On Writing: Endings

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(Originally posted on Kalayna.com)

“Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

 The king’s advice to the white rabbit in the above quote seems too easy, too self-explanatory to be of any use to a writer. And yet, how to begin or end a story is an issue I see discussed and bemoaned on craft loops on a regular basis. More emphasis seems to go into the beginning of a book, as that is what agents, editors, and eventually, readers will see first. But how you leave a reader is as important as hooking them in the beginning. I blogged on beginnings last week, so I thought I’d take a look a endings today.

“Go on till you come to the end. Then stop.” Seems easy enough, right? But I bet we’ve all read a book that left us more than just unsatisfied; endings that just didn’t work. Two examples leap instantly to my mind, and I won’t be naming any names here for various reasons–not the least of which because of spoilers and that it would be in bad taste –but let’s just say both of the following books were best selling novels.

In my first example, I’m going to talk about a book that I personally felt the author stopped before the book ended so that the story abruptly halted. This was a mystery, and the main character finds the very last clue and mentally unravels the mystery of how the victim was killed and by whom. She calls the police right before the murderer walks out and cordially invites the main character into the house.

Then the book ends.

Yes, the mystery is solved–we know who did it and how–but what happens when the main character walks into the house? Does her host realize the police have been called? What happens when the cops arrive? As none of this is in the book, the assumption is that everything goes as clockwork, but I still felt that those scenes were missing. I checked the spine to see if pages had been torn from my book and then went to the bookstore to see if my copy was defective. For me, the book just didn’t end in the right place. It hit the climax and then stopped with no easy down for the reader.

In the reverse, with my second example I feel the author continued to write long after the book had ended. This one was a thriller, and we spent a good three hundred pages invested in watching the main character track and attempt to stop a serial killer. Once he was finally dead, I anticipated a little wrap up and the book to be over.

But no. There were a good fifty pages left.

Every plot thread was fully explored and tied off and a second ‘mystery’ appeared. It wasn’t a bad story–honestly, I enjoyed the book–but I’d had my payoff already in the bad guy getting his; the rest dragged. To me, the book ended in one place and stopped far later.

So then, how do we know where the end of a story is and where to stop? Well, like I said, both of the above examples were bestselling novels, so obviously these endings worked for a lot of people–they just didn’t for me. Which is one of the issues with writing: enjoyment is a person to person experience.

Not so helpful, I know. What it means when you are writing is that you write what you would like to read. Where do stories you like to read end? Where do you feel your story ends?

Personally, I like books where the main plot is solved and the highest tension occurs, and then we have one last chapter that wraps things up a bit. If we were looking at a visual graph of the tension, the very highest point would be the climax, but then we would have a little downward sloping tail before the last page. I like the main characters to have a second to breathe before they let me go, to maybe get a small peek of how their life goes on after all the changes that occurred in the book.

In a series, this small wrap up might also highlight a dangling thread the author left hanging so that the reader can anticipate what might come next. Note that a dangling thread is NOT part of the main plot, but a running or underlining subplot. If the main plot isn’t tied up, you typically have a cliffhanger ending where the action stops at a hook and you have to wait for the next book for the  plot to finish. The visual graph of this would have the same arc as the earlier example, except that it would have lines where each book stopped as that one plot would be spread over several books.

That isn’t to say a standalone episodic novel  can’t end with a hook (but if it does, it best be a series or your readers will likely hate you.)  A book with a heavy hook wraps up the main plot but then, at the very end, hints at or adds in something which makes you want to jump right into the next book. This is another ending which works for me as long as the main plot truly was completed: mystery solved, bad guys caught, crisis diverted, problem solved–at least temporarily. 

So, here are my questions for you today. What are some endings you read recently which worked for you? (no spoilers please!) Why did they work?  Without naming names, what endings didn’t work? Why? What are your feelings on cliffhangers and heavy hook endings?
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19 comments to On Writing: Endings

  • Hi K. Nice post! It’s always easiest to talk about my own work (that way I don’t get myself in much trouble.) 🙂

    In the AKA’s (Gwen’s) first *big* novel, Betrayal, I was finished with the book, which had been a dreadful strain, writing nearly 300 pages in 3 months, while working, and taking a 10 day research trip to Louisiana. I sent it in and started to relax, when my agent — who was planning an a major NYC auction — called and said, “Is this the ending? It can’t be. It isn’t finished yet. You only dealt with one bad guy. You have four more bad guys she has to deal with. You have another third of the book left to write. At least. And I need it in … (cue music of doom) … two weeks.”

