Writing Your Book, part VIII: Story Arc and Your Ending


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:

Classic Story Arc -- One View

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:

Story Arc -- 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:

Story Arc -- Detail

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:

Story Arc - Cliffhanger

Story Arc 2

Story Arc 1

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

25 comments to Writing Your Book, part VIII: Story Arc and Your Ending

  • I’m with you on a little down time at the end. Those big climactic scenes get so hurried and leave so little time for introspection that I need a little quiet space at the end to reflect and tie things off. I can resolve all my plot lines in a showdown battle, or whatever, but I find that the book’s thematics and character issues often need a little more thought and dialogue than can be inserted comfortably into a scene where arrows are flying and swords swinging. I look forward to writing this part and think of it as anything but dead time or needless length: for me it’s the real gift of the book, made to those readers most on my own wavelength.

  • I love the old Russian writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but they had a tendency to finish a novel and then write a “scene” that lasted another 50-100 pages which was pretty much a dissertation on the book’s themes (in case you missed it over the last 1,000 pages). For me, though, I tend to write a short, sweet coda that, hopefully, satisfies the story. I don’t care if every loose end is tied up as long as it’s addressed enough for the reader to make a good guess as to what might happen down the road. Finally, I think ending scenes are best when they are true scenes. Too often we forget to create a real scene at the end with its own conflicts and resolutions. Too often its a calming, summing up type thing that’s mostly told and little shown. I think that’s why some endings feel like dead space. A good ending is a real scene that through character sums up what we need to know.

  • >>…for me it’s the real gift of the book, made to those readers most on my own wavelength.<<

    A.J., that is how I've always looked at the final chapters, too. A gift for my most devoted readers. But it's also something I do for myself in a way. There is probably something a bit self-indulgent about some of those final scenes, and yet I also think that they represent some of the best writing I do. Finally, for me at least, they are also a gift to my characters. They're the ones whose stories I'm telling, and they make it very clear to me that these closing pages are every bit as important to their lives as the big battles.

    Stuart, I think you hit on something very important. The ending chapters that don't work are often the ones that stray from the voice of the rest of the narrative. They become something other than part of the book and so lack the flow, the eloquence, the voice that has worked for the preceding four hundred pages (or whatever). When these scenes work, they continue the narrative progression and tie it off; they don't become Something Else.

  • I think the downtime can be taken too far and drawn out too long, but for me as a reader, I love having a chapter or so to relax and find out more about the characters. I always want to know how they’ve changed as a result of the big battle and where they’re heading next. Which is also why I hate cliffhanger endings: I feel like I’m being pushed off the cliff rather than led to the next adventure.

  • For me it depends on the story. My current WIP ended more like the second model, but I’ve got at least two others that will need a wrap up chapter. For the current WIP it just worked well to end it where I did. I really don’t have a preference. There are some endings I’ve read that just dragged on too long and really wasn’t needed and some where I would have liked to have known more.

    As far as cliffhangers, I don’t mind ’em. If done well they have me champing at the bit for the next book. I wouldn’t want to see cliffhangers in a series, but for extended story arcs I don’t mind ’em. IMO, I think a cliffhanger might be best served in the second book of a trilogy where you can get people screaming for the last book, if it’s done well.

    And I was also wishing they’d at least filmed the scouring of the Shire and if nothing else added it as a DVD extra. Loved that chapter. It showed not only what happened to Wormtongue and Saruman, but also how much the hobbits had grown and hardened on their travels, going from young, almost naive characters to true, brave and stalwart heroes of the Shire.

  • >>What contour do you want to give to your story arc? Do different types of books lend themselves to different kinds of endings?>>

    David, while they are not my favorite, I don’t mind a good cliffhanger. CE Murphy does it quite well, and as a reader, it keeps me coming back for more. But a lot of writers do it poorly and leave so many things untied it is not satisfying. All that said, my preference as a *reader* is an ending with a nice slow scene that ties it all up. *Love* it!

