The ending of a story can sometimes be the most important part. In a fable, it’s where the lesson is communicated. In a romance, it’s where the happily-ever-after happens. We spend a lot of time polishing and refining the beginning, making sure the hook line is sharp and that the introduction of characters is compelling. The ending needs the same amount of care, so that when the reader finishes that last page, she closes the book with a satisfied sigh instead of a grumble. Some writers start their novels with only a vague idea of what the ending will look like. Others know exactly what the end will be, and find themselves trying to pull the story together in order to fit that clear ending. As we’ve said many times around here, there’s no one right way to write your novel, so whichever of these describes you is perfectly okay.
It’s crucial to keep in mind the feeling you want to leave in your reader’s mind when that last page is turned. Do you want them gasping or peaceful? Is this the first of an ongoing series, and you hope to whet the reader’s appetite for more of your books? The ending needs to reflect the final feeling, because that’s what stays with your reader. The wonderful story drives toward a solid ending, and when the reader goes to tell friends about the book she just read, she’s often remembering the way you pulled it all together at the end. And satisfying doesn’t necessarily need to mean happy. One of my favorite novels, The Drawing of the Dark, ends in a way that leaves me in tears every time. The good guys win, of course, but the cost of that win is extremely high, and the hero must leave, even though he has nothing but the clothes on his back. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s a gorgeous ending, and one I’ve always remembered.
Speaking of pulling it all together….please do. Even if you’re leaving some questions unanswered because there are more books in the series, you need to close out the events of this book so that there are no dangling strings. Don’t assume the reader will forget about that weird gem-encrusted hairpin your hero stepped on in the woods in chapter 12, the one that seemed like a clue but because you changed your mind about using it some time in chapter 23, isn’t one after all. If you don’t want to use it, remove it from the story so that the reader isn’t flipping through the last chapter hunting for some mention of the thing. There’s a screenwriting rule, called Chekhov’s gun, which says that if there’s a loaded gun in the first scene of a play, it’d better be fired later on, otherwise it shouldn’t be on the set at all. The rule works in fiction just as well, because you never know what’s going to stick in the reader’s mind.
If you’re dealing with a big bad who needs to be defeated by the end of the book, don’t forget that it’s your hero who must be responsible for that defeat. You know the old trope “this is something he has to do himself”? It usually pops up when the hero is in the middle of a fight with his enemy, and his friends all rush in but don’t join the fight. You can let a secondary character kill off the big bad if you feel that’s the way it ought to go, but don’t be surprised if the reader objects. In the first draft of Mad Kestrel, McAvery was with Kestrel on the turret, and he killed the bad guy. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t quite figure out what I’d done wrong. It wasn’t until I rewrote the scene, letting Kestrel fight her own battle, that it all made sense. If you absolutely want your hero’s hands to stay clean and for someone else to do away with the big bad, be sure that you’ve arranged believable reasons for that to happen. And still, be prepared to fight for that with an editor, if you truly feel that strongly about it.
Okay, that’s enough for today. If you’ve got questions about endings, let’s see them!