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!


19 comments to Endings

  • Morning Miss Misty. Great post. Reminds me of the old saying that great openings are what brings the reader in, but great endings is what brings them back for the next book. I think of the key ways of achieving great endings is knowing exactly what story you are telling and making sure you provide the appropriate ending. You can’t start a story with a dead body and end up with a happily-ever after conclusion. If you open with a corpse, you’re essentially promising your readers a mystery. An ending that answers questions. Whether you know your ending right away or discover it along the way, make sure it matches up with your opening. Keep your promises.

  • Misty, I have a bad habit with whole *hair pin in the woods* thing. It drives my editor crazy. And me too, come to think of it. Sigh…

    How do you feel about endings where the main character (or a major important character who is loved by all) dies?

  • Endings are always hard, I think. I read King’s “The Stand” (the abridged version, before there was a non-abridged version) when I was in jr. high. The ending made me crazy. I followed all these characters, some of whom died, all this way, and then, (sorry, spoiler) GOD BLEW THE BAD GUYS UP! I remember shaking the book wondering if there were pages missing. Honestly, as I got older, the ending made a lot more sense, and I appreciated it more. (I never read the unabridged version, though). It was the first book I’d ever read that was that long, that had 200 pages of character intro, and then the bad guys just die. And the good guys? They don’t do it, they’re just there to witness it and die too! It was SO hard to read. But, like I said, now that I’m older, I see the point King was making, and actually find it much more compelling.

    And (confession time) I LOVE the mini-series with Gary Sinise and Molly Ringwald. Love it. Even if the ending with an actual hand of God is ridiculous. Too literal. But if it is on tv, I’m like, well, there goes my whole day. Might as well pop some popcorn and give in.

  • sagablessed

    OMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMG!!!! I have an ending, but not sure if I want to keep it. I am kinnda freaking out over it. Blargh!
    My ending all the heroes depart, taking divergent courses from what the begining was. It is also a cliffhanger. Debating keeping, or changing.
    So, my question, if a story-arch involves the potential for mutiple books, are cliff hangers OK? Or should everything be wrapped up nice and neat?

  • One series that I’m quite enjoying right now is the Dobrenica books by Sherwood Smith. The ending of the first book wasn’t the happiest, even though the day gets saved. But it kept a note of hope that the main character would get a second chance to go back and deal with some of the lingering problems. It wasn’t what I’d expected, but it really worked.

  • I just finished a cozy mystery and while it was a good enough book, the ending made me crazy because we didn’t get to see it. I think that’s one of my biggest peeves – when the actual climax happens off stage. If the key piece of evidence to prove the killer did it is finding the box of jewels in his house, let us see the box of jewels being found. If the Big Bad has to be killed, the hero can’t be unconscious and hear about it all later. I don’t mind the Climax – Hero Passes out – Denouement when he or she Wakes Up pattern, I just don’t want to miss the action.

  • I think sometimes sad endings are the most memorable even though they may be the hardest to read (and maybe write).

    In the past, I’ve struggled to find an ending for anything I’ve written, one of the main reasons I have lots of unfinished stories lying around. For my current WIP, though, the ending is what I started with, which is completely different for me. Now I’ve just got to work out how to write the beginning–it’s always something (to quote Roseanne Rosanna Danna).

  • Faith, that’s a great question! I was told once that main characters should never be killed off at the end of the book, but tastes change, and sometimes the story demands a death to fully finish what the author’s trying to say. Like most readers, I’m not crazy about beloved characters dying, so when it happens, the death had better be for an exceptional reason. I remember reading the first book in a series a number of years ago, in which the main female character had spent the whole book overcoming challenges and falling in love with the main male character, only to have him be killed in the next-to-last chapter. For no good reason. It was horrible!! I never read another thing that author wrote.

    On the other hand, in one of my very favorite books, a character I adored was killed, and even though my heart was broken by his death, it made sense and propelled the story forward. The author handled it so deftly, in fact, that near the end when the dead fellow makes a brief, ghostly reappearance, it was beautiful to see him one last time.

  • Saga, leaving your story open-ended so that there’s room for sequels is not just a good idea – it’s almost a requirement these days. But at the same time, you don’t want to stop without settling the action of the book you just wrote. Say you have a detective who uses tarot cards to hunt for missing people. She’s hired to locate an heiress, but the heiress isn’t who everyone claims she is, and her real identity puts the detective into grave danger. Along the way, the detective runs into trouble when the cards she depends on show her a terrifying presence paying attention to her. The presence is something she’s never seen before and has nothing to do with the heiress. The detective needs to locate the heiress and solve her mystery before the last page of the novel, but you, the writer, can leave the question of the presence open for further investigation in another book.

    Does that make sense?

  • SiSi, I actually tend to begin with the ending fully fleshed out in my head. The New Shiny Western is the only one I’ve ever started without having a certain view of the end, and that’s been interesting to me as I work. Hopefully I’ll be able to let you guys see what I come up with one of these days. 😉

    Emily, I’ll bring the cider if you pop extra popcorn. I looooove The Stand!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Well, I completely agree with you, Misty, that random, tragic character deaths that don’t propel the plot are a *major* way to spoil a story for me. Dare I bring up the ending of ‘Serenity’ for this discussion? I know that some people feel that that tragedy was exactly perfect for the story (while I’m firmly in the other camp.)

    For my WIP, I’m going to need to figure out what happens in the end in terms of redeemed characters. Some characters have done awful things and totally deserve to die, but if they’ve redeemed themselves, does that mean they maybe get to live?