    So, I climbed in the tub with a (large) glass of wine and a legal pad and a pen and I outlined/rough-drafted the last third of the book. When I climbed out, the legal pad was totally full, the water was cold and I was raison-y. I wrote the last 140 pages of a 120,000 word ms in two weeks, without taking time off. The book sold at auction for 6 figures. Yeah. You are right. Endings matter.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    For me the most unsatisfying type of ending that immediately springs to mind is really a symptom of the book as a whole rather than the ending alone. This is the type of ending that makes you realize that the book you have been reading is largely about something entirely different than what it was purported to be about, that the book was, in fact, an extended prologue for the larger series that the author is planning on writing. I have read two books that fell into this category. One was more enjoyable to read than the other (until the end), but both had very little *actually* happen during the bulk of the book *because* (it is revealed at the end), the authors were striving toward endings that gave them a particular set-up for what would come next. The first book that made me entirely crazy to read actually turned out to be the tragic story of the *parents* of the series main character – it would have had potential as a story if the author hadn’t been *so* focused on the particular tragic ending she had in mind. The second book turned out to be more sort of a “how-things-went-to-hell” set-up account of the main characters. The story told was intrinsically of interest, but the book neither started nor stopped in the right places to make it an actually satisfying reading experience. Finally, that second ending uncovered the answer to what had *seemed* like a background mystery – and said answer seemed to impart more plot holes than fixes.

    Sorry for the long rant. Because my WIP is the first book in an extended story arc, I’ve been picking at the above examples for a while trying to figure out what all they did wrong and how to avoid it.

    The quickest example I can think of of an ending I thought was *perfect* is actually from a movie. That movie ends with a scene that occurs *much* later than the main events, and provides the viewer with the understanding that the main character has been able to accomplish something truly extraordinary and beautiful as a result of overcoming the movie’s primary conflict. Sort of a standard uplifting ending, but done just right because it is short and tight and incorporates the resolutions of side conflicts subtly and tastefully – mere contextual backdrop to the primary accomplishment.

  • Gypsyharper

    I often find that I’m most irritated by endings when the book I’m reading turns out to be the first book in a series and I didn’t realize that before I picked it up. Most of the time, once I realize it’s a series, I’m then okay with the ending, but there is one particular book I have in mind by an author my friends had been urging me to read FOREVER. This book started off really well, but it wrapped up the main conflict about half to three quarters of the way through, and then the rest of the book just sort of – meandered. (Although, to be fair, I think this book was a 2-in-1, so it could be that the ending of the first book was fine and it was just the whole second book that was dissatisfying.) I did end up reading the next book in the series, to see if that would help, but it didn’t, so I haven’t read any more of them.

    I tend to remember endings I didn’t like better than ones I did, so I can’t think of a great ending off the top my head. I’ve recently re-written the ending for my musical WIP, and I think it’s much better now. We’ll see what my critique group thinks, I guess. 🙂

  • I’ll talk about my own work, too, just to be safe. I happen to like to end my books with a bit more of a wrap-up than some authors like. I don’t like the End-of-action-and-I’m-done approach, mostly because I find it dissatisfying as a reader. I like to see how people are coping with the implications of what’s just happened to them, because I feel that it’s too easy to say “The bad guy is dead, and now everything is okay.” Anyway, my own preference, and one for which I have taken some criticism in the past.

  • Ken

    Most of the endings that work for me are the ones that, like you mentioned earlier, wrap the big stuff up and then give the characters a little room to breathe and perhaps a hint of what their life is going to be like afterwards. I like those because they give me a change to hang around with these folks that I’ve invested some of myself in without all the tension of the Big Stuff. Yes, I know that the story is basically over, but I want just a few more minutes before saying goodbye. Fifty pages though is a bit much.

    I did recently read a book (no titles or spoilers) that was part of a long series where the previous books had just that kind of a wrap up, and this one had a cliffhanger ending. It worked for me as well. That is once I got over the whole “Damn, I’ve got to wait how long for the next book *Twitch, twitch*?” thing.

  • I also prefer books that provide some down time for the characters after the Big Finish. That allows me to relax along with the characters. If a series book wraps up the main storyline for that individual book I’m usually perfectly fine with a mini-cliffhanger ending for one of the ongoing storylines, or a subplot that suddenly becomes more important right at the end. If there’s a real “to be continued” cliffhanger I sometimes get annoyed, although at that point I’ve usually invested so much time and energy to the story that I want/need to read the next book when it arrives, so I guess the cliffhanger works.

    The ending in my current WIP is too long–I don’t go on quite 50 pages after the Big Finish, but I definitely need to tighten it up.

  • Ooh… one of my favorite (non)endings is “The Fellowship of the Ring.” It doesn’t end, it just stops. The two young hobbits have been kidnapped, one character is dead, and Frodo and Samwise have run away from the group. That the ending. I love it because of the title of the book: “The fellowship of the ring.” Once the fellowship is over, the book ends. Now, it is part of a trilogy that was, originally, only one book (I think the editor split it, or the publisher). But still, that’s a lot of guts just to stop. I’ve taught it and my students freaked out at the ending.

