There are as many ways to end a novel as there are authors writing books. Everyone has his or her own approach, and I’m no different. Neither are you, no doubt. Today’s post, another in the “Writing Your Book” series, touches on a subject that draws rather strong opinions from writers and readers alike: How should you end your book? Obviously, I’m not talking about specifics here. Each of us has an ending in mind that addresses character, plot points, and the rest. The issue with which I’m concerned is a broader one, and it’s best discussed in the context of story arc. At what point in a story arc do you want your book to end?
To facilitate the conversation, I’d like you to visualize story arc in your mind, and to that end I’ve prepared a few graphics.
I like to visualize story arc this way:
The narrative climbs as the book progresses, peaking near the end, and then allowing for some final scenes to tie up loose ends. Just for the sake of contrast, here is the way I would render the story arc for The Lord of the Rings:
That second bump at the end of the arc is “The Scouring of the Shire.” For those of you unfamiliar with Tolkien’s work in its literary form, The Lord of the Rings has a highly unconventional ending. After the climactic battle against the Big Bad, there is a second, smaller battle that the Hobbits must fight on their own upon returning to the Shire. It is, in many ways, my favorite part of the book, but it does give the work an unusual rhythm. In making the film version, Peter Jackson chose to leave out this portion of the story. It was a controversial decision that angered some Tolkien fans. Artistically is made sense — it gave the movie a far more traditional story arc. But I have to admit that I was one of those who found the decision disappointing.
Let me pause here to say that representing a story arc this way is a little like looking at a map of the entire United States on a 6×4 inch index card. Just as the distance from the land would make rough and intricate land features — river valleys, coastlines, roads — look unnaturally smooth and uncomplicated, so these renderings of story arc obscure smaller peaks and valleys in the narrative. A more realistic story arc would look bumpier. Kind of like this:
But for the purposes of our discussion of endings, the way I’ve represented story arc works fine. With that in mind, let me present you with three images of story arc that get to the core of what I want to talk about today:
The first story arc you see here — Story Arc 1 — is the same one I gave you at the beginning of the post; the one I called “Classic Story Arc.” The second one — Story Arc 2 — is an alternate version of Classic Story Arc that conforms to the view that many authors have of how books ought to end. The final figure is the story arc for a book with a cliffhanger ending, which I include here because it illustrates the distinction between that kind of ending and “Story Arc 2.”
Let me start by saying that I really hate cliffhanger endings. It’s simply a matter of personal taste, but I just find cliffhangers maddening and completely unsatisfying, whether it’s in a movie or a book. Now, for the sake of clarity, I use cliffhangers all the time within a book. In my view, that’s a totally different matter. Ending individual chapters with a character in mortal danger is a terrific narrative tool. But I believe that the end of a book, even the fifth book of a nine book cycle, should offer some sort of ending for your reader.
When I write an ending, I strive for the story arc illustrated in the first image. I believe that a book should have its big climactic scenes, but then should end on a slightly softer note. I like to tie up loose ends, show where my lead character is headed next, give my reader some sense of life after the big battle or the solving of the mystery and the defeat of the bad guy. Put another way, I like to give my readers a chance to catch their breath before saying good bye. For instance, in the final scenes of The Dark-Eyes’ War, I have a lead character who survives the big battles (I won’t say who). I could have ended the book and the series there, and probably could have found a way to do so that would be satisfying. But there was more to this character’s experience within the narrative, and I wanted to get that into the tale, too. I handle it fairly quickly — the book doesn’t linger too long. But I feel that the final pages work because I fill in more of the story than just the fighting and the conflict. The book settles rather than simply ending. And that’s what I wanted.
But there are plenty of writers (some on this site, I believe) who feel differently. And that’s fine. As we say here often, there’s no one way to do any of this. Many authors like to have their big climactic scene, and then finish the book as soon as possible afterward. And there is something to be said for this approach. Some would argue that my endings add unnecessarily to the length of my books, that they create “dead space” at the end of the narratives. And certainly “Story Arc 2” does offer a leaner approach. I should repeat here that Story Arc 2 is not a cliffhanger ending. The ending comes soon after the climax, but it resolves all the conflicts and gives readers a complete story.
My point is this: As you approach the final pages of your novel, you should be thinking about what kind of ending you want to have. What contour do you want to give to your story arc? As a reader, do you like a book that avoids that dead space I mentioned, or do you like one that settles? What do you think is the best way to tie off the narrative threads in your story? Do different types of books lend themselves to different kinds of endings?David B. Coe