  • Nice post, Misty. The one thing I would amend slightly is the part about the hero having to kill the big bad. I’m not disagreeing — this is more of a “yes, but . . .” In several of my books, the hero is forced to rely on others for help at the end. The hero does the final deed, but he/she could not have done it without others coming to his/her aid. I believe that this can be quite effective in tying together loose ends, and it also allows an author to create big bads who are way more powerful than the hero. The challenge is huge, but in the end the hero and allies prevail. Think of the last episode of Buffy. She wins the day, but without Spike, Willow, and the others, she could not prevail. I love endings like that.

  • David, absolutely. Help from other characters can be vital not just for ending the story successfully, but also for deepening the bonds between characters. (I’m blaming the lateness of the hour at which I wrote the post last night for me missing that point. 😀 )

    Hepsebah, I’ll set up my tent next to yours in the *beloved-character*-didn’t-need-to-die camp. I’m still not over that.

    Redemption as a life-saver…ooh, that’s a tough one. I guess it would depend on whether you believe your redeemed character can make a life for himself in his new identity. Not everyone he injured would be willing to accept his redemption. Would he spend the next twenty years hiding and running from his victims bent on revenge? Would he give up after a year and return to his wicked ways? I was brokenhearted when Snape died. He proved himself profoundly, and I’m sure that he became something of a legend (thanks to Harry talking him up.) If he’d lived, there would have been too many people constantly suspecting him of every little thing, and he’d have been, at the very least, more miserable than he ever was before. At the most, the suspicion might have driven him to truly become evil.

  • To my mind, loose ends and lost items are the seeds from which new tales grow. My hairpin in the woods becomes the plotline for some sequel.

  • I’ll get back to this. No time today, but a lot to say, once my mind can focus on one thing at a time.

  • Razziecat

    I totally agree that killing off a major character for no discernible reason can ruin the story. It does for me, anyway. I can accept the death if it figures into the plot in a big way. In my WIP I kill off a major character whose death provides the last piece of the magic needed to defeat the bad guys. I hated doing it, but it works. On the other hand, there is one more major death to come at the climax, and I’m a little concerned about this, because the story starts from this character’s POV. There’s a huge reason behind this and it makes perfect sense when it happens, but I’m wondering if it would be better to begin the story from the other MC’s POV instead. Any thoughts on this?

  • Hepseba ALHH

    @Razziecat: My first thought is: who’s POV is being used when that last major death occurs? I would think the story should be started from that POV.

  • It’s interesting you mention tying up all your threads, since we’d just recently talked about that in another post. I’d said that I like to leave obscure openings for sequels, should the book do well and the need arise for me to write one. I should clarify. I agree that all the major plot points need addressed and nothing glaring should be left out (a gem-encrusted anything lying in the woods is glaring), but I feel that you should leave some bits and bobs that you can use to springboard into another volume if needed. You just don’t make them obvious. What I do is not so much a dangling thread as a hidden card up the sleeve. I take the approach of the reader not necessarily knowing everything there is to know about the story and I play on that. Usually it’s something about a character or a situation that the focus characters don’t even know so the audience doesn’t either, something I’d already worked up in backstory but isn’t integral to the plot to be revealed. It doesn’t feel like a dangling thread because they never knew about it in the first place, but it’s something that I can use for future stories in that setting. It’s like a magician. Can’t reveal all your secrets to the audience. Always keep something in reserve. 😉

    Oh, and put me in the camp of really dislike King’s endings…or lack of, as the case may be. I think I read a post somewhere recently (Wendig, I think) where someone said it’s because he’s a pantser and he doesn’t have a concrete end in mind so it sort of meanders. Unsure how true that is, but I found it interesting based on how I used to work.

    And Misty, speaking of King, my wife and I have been watching The Walking Dead and thinking that the Governor would make a fantastic Roland. What do you think?

  • A lot of series, both novels and comics/manga tend to have “for now…” endings in order to leave room open for sequels, and it’s also something you see in tv shows and horrible spec fic serial stories, where you have tiers of enemies/problems, and you can tie up the original, while leaving room for the next guy up the ladder to provide a reason for a sequel.

    As far as killing characters, at the end or otherwise, I’m in the if you do it well and I cry, it’s cool, but cheesiness pisses me off. I love the idea of being able to kill the main character, especially if it fits/resolves the emotional arc of the story. In fact, I often prefer tragedies to HEAs. I think it’s easier to do a tragedy in a shorter form than it is in a long novel, and also easier to do in a very long series like WoT/ASOIAF. Medium-length stories, episodic series, etc can make it a very difficult proposition to safely kill off a character, because you have less room to prepare for it. Too early and nobody cares, too late and all your readers hate you. If you make it clear early on that characters will die, it can make it easier, but on the other hand readers might be reluctant to invest enough in a character to make a death pay off. Pretty much everything in story-telling is a delicate balance.

    I kind of shift between having the ending perfectly pinned down and having no idea at all where the story is going. In a secondary-world pseudo-historical I had an idea for, I knew that three of the four major characters would be dead at the end, including the two who were most important to the story. It was written to be a tragedy. Basically, only one of the characters the reader should be rooting for survives. Is that too brutal? I don’t know. But it worked for the story. it also helped tie up the loose ends, because this was adamantly intended as a standalone with a clear ending and no hope for sequels.

    On the other hand, I’ve never finished writing that story. I think the reason is that because I was so clear on what the important events of the story would be, I lost the joy of discovery and a New Bright and Shiny took its place in my heart. But it was nice to know exactly where the story was going, and I think when I pick that story back up, which I fully intend to do, it will be pretty smooth sailing because of that. I enjoy that each story I write has its own evolution rather than me just sticking to a set process. I think it gives me more chances to grow as a writer and keeps things fresh.

    I have one question: When you’re deciding on your ending, is it just the plot ending you have clear in your head, or do you also make sure to have the character arcs and any thematic arcs with a clear resolution?