Ulanga River with the intention of blowing up a Nazi warship. Although the journey is arduous and they nearly perish, the author doesn’t give them the ending they deserve. Instead, the Germans capture them and turn them over to the British. The story ends with the narrator's comment, "Whether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided."
The filmmakers apparently saw this finale as unsatisfactory. They changed it so that Charlie and Rosie reach the boat and prepare to blow it up, but the plan goes awry. They’re captured but just as they’re about to be hung, the African Queen, bearing explosives, hits the German gunboat and blows it up. Not only do Charlie and Rosie survive, but they accomplish their goal and we expect they will live happily ever after.
That’s the definition of a “Hollywood ending.” The white hats win. The lovers marry. The adventurer returns with the treasure. Don’t use the Hollywood ending unless your protagonist has earned it.