(This is part 2 of an 8-part series on the ending of the Alex Verus novels. The master post with links to all the other parts is here.)
The first thing that makes an ending good or bad is how consistent it is with the rest of the story.
When I say consistency, I’m talking about in-world consistency. All fictional worlds have rules, but not all fictional worlds have rules that stay the same. Generally a writer is allowed one really big leap away from reality at the beginning of their story, but from that point on they’re expected to be consistent. This can apply to the ‘physics’ of the fictional world (if a laser gun works one way in the first few chapters, it should generally keep working that way) to the personality of characters (if Secondary Character B strongly believes in one thing, he shouldn’t change his mind without a very good reason) to broad patterns of behaviour (can problems in this world be solved by people talking things out, or not?) and even to what the story does or doesn’t pay attention to (do people ever run out of money, or is there always an endless supply of everything?)
That doesn’t mean that things can’t change in a story; they do. Secrets are revealed, new aspects of someone’s personality come to light, and so on. But it’s very important that significant changes should generally be done towards the beginning or the middle of a book. The closer you get to the end, the more disruptive it becomes to make big sweeping changes – if the writer does do this, it works a lot better if this is foreshadowed, so that the reader has time to see that something’s coming and possibly even figure it out on their own.
Another way to think about it is that in the beginning and middle of a book, you hand the reader a bunch of jigsaw pieces, and in the ending, you fit them all together. When you talk about ‘consistency’, that’s another way of saying how well the pieces fit together. In a perfect story, they all fit exactly and there are no gaps. In practice that’s impossible, but so long as you do other things well, you can get away with a mistake or two or three – readers are a very forgiving lot when it comes to a story they like. On the other hand, if your completed ‘puzzle’ has a giant hole where the middle should be, you’re going to get complaints.
Consistency is one of the easiest things in a story to criticise. When people complain about a story being unrealistic, or ask “Why didn’t they just . . . ?” or accuse it of having “plot holes”, or argue that things “don’t make sense”, it’s consistency that they’re talking about. Often these criticisms can feel rather nitpicky, and it’s tempting when you see a 1,500 word book review or a 2-hour-long YouTube book critique to just roll your eyes and tell the complainer to stop overthinking it. After all, most people don’t care that deeply about this stuff. So does consistency really matter?
Well, actually, yes.
Consistency gives verisimilitude – the appearance of truth. It transports the reader to what Tolkien called a “secondary world”, which they can believe in as long as they’re within it. The reason people get so annoyed about inconsistencies is that they break the spell, leaving the reader back out in the primary world, looking in at the little secondary world from outside.
Like trust, consistency and verisimilitude are hard to gain and easy to lose. You build them up slowly, by having things work the same way every time, without any inexplicable gaps. If you do it well, you can get to the point where the reader can anticipate what’s going to happen purely based on in-world reasoning. This makes your world feel like a real place, with a sense of order – things happen based on underlying principles, rather than because the writer says they do.
And since the ending is the climax of the story, it’s where consistency matters the most. Ideally the reader should be able to look at the ending, and from there look back and see an unbroken chain of cause and effect stretching all the way to the story’s beginning. The reader’s left with the feeling that everything happened for a reason, and if asked, they could explain what that reason was. It’s intellectually satisfying.
You can talk for ages about consistency (and people do) but I think at this point everyone knows what I’m talking about. Let’s move on to theme.