Endings are hard. Get it wrong and an ending can pulverise all the hard work that came before. Get it right and it will show off all that hard work. There’s a lot of pressure on your ending: it has to tie up loose ends, hammer home your themes, resolve conflicts and maybe even set up your next story. But beyond all this, the one thing your ending must achieve, greater than everything else, is satisfaction. When I think about good endings and bad endings, both in movies and books, I’m not really thinking about the quality of the writing, I’m thinking about how satisfied I was. Gone Girl was superb until I hit the end and was left feeling unfulfilled. Conversely, the last Dan Brown book I read, which I despised, had a great ending that somewhat rescued the reading experience for me. So here are some thoughts on how to leave your reader satisfied.
Firstly, make sure those threads are tied up. Unless you’re writing a trilogy or serial you need to leave your reader with the impression that they’ve finished the story. Don’t introduce any new plot threads, themes or characters in the last third of your book, you will only struggle to give that element of your story enough attention and will be liable to leave something out by accident. Your ending should be like the bow on a gift; it should take elements from the beginning and the middle and bring them together.
Next, keep it simple. Plot twists are great. I love that feeling when I get to a point in a book where I either don’t know how the situation will be resolved, or where something happens that I didn’t expect. However, keep your twists and turns to a necessary minimum. Chances are that a convoluted ending will feel contrived and unrealistic and leave your reader feeling underwhelmed.
Also remember to work on your themes. The ending will likely be one of the lasting impressions of your story so that makes it the perfect time to work on those themes. However, beware the sermon. One of the things I most dislike about Michael Crichton novels is the preachiness of them. First and foremost I read to be entertained. Secondly I read to be educated or challenged or explore new ideas, but I absolutely hate it when an author rams their own ideas and opinions down my throat. There’s nothing wrong with helping a reader see your way of thinking but let them draw their own conclusions. Me Before You does a spectacular job of tackling a complex and contentious issue in a non-preachy way.
A story is all about the characters within it. They are the foundation because without them, nothing else matters. The plot is what happens to the characters and what they do about it. Therefore, the ending must be similarly character driven. Your ending should be the resolution of what’s been before but it’s important that it’s the main character’s actions that create the resolution. If you, as a reader, have ploughed in hours of your free time to read my novel, how pissed would you be if the climax was down to a twist of fate?
Similarly, never hit the reset button. By that I mean devices such as “it was all a dream”. TV shows are particularly bad for doing this. Because of the demand to keep a show going it can be tempting to keep the characters in a state of limbo. It’s less of a problem now but before Buffy The Vampire Slayer, TV series tended to avoid story arcs that meant that the show had to be watched in a certain order. This was so that broadcasters could freely show episodes out of sequence. Audience demand changed that. There should be no magic bullet. If you’ve told a good story, your characters will be changed. If you hit reset, what was the point? Similarly, there’s little worse than fixing all the conflicts of your story by magic. How awful would it be if Harry Potter have just waved his wand to end Voldemort? Harry had the fight, and he had to have the help of his friends.
In this context ‘Magic’ can also include technology and luck. If you’re writing sci-fi don’t be tempted to use technology to resolve your story: Star Trek was sometimes guilty of doing this, using the transporter or some similar clever doodad to fix the main problem of the story, and it always made a weak episode.
Finally, if you want a really good ending, try to hit them right in the feels. All of my favourite books and movies make me emotional at or near the end. Remember that it doesn’t have to be a ‘happy’ ending either. Tragedy can be just as powerful as love or joy or celebration. In fact, bittersweet endings are particularly powerful. SPOILER ALERT [In Armageddon the world is saved but the hero doesn’t make it.] The final scenes still make me tear up even though I’ve seen the movie a hundred times or more. This is especially useful when you’re trying to establish value against cost. The value is your happy ending – saving the world – your cost is the price paid by your characters – death or disability or bereavement.
I hope these tips prove useful to you. Just a couple of final thoughts for the post. Firstly, rules are made to be broken. If doing something different works in the context of your story, who cares what I think. Your reader is the only person that it’s important to please. Secondly, there’s nothing you can write that can’t be fixed or improved in editing, so don’t fret until you’ve actually completed your first draft. Go with what comes naturally. It will probably be close anyway. Finally, have a very Merry Christmas. No matter how you spend the holiday, may your Christmas be everything you hope for.