Two of the most satisfying words a writer can tap onto a keyboard.
We’ve all dreamed of typing those six letters, and many of us have been fortunate enough to have achieved that particular success.
How do you craft an ending that works? You know what I mean: the ending that satisfies in a way that nothing else can. The good guys win, the couple (finally!) gets together for their happy ever after, the world is saved from certain disaster.
Yet I suspect many of us know when an ending doesn’t work. Have you ever read a book where the story had you in its grip—and then it fell flat and limped to the last page? I have. It feels like the author suddenly lost interest. Perhaps they were on a deadline and just typed a bunch of words to fulfill a contract. Or maybe they really didn’t know how the book ended, so they just threw some words on the page and hoped they would do. And that the reader wouldn’t notice.
Alternatively, I’ve read books where The End happened ten or fifteen pages before the printed pages did. It’s disconcerting to be engaged in the story, come across that emotionally satisfying ahhh that is the indisputable end…but then things keep happening and the characters keep talking, and as a reader, you’ve lost interest.
To avoid a bad ending, go back to the beginning. Is your theme still clear? Will the ending make that theme shine (even though it’s likely not stated outright)? What is the question posed at the beginning of the book? There may be an overall question, along with individual questions for each of the main characters. Are those questions answered in the last chapter? What about the middle? Does all that suspense and tension you’ve nurtured through the book come to a climax that is addressed in the final scene(s)? If you’ve been paying attention to these elements of craft, you’ve set yourself up for a good, satisfying end.
Pacing is another issue. Keep the tension strong; don’t dilute it with throwaway words or scenes. When the end is reached, end the story; don’t belabor it.
Make sure all loose ends are tied up. This is a great task for critique partners and/or beta readers. Whatever did happen to Uncle Bert after everyone else hared off after the bad guys and left him chained to the gushing water pipe in the basement? Or Sally rescued the lost kitten in chapter two, but the kitten was never mentioned again. What happened to it??? You can bet your readers will ask these questions!
Whatever you do, please, please avoid the temptation to use a plot ploy at the end. No hand of God reaching down to set all aright, or aliens/knights in shining armor/Navy Seals (that haven’t been part of the book until now) suddenly appearing out of nowhere to solve all the problems. Or a minor character who inexplicably becomes the linchpin upon which the premise of the entire book now rests. I have read books that ended this way, and they were disappointing, to say the least. Keep your characters true to their motivations and your plot logical. That makes for authenticity, and happy readers.
The ending should have a twist that no one saw coming. No one likes to read clichés, whether within the book or at the end. Do your best to give the reader a wonderful surprise, one that delights or challenges. Don’t be afraid to brainstorm different endings; too often we pick the first idea that pops into our head. The best idea may be the fifth or eighth. Have fun with this. Readers will enjoy the result.
What about epilogues? They seem to be more effective and better received than prologues. An epilogue can be a wonderful way to tie up remaining loose ends (especially in an action-packed story). It can even set the scene for the next book, if you are writing a series. But keep it short. No more than two pages. Make it count; otherwise, it’s best to leave it out.
You want your readers to be satisfied so they will write nice reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. You want them to tell their friends about the great book they just finished. You also want them to like the end so much they’ll come back for your next book. And the next one.
So give them an ending that carries an emotional punch, the one they hope for. Your reader has invested money and, more important, their time. Make it worthwhile.
What have you learned about writing endings? Any tips to share? I’d love to hear them!