    When I *write* a final scene, it has proven to be very different, and each type of book / series has required its own style of ending.

    When the AKA was writing mystery/thrillers, I used to go back to the beginning and create a scene with the same ambience, the same characteristics, so that the book felt like it had come full circle. In fact, Gwen used to open a novel with the first half of the epilogue, and finish with the second half. It was a very *girly* book characteristic and style, but it was effective and my editors loved it.

    Faith work dosen’t work that way, and every book has the ending that seemed right for it, and each series has a style that seems appropriate for the character. Unlike Gwen, I’d change the ending style in a heartbeat if I needed to.

    All that said, I just wrote my first semi-cliffhanger ending. All the ends are tied up except one, a tiny one, and the last paragraph opens up this tiny little strand of the novel and drops it, hopefully like a bomb, on the reader. My agent liked it, and I am hoping the editor will too. It takes the next book in a totally different direction and gives the series the push it needs to remain fresh. And I am hoping the readers won’t kill me for it.

    Great post! Very clear and concise way of presenting endings. I love the arc visuals, BTW, especially the bumpy one! That is the way I write!

  • Megan, I do think it can go on for too long, and obviously I agree with you about the cliffhangers. I’m beginning to think, though, that I must be on the far extreme of the “I like a book that lingers” camp. If it’s done well, I don’t mind if a book takes more than one chapter to settle, particularly if it’s the last book of an extended story arc. Thanks for the comment.

    Daniel, I agree that it depends on the book, and I’d love to hear more specifics from you and others on this. Is it at all sub-genre specific? Do epic fantasies do better with longer endings, while UF lends itself more to shorter, snappier endings? And yes, a DVD extra with the scouring would have been enough for me. I just wanted to see what Jackson could have done with it.

    Faith, I think that Gwen’s approach sounds cool, not girly. You’ll have to point me to a title. And I do believe that, particularly in the middle of a series or extended story arc, having threads left dangling is fine. To me that’s different from a cliffhanger and it also doesn’t rule out having that chapter or so for the book to settle. Looking forward to reading this new ending of yours.

  • kmcelhinny

    Lol… I’m still catching up on these David. I’ve got two under my belt now. But by the time I get to this one the comments will probably be closed. 😀 So far the articles are more than helpful! Esp since I’m currently starting my WIP. Thanks for all of the advice.

    Have a great day.

  • Thanks, Hinny. Seriously, if you find yourself wanting to comment or ask questions, feel free to email me off list or put them into the open comments of whichever of my posts is most recent. Glad to know you’re finding these helpful.

  • I’m still working on just what type of ending I’m going to have for my WIP. My main challenge is – although this is a stand-alone book – this book sets the stage for a much larger story that will follow later.

    There will be things a reader might expect to happen at the end that aren’t possible since this book is essentially a how everything got to be the way it is setup for the 5 book series.

    There will be a resolution to the main threat, which has to happen. I just hope I can pull off where I leave the rest of it in a satisfactory way.

    This story is definitely going to need that final post-climactic chapter. This will have to serve both the purpose of showing the patterns into which each has settled and that glimmer of what is to come to show this is but the first steps down a long and tumultuous path.

    I’ve got some ideas. I’ve been missing for a while how to introduce a critical event in the whole long arc and I finally think I figured it out this morning. Good thing too since I’ve been missing that really big bang moment in the climax. This idea should be able to accomplish both, and give me my lead in for that final chapter.

    Thanks for this post. Couldn’t have been better timed.

  • Deb S

    I like having something to ponder or wonder about when everything’s said and done. Yes, I want a complete story with a beginning, middle and end, but I don’t want Everything tied up in a bow. I guess that’s why I like series where the deeper story arc is stretched out over multiple books.

