Disclaimer: I really wanted to write this with a sassy spin and lots of swearing. But I try to keep it PG-13 around here, so insert your own swear words at will.
I was asked to share my thoughts on writing endings, but here’s the thing: I’m not an endings expert. If I had to pick, I’d say I’m pretty much on Team Kickass Beginnings. Some writers struggle with hooks, or starting the story in the right place, but I’ve got that stuff on lockdown. Endings, though? Not my strong point.
Then I realized the reason I don’t think they’re my strong point is because I’ve struggled with them so much in the past, which actually means I’ve had to learn how to write good endings instead of relying on instinct. So these are the things I know about endings:
You must have one. Don’t laugh, this is serious. The very first draft of Nameless sort of… just… ended. There wasn’t a main point we were working towards. There was an escalation of events, but I wouldn’t call it an actual plot. The real plot was the developing romance, but the book ended when the main character had to flee to another city due to illness, leaving the romance totally unresolved. Conclusion: Resolve. Yo’. Plot. Oh, and have a plot. That helps, too.
Your ending must be satisfying. And to really talk about this one, let me further clarify: Your ending must be satisfying to the general public. This means that you have to wrap up enough plot threads that the reader won’t feel they got cheated, and the conclusion must provide the reward the reader has been seeking through the whole story. Now, what exactly the ‘reward’ is will depend on the plot of course, but for me personally it also depends on the tone. If your style is full of twists and outrageousness, the reader will have developed an innate distrust for what they think is going to happen, and they can accept some more unusual endings.
If you’re writing a more traditional story, you need a more traditional ending. Usually readers want there to be a happy (or mostly happy) ending. The girl gets the guy, the villain is defeated, the science fair is won (or an extremely important lesson was learned), etc. Humans desire a happily ever after. It’s in all of our stories and legends going back and back. Hans defeats the troll and marries the princess. Inga works hard and one day a prince notices her hard work and saves her from a life of enslavement. What was lost is restored. What was broken is fixed. Otherwise stuff’s just broken, and most people don’t want to be depressed like that.
Stories move on a natural series of emotional arcs. You have to end high for the arc to feel complete. Like ending a sentence definitively. If you speak your tone wrong the sentence doesn’t feel like you ended it, but instead like you’re trailing off. Don’t trail off on stories. Finish the emotional arc.
(Look, all right, I like it when people die at the end. I want to get punched in the heart because I like that sort of thing. But I also like lots of things other people don’t, and I grudgingly accept that. So just end your story happily and don’t go through the crap I’ve been through, okay?)
If you’re a little lost on this point, consider the books whose endings left you sighing with the pleasure of a good thing finished well, and those with whom you were frustrated. That feeling of satisfaction is what you’re going for.
Wrapping up your plot but leaving room for more. This is especially pertinent if you want to do a series, and I totally kicked this concept’s butt in ACORAS. Look, readers hate it when you end the book on a cliffhanger. This is a stereotype of middle books in a series, but first books can be just as guilty. I strongly recommend making a story stand alone. This has two benefits: 1) your readers will be happy, and 2) if your first book doesn’t sell well you’re not dependent on a second book to finish things up.
How to do it, though? World-building, and layers. If you have excellent world-building then there will always be more of it to explore. More adventures to have. The Chronicles of Narnia books are a great example; each book absolutely stands alone, but they all take place in the same world. The same wide, glorious world we could never get tired of exploring.
It doesn’t have to be that complex, though. Consider the story of Cinderella. The main conflict gets resolved, but there’s still so much story to tell. What happens after the wedding? How does Cinderella, a peasant, cope with suddenly being a Princess? How do two people handle their marriage when they’ve met only twice? Etc.
As for layers, what I really mean by this is layers of problems, usually referring to villains. Harry Potter is a great example; there is an overall plot to defeat a larger villain, but each book has its own subset of villains and problems to overcome. Or The Matrix; the overall plot is to defeat the machines, but in the first movie the primary conflict is to recover Morpheus and escape unscathed. Once Neo accomplishes that, we still have the overall problem that he hasn’t even tackled yet, but the audience feels satisfied because the initial conflict is resolved, and Neo’s come to terms with his powers.
Don’t linger. This isn’t something I personally struggle with, but I get it. Sometimes you just don’t want the story to end. Sometimes you want to linger in the explanations and the afterglow, but it’s a fine line between the denouement and just flat-out hanging around. You need something after the blood and grit of the final climax. You have to show your characters cleaned up. You have to show the reader the direction the rest of their lives are going to take. But not too much. One chapter. You get one. A short one. Then close the door on your way out.
The ending should reverberate through your whole story. It sounds a little backwards, but bear with me. Your first time writing through you know how you think it’s going to end, but you don’t really know until you get there. Even if you’re a plotter, the writing is very different from the brainstorming. So once you write your ending for the first time, you now have the end point the rest of your story is drawn towards. Which means that upon edits you have to clean up your story and make sure you’re aiming in the right direction. You add in little hints about the ending that you couldn’t before because you didn’t know all the details. Your ending answers the question, and sometimes you don’t know the precise phrasing of the question until you know the precise answer. Edit accordingly.
Resolve your plot threads. Answer all questions. Need I say more?
Okay, I’ll say more. There’s a lot of consideration out there given to ‘wrapping up plot threads’, but I like to focus on wrapping up concepts and themes. This really relates to your overall plot — make sure that characters involve in a theme demonstrate growth throughout the project. For example, in ACORAS one of the themes is loyalty. Rose is blindly loyal to certain people and ideas, but in the end she has to let go of her black and white thinking and accept that some things are gray. The conviction she has in the beginning is tested, and it changes her way of thinking.
For a more universal example, consider Pride & Prejudice. The plot centers around Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s perceptions preventing their romance, and ultimately they realize their mistakes and get together. That’s plot. But the themes are how their pride and prejudices prevented them from happiness. In the end there is character growth as they realize this.
Basically don’t have a theme unless it’s going to contribute to the ending in some way.
Huge, explosive climaxes. Okay, so you know you need to wrap stuff up, and that’s great and all, but how do you do that? How do you write the ending climax and have it be poignant and entertaining and satisfying?
Guys, I have absolutely no idea. I stumble into all of my climaxes. Rewriting the ending for ACORAS was so tough because I had to maneuver all of these armies and factions, and it’s first person so Rose had to be there to witness what was happening so the reader understood, but at the same time she had to make logical actions towards self-preservation, and have a personal contribution towards the resolution.
Shit’s tough, yo. After a few days of struggling I finally sat down and wrote out all the requirements of a satisfying ending for the story. Here’s basically my list:
- The MC has to have agency. They have to make a personal contribution towards the resolution. IE no deus ex machina, unrealistic magical solution, or other miraculous ‘from out of nowhere’ save. If you need a big save, then you have to have hints leading up towards it the whole way. Harry Potter is full of stuff like this, like the thing with the snitch opening at the close, or how his wand reacted when he fought Voldemort, etc.
- All the key players have to be involved. Otherwise why have key players? Everyone needs to contribute.
- If the MC has any special powers or skills (or even life lessons) they’ve learned, it’s really satisfying if they get to use those.
- Put yourself in your characters’ place. I seriously wrote out lists of all the possible actions everyone could take until I found a series of events that involved everyone and everything I needed to.
So that’s what I know. Jessi, I hope something here helps <3
Did I miss anything? Tell me what you know about endings!