Few writers will disagree that the most difficult parts of any story are the beginning and the ending. The beginning is vital, since it’s often the deciding factor in whether or not someone reads your book. But the ending is arguably even more important, since it determines whether your story sticks with someone past that first read. Good endings are hard to come by, and few writers manage them perfectly. An ending needs to do all of the following:
- Resonate with the reader emotionally.
- Tie off the loose ends.
- Sum up the theme.
- Strike the reader as entirely unexpected.
- Strike the reader as the inevitable conclusion of all your plot threads.
- Avoid triteness or glibness.
- Leave the reader hungry for just a little bit more (either a sequel or just a second read through).
In short, endings are complicated. With so much involved in the denouement of our novels—and so much riding on it—it’s hardly likely we’ll get it right the first time. Or the second or third time, for that matter. By the time we’ve written 100,000 words, it’s tempting to throw the climax together, slap on a closing scene, and type “the end” with a grand flourish. But doing so isn’t likely to satisfy your readers.
I never begin a novel without knowing how I want it to end. If I don’t know where I’m going, I’m not likely to get there. And yet, I almost always have to write three or four endings before I find the correct one. Stories—even intricately outlined ones—evolve as we create them. The nuanced ending we have in mind now might no longer be appropriate once we reach it. So what’s a writer to do?
Plan for more than one ending. Despite the temptations to have done with this manuscript you’ve been laboring over for so long and to find the validation in typing those two little words “the end,” don’t give in. Prepare yourself for a lengthy process. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and immediately find the right ending, but not usually.
Even if you think it’s perfect, consider a different ending. Take a moment to consider how an alternate ending mind affect the story. Maybe the first ending you write is adequate, but would something slightly different make it even more powerful? Don’t hesitate to write several endings, even if you feel the first one meets the requirements. You might discover some valuable surprises.
Run it by test audiences. Learn a lesson from the moviemaking big shots and run your story by a test reader or two. Don’t ask them to pay special attention to the ending, but when they finish, drill them on their emotional and intellectual reaction to the closing. Did your ending satisfy all seven of the points mentioned above?
Set it aside until you gain objectivity. By the time we reach the end of our journey through a story, we’ve usually lost all objectivity. The very fact that we finished a novel is enough to cast a rosy tint over the whole project. Therefore, it’s always wise to shove the manuscript into the back of the closet for a while and give yourself a chance to gain some distance from it. Later, you can come back to it with fresh eyes and hopefully see what the ending may be lacking.
In many ways, endings are one of the most fun parts of the process. By then, all the puzzle pieces are available to play with, you know your characters inside out, and you’ve got a pile of 100 pages or more to prove that you can do this. So enjoy yourself. If more than one ending is necessary, have fun playing with the options and take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy your story world just a little bit longer.