The Essentials for Endings
By definition, your story end is the section after the climax—it’s the aftermath of all the action. It is the place where any loose plot ends are tied up, the conflict is finally resolved (usually in the protagonist’s favour) and characters get to say what they’ve wanted to say, or the reader has wanted them to say, all story long.
Your ending must answer the major question posed by your story and bring a sense of resolution or closure. With some genres, this question is obvious:
- for a conventional romance, the two people find that they can be together
- for a mystery, the mystery is solved, and the characters are wiser
- for a hero’s journey, the hero conquers all, with some losses along the way
- for a crime, the crime is solved and justice is served in some way
- for a coming-of-age story, the protagonist has grown up
- for a comedy, the protagonist is finally taken seriously (which is what they wanted all along).
With other genres, the questions will vary. However, whatever the question was, it must be answered. Whatever the promise you gave to the reader at the beginning of your story must also be fulfilled. If you promised a character-driven story about a hopeless looser finding hope, then hope must have been found for that character. If you have promised an action-packed adventure, then that adventure must come to a logical conclusion. A great ending always delivers on the initial emotional and intellectual promises made at the beginning of the story.
If you have had one or more subplots that haven’t been resolved, these need to be cleaned up, either before the climax or in the end section. However, be careful that winding up subplots doesn’t take too long and become a let-down for the reader. In a series, the end can of course leave some questions unanswered.
The end of a short story will often come full circle. Novel-length fiction can do this too, especially if a theme has been articulated in an opening paragraph or scene that is referred to again at the end. It must fit in with the rest of the story, both in substance and tone. A jovial ending to a sad story and, conversely, a sad ending to a jovial story will not do. Your ending must be emotionally satisfying to the reader, and engage them right up to the last word.
Some endings are set some time in the future, when some perspective on the events has been gained by the protagonists and antagonists, and other key characters. This type of ending can be balanced by a story opening from that future time as well.
To ensure that you have a great ending, go back through your story and identify all of the questions posed in each scene and check whether they have been answered. This includes checking for:
- relationships that started
- people who were left in uncertain places and situations
- people who set out to achieve a goal
- actions that are still happening
Once you’ve written your ending, you may need to go back into your story and seed some clues that allow the end to be possible and credible. Do note, however, that if people are going to die in your story, they usually die during the climax or just before, not at the very end.
Happy, Sad or Mixed Ending
One theory goes that there are only two types of endings: happy or sad. Christopher Booker, author of The Seven Basis Plots: Why We Tell Stories, has this to say about endings:
‘To say that stories either have a happy or unhappy ending may seem such a commonplace that one almost hesitates to utter it. But it has to be said, simply because it is the most important single thing to be observed about stories.’ (p.18 of 702).
And later Booker states: ‘… for a story to resolve in a way that really seems final and complete, it can only do so in one of two ways. Either it ends with a man and a woman united in love. Or it ends with [a tragic] death.’ (p.153 of 702).
However, I think that this is an oversimplification. There are many literary fiction books that have mixed endings: happy for some characters (or at least optimistic), sad for others, and neutral for yet other people.
The Length of Your Ending
An ending that is too long (e.g. Lord of the Rings) will be tiresome for he reader. One that is too short will also fail to give satisfaction. Remember, your first book sells your second book and so you must leave your reader feeling like their reading effort has been worth it. So how long should the ending be? Ten percent of the book is way too long; one percent is too short. This leaves about five per cent as about right. So for an 80,000 word novel, that’s about 4,000 words. A story with a protracted ending always brings a sense that the author didn’t quite know how to close off on the characters lives which can be quite disappointing for the reader.
When to Write Your Ending
There are two schools of thought on when you should write your ending. The first, and possibly majority view, states that you should at least know what your ending will contain at the initial planning phase. That is, while you may not actually write it, you have the key scenes mapped out in terms of what transpires between the characters—what they do and what they say to each other. The other school, mostly argued by pantsers, is that having a planned ending doesn’t allow your story to evolve naturally, that you shouldn’t be too fixed about what happens because your story might take a completely different tack in the middle. If you’re a confident pantser, this might be fine, but most people will get lost in the middle of a piece of fiction if they don’t know what goal they are aiming for at the end. Like driving at night, knowing what place you hope to arrive at makes the journey less stressful and more likely to succeed.
IMAGE: Yellowstone National Park, USA (2013) © Yelsel International Pty Ltd