  • Thank you, CE. Glad this was timely for you. Getting that first ending in a series right can be difficult. I remember with Rules of Ascension, the first Winds of the Forelands book, I was in a similar position. I wanted the book to be fairly complete, but it was pretty clear that I had several more volumes in mind. And I had specific plot points that I wanted to plant in those closing pages to give some idea of where we were going next. It’s a balancing act. You don’t want to be heavy-handed, clearly. But you also don’t want to do so little that the book ends too weakly. Trial and error. It took me a couple of drafts to get what I wanted, but having something in mind, knowing what I wanted those pages to accomplish, was an enormous help. And it sounds as though you have that, too. Best of luck.

    Deb, I think you and I agree more than it might seem. As I said in response to Faith’s comment, I don’t necessarily believe that everything needs to be neat and tidy at the end of a volume, particularly in an extended story arc, or even in a true series. I believe there should be a satisfying ending, but I also believe that there can be hints of more to come. That settling chapter or two doesn’t necessarily need to tie up everything, but I like it when a book resolves. And in fact, the final book of my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, was panned by a few Amazon reviewers because I didn’t tie up everything neatly, but rather left a few things to my readers’ imaginations. There are so many ways to do this…. Thanks for the comment.

  • David> I really appreciate this post. I’ve been thinking about the ending of my novel, and for some reason, doing any way other than the Arc 1 you propose never occured to me. There’s a big fight scene (not a battle, no armies) and then a scene where my main characters have to reflect on what they’ve been through, choices they’ve made, things they’ve lost, and what they’re going to do next. I’m aiming for a series with a plot arc over the books, but a fairly loose plot arc over them, so they are pretty self contained stories. I just wouldn’t occur to me to try to end it without the narrative settling at the end.

    And I, too, love the end of the Lord of the Rings. I actually, in some ways, think that it *is* a story arc 1. It just stairsteps down by setting, essentially. They finish in Mordor, go back to see Aragorn crowned, then back to Rivendell, then back home, and then they fix things at home. Yeah, the return to the coast to say goodbye is a bit of a detour, but I guess I just see it as a sort of folding in, folding out. I mean, the last line is “I’m Home” which is where Bilbo started (and in the same house, if I remember right.) I always found it lovely. 🙂

    Anyway, enough of that ramble. Thanks for putting into words and diagrams the plot idea in my head.

  • kmcelhinny

    Thanks David! I didn’t realize I could, but thanks. I’ll keep it in mind 😀

  • Emily, I’m glad it was helpful. I think I’m especially conscious of endings right now because with my new series, unlike the old one, each book really is designed to stand alone, and as you say, that makes those settling chapters even more essential. Part of what I always loved about the Lord of the Rings ending was that it highlighted the differences between the world of “men” and the world of hobbits. The fact was that the battle for the world was all that mattered to Aragorn and the rest; the loss of the Shire wasn’t even on their radar, as it were. And for the hobbits it was almost the opposite. Of course the battle at the gates of Mordor mattered, but to them it was secondary to the battle for the Shire. So I always felt that the book had two story arcs that weren’t quite parallel. That of Gandalf and Aragorn peaked and THEN that of the Hobbits peaked. But there are many ways to look at it….

    Hinny, no problem. 🙂

  • Deb S

    David, yeah, sorry that was me agreeing with you. Hope I didn’t come across as combative. I love the way you incorporate both story arc and series arc in your writing.

  • Deb, please don’t apologize. You weren’t combative at all, and as I said in the post last week (the one about adding registration to the site) no one has to agree with us. You’re even welcome to be combative, to state any opposing views you might have forcefully. We’re writing about stuff that is close to our hearts; we’re bound to get emotional at times. As long as combative doesn’t spillover into abusive, as long as folks make their points without resorting to personal attacks, we’re fine. That said, I wasn’t sure if you were agreeing or disagreeing, so I responded as I did — but really the larger point is that we don’t want people feeling like they have to walk on eggshells here.