    I do like the “well, this is done, and now we’re turning to something else…” kind of endings in series. I like the sense that one thing (maybe one bad guy, or one problem) is solved and that there are more to come, but for now, we can have a moment or two to relax, breathe, rest, etc. Of course, ones that end without that–just a “well, crap, now there’s more stuff and we need to deal with it right now” (I’m thinking Book 4 of Harry Potter) can be compelling, too.

    The only endings I really don’t like are ones without closure. I’m okay with books that have closure I don’t like, but I really like for it to be wrapped up. Kafka’s “The Trial” made me crazy. I didn’t know any more at the end than I did at the beginning! I literally threw it across the room when I finished. (that’s what I got for taking a post-modernism class in college!)

  • Megan B.

    I like endings where the main plot is wrapped up, and then a (less tense, and usually more personal) sub-plot is concluded. That is what I often strive for in my own writing. Wrapping up that sub-plot provides the breather many people have mentioned liking, and gives you that little bit of extra time with the characters.

    An ending I liked for the first book in a series was Anne McCaffrey’s ‘Dragonflight.’ The main problem was solved, but there was much more conflict to come. It was presented in a way that was not a cliff-hanger, but a promise.

  • Some book endings (in a series) may be more a symptom of industry than of planning… Charles Stross’s Merchant Princes series for example… when I read the first (definitely) and third book (I think) the endings didn’t really give me a sense of closure to the story arc of the rest of the book. Books 1-4 were already out in paperback by this point, so going straight through wasn’t an issue. As # 6 was coming out, to close out the master arc for the story, Stross wrote about the series end by reflecting on the beginning. In case my HTML is rusty, the first “book” as submitted logged in at about 300k words (and was split by the publisher and released as two ~300 page titles).

    One ending that comes to mind that can be blamed on the writer, involves a symbologist running around Rome trying to stop a bomb from blowing up the Vatican. When this same book was made into a movie, I think Hollywood handled the core ending better than the book did.

    I think cliffhanger endings are okay if known that it will be a big-arc series, or coming in the middle (like, Star Wars… had Episode IV had a cliffhanger, it may not have worked, but with Empire it was ok – I know they’re movies, not books, but as far as “story” is concerned I think the principle still applies)

  • I like endings that are Happily-for-Now, the kind where the BBU is dealt with and life picks up again. It’s not all rainbows and sunshine, and who knows what might happen later, but for now at least things are good.

    One thing I really dislike is when an ending is too quick. I don’t mean too easy – that’s a different problem – but when the grand climax happens so quickly it’s over before I have a chance to observe what’s happening and we’re on to the denouement while I’m still thinking “Wait – he’s the one who’s been vampirizing cows all along?” I also really dislike the “Twist that isn’t a Twist” ending. I recently read a Thriller in which the MCs dead son turned out to be alive all along. Except the way everyone kept mentioning the absolutely dead, no chance he’s coming back, certainly dead, buried under five tons of avalanche dead man it became a very obvious piece of misdirection on the part of the author, which told me that the son wasn’t going to be dead so it was not a surprise nor a satisfying reveal at the end. Now, if the author had embedded hints into the narrative so that the reader was meant to realize the son wasn’t dead so we spent the book anticipating his return and wondering which side he was on, that would have been thrilling. Instead it came off as 1)an attempt to cheat the reader and 2) a poorly executed deus ex machina. It meant that the big reveal at the end was completely anti-climactic.

  • ajp88

    I can’t rave enough about the ending to A Storm of Swords by George R R Martin and don’t worry I won’t spoil it since TV viewers will be getting to see it the next two years. For those who don’t know, each chapter of his books are from a different POV (around 10 or so POVs per book getting any number of chapters). For this one, the final two chapters of each POV are far and away some of the most shocking, exulting, triumphant, and terrorizing in any book I’ve read but each and every one of them remain logical. He manages to tie up plot points some 3000 pages ago, make relevant little, seemingly minor character/setting details or lines in the most haunting ways, and bring closure to each POVs’ major conflicts while introducing their next ones.

    Each POV gets, I’d say, a full, average novel’s length of attention (his books hover above 400,000 words easily) so the reader is really enjoying several stories at once that all piece together. I’m an absolute massive fan of the series so I’ll stop rambling, but that would be my supreme pick for endings that worked.

  • Cindy

    I agree with you, David. I like a little more at the end such as your ending of “The Dark-Eyes’ War”. With a Jane Yellowrock novel, I expect less wrapping up so to speak.

  • Hepseba, I bet I read the same book. The one about the parents meeting, the stories around them getting together and the tragic end. All the while nothing really happened until the reveal in the final chapters about a mage and his children and a magic artifact and a prophecy and so on. But that was in the last couple of chapters of a large book. I didn’t bother reading the second in the series. It was a masterwork of wordsmithing, but empty.

    An ending I particularly liked was good because it was like a reboot. The trilogy led the main character down to a dark place where in his most desperate attempt at making things right he dies. Only something he did much earlier came back and sort of remade him back as he was supposed to be so he could finally reap the rewards of his hard work. I’m being vague on purpose, but the point is had the book finished 5 pages earlier it would have been a tragic ending that would have been too sad for me, but the twist just brought it all back to life. I was wondering what this other thing that was going on was all about and finally at the end it made perfect sense and I should have seen it coming. It was good.

  • Razziecat

    I like cliffhangers when I know it’s part of a series. It’s very irritating to get to the end of a book and only then discover a sort of “To be continuted…” ending that you didn’t see coming. One thing I like even less, though, is when the author tosses in things that were not even hinted at throughout the book. An example would be having two characters suddenly pair off at the end, declaring their long-time, undying love for each other….without any indication throughout the book that they felt anything but indifference. I’ve even seen one or two where two characters hardly interacted, yet at the end they were madly in love. That always makes me go “Huh?” and go back through the book looking for hints that often aren’t there.

  • Like David I tend to take a little time with my endings after the big action/discovery has been made. I love a wind down where we get to mull for a moment on all that has happened and–more importantly for me–what it all means, not simply in plot terms, but in terms of those larger intellectual/emotional/sociological/political-or-whatever issues that we sometimes call THEME. These are my favorite parts of the book, the underlying stuff that is really finally what teh story is really about, but that you don’t say until the end. I should totally post on this one day 🙂

  • Writing endings is a funny thing for me. Some of my works end more abrupt, others take extra time, but really, what it comes down to is when I get this feeling. Kind of hard to describe, but I read the sentence and I sit back slowly and breathe a sigh of relief. It’s not done until I get that feeling, like a weight is lifted. Like that was the line I was waiting for.

    I like both types of ending. I like a more abrupt ending if it’s appropriate. I put one in my first novel I’ve been looking for representation for. Mostly because it felt right to me when I wrote the final line, but I didn’t feel I needed a wind down with the characters. You could pretty much tell that, though they would still have a long road putting things straight again, the major struggle was done and the rest would probably take place across a negotiations table.

    On the other hand, taking The Lord of the Rings for example, Tolkien could probably have cut the journey home, and Peter Jackson did it very well in the film, but I enjoyed reading the scouring of the Shire, seeing how much the hobbits had changed and grown as characters as they took to defending their people when they arrived and found everything in chaos. The journey home seems to me a good place to drive home how different the characters are from when they started their journey, especially in epic fantasy, which is where you tend to see it the most, I think.

    But yeah, with that first example, it does seem to leave too much up in the air. It’s something I was mulling over the other day, how every story, from flash fiction to full novels, should have a concrete beginning and end. I was sucked into the world of flash fiction writing recently and entered a contest (and couldn’t stop and wrote more 😉 ). One thing I was noticing in some of the entries was that the story didn’t really end. They left a lot still there hanging, like it was just the beginning of a larger piece, unresolved. I feel like when you have too many questions cropping up in your head at the end of a piece, then the ending hasn’t really quite done its job. If you’re wondering when the writer is going to finish the story or wishing they’d expand upon it, then the ending isn’t there yet for me. But then again, someone may say the same thing about my novel one day. It’s all subjective, I guess, and YMMV, as they say. 😉

  • Megan B.

    Daniel, I like what you say about that sentence that makes you sit back and sigh. As a reader, I appreciate a last line like that. The kind of line I want to re-read. The kind of line that just feels like it’s the ending, so satisfying and lovely.

    I try to end my own stories and novels with such lines, but whether anyone else thinks my lines have that effect, I don’t know yet.

  • I love-love-love a cliffhanger, but not every book can hack that sort of ending. Roger Zelazny managed it in Jack of Shadows, and F Paul Wilson in The Tomb (although that cliffhanger isn’t so much of one since he decided to continue the character a few years later.)

    I’m freakishly fond of the ending of The Anubis Gates. The book involves time travel, and it was the first one I ever read that closed every loop, even a couple I had forgotten were open. Another ending I’m crazy about is The Drawing of the Dark, although this one is heartbreaking. It was the only way the story could end, though, and even through my weeping, I knew that the whole tale had been told.

    Maybe that’s the secret to a good ending – making the reader feel that she didn’t miss anything.

  • christy

    I hate short endings, even more than ones that drag on for way to long. At least those ones, you can skip ahead a bit. I hate endings that leave me like “Ok…so then what happens?”.
    I’m a fan of epilogues but really only at the end of series. I feel like, if you stuck around with the story for 3, 5, etc number of books, we should at least get to know what happens later on. Do they get married? Does everything go well after? Do they have kids? You get the idea.
    ^_^