  • Tom G

    One chapter after climatic “battle” is enough. Anymore, and I’ll have to hire Jane Yellowrock to stake you. ::steely-eyed gaze::

    Now, for my own work, anything goes. I’m very forgiving of ME. LOL

    Seriously, if well done, any end it good. But I do think one good “wrap-up” chapter is all that is really needed.

  • Now, Tom, you know better than to make hard and fast rules about writing. I sometimes need two chapters; others might take three. No rules. Remember that. Or else.

  • Remember that. Or else.

    Yeah, or no cake for you. 😉 j/k

    I think the size of the story also plays a part, perhaps more than the genre itself. I don’t expect as much wrap up from a standalone novel as I do from an epic, extended arc story that runs two or more novels. I agree that epic fantasy, or any epic tale really, tends to lend itself to the final wrap up, depending on the number of loose ends that are still dangling. I almost expect the “journey home” or other wrap up from epic fantasy. I also agree that if it’s done well you can finish it up in one chapter, but I’ve also read stories that benefited from more than one chapter to wrap up. Those were also very long and complex tales. And as long as it’s still made interesting I’ll read it. I’ve read endings where it just felt ponderous to get through the wrap up and made me wonder why I was still reading it.

    I haven’t read much UF beyond Faith and Kim’s books, and Kim’s is a series, so each one doesn’t require a lot of wrap up. Likewise I don’t expect a lot of wrap up from book to book in Skinwalker. The RM novels almost feels like a series to me more than a trilogy. Not sure why (but that’s likely why everyone keeps asking for more 😉 ). And IIRC, it seemed to have the right amount of wrap up at the end. I’m burning through reading them again, so I’ll comment again if I change my mind on that. 😉

    My knee-jerk reaction is to say that I think epic fantasy does lend itself to the longer endings, more so than the UF does, but again, I’m not a major reader of UF. And I’m just now delving into space opera sci-fi, so can’t really comment much on that genre.

  • Thanks, Daniel. I have to say that my take on the sub-genre differences is similar to yours. I haven’t read as much UF as I have epic, but I think you’ve got it about right.

  • Daniel said, Yeah, or no cake for you.

    No, no! I’ll be good. I’ll remember. Please don’t take away the cake.

    Wait a minute…there really is cake, right?

  • Alan Kellogg

    It’s all well and good to talk about endings and all, but what do you do when your story decides it isn’t done yet?

  • Alan Kellogg

    For my part I’m something of a traditionalist where endings are concerned; climax and denouement is the pattern I follow. Though in one case the denouement consists of the hero spotting a crawling finger and tossing it into the fire. Then he goes home to his live in ghost and a few days of paid leave. (Troll hunting is stressful.)

    In another complete story (a fantasy history) the climax consists of the destruction of the Imperial Chinese super battleship The Golden Lotus, while the denouement covers the suicide of the Emperor of China as a result of the loss of The Golden Lotus and his spirit’s self assigned task of doing penance by praying for the souls of the men who died when the ship went down.

    In both cases I just don’t see how I could extend the denoument, the ending is just the right length.

    The Scouring of the Shire was needed to tie up some loose ends. I tend to write so the climax ties up loose ends, and the denouement is more along the lines of finishing the tale; something the climax tends not to do. But the question then arises, what happens when the climax cannot close the great majority of loose ends.

    I’m rambling, but I think you get the gist.

  • Alan, to respond to your first comment, I kind of address this in comments for last weeks post on “the Beginnning of the End.” The glib answer is that ultimately you have to exert some control over your narrative. In today’s market, you can’t allow a book to run on and on. Books by beginning writers that run much longer than 100,000-125,000 words simply won’t be published. So you might have to impose an ending on your narrative, or at the very least a break point between book I and book II. As to the second comment, I think that you’re on the right track. The ending and denouement ultimately have to be of an appropriate length to do what they have to do. The book shouldn’t linger. But, in my opinion, neither should it have a rushed ending. There’s a balance to be found and it’s different for every genre, every author, every book.