Where Readers & Writers Connect
There are multiple books about beginnings, each one chocked full of tips on how to snag the reader’s interest, ways to incorporate a hint of danger, or foreshadowing. However, this post is NOT about beginnings; it’s about endings. Sure, we have to get the reader into the book, but beginnings, as in life, are just the first step in an inevitable march toward The End. If you want your story to resonant with the reader, if you want them to close the book with a pleasurable sigh, if you want them to remember your story and its characters at odd moments months after they’ve read it, you need a good ending as much or more than you need a great beginning.
What Does Not Make a Good Ending
First, let’s talk about what doesn’t make a good ending.
An ending without a conclusion is not a good ending. I’m referring to those nebulous endings that don’t clarify anything. Like Fourth of July fireworks the book starts out with a bang then fizzles away in a puff of smoke. It’s indicative of an author who’s lost control of the story. Stephen King readily admits he struggled for weeks to end his book, The Stand. The final question was, “What does all this mean?” And, after nearly 1,200 pages, all he could come up with was, “I don’t know.” How dare you say, I don’t know?
You wrote the book; you’re supposed to know! Give your readers the ending they deserve, not vague, meaningless platitudes.
Don’t slam on the brakes without warning. At one time or another, we’ve all read an engrossing story that was going along great until the author suddenly popped up like Porky Pig and said, “That’s all folks!” It does no good to create thrilling scenarios that keep people turning pages late into the night if your endings are forced and jarring.
There’s a saying in sales, “Always be closing.” As an author you must do the same.
The ambiguous, indefinite, or open-ended ending is a No-No. These books conclude by implying, “Well, maybe they did, but then maybe they didn’t.” Oft times, the protagonist just fades into the sunset.
Leaving the reader guessing isn’t clever or artsy, it’s maddening.
People crave happy endings, and it’s your job to give them one. Be warned, if you end on an unhappy note, it’s at your own risk. How often have you seen a movie where, in the closing minutes, the protagonist muffs it with the girl you know was meant for him? And how often did he go back to New York, Chicago or LA to live in miserable solitude? Never. It’s a theatrical device that builds emotion for the eventual resolution of their impasse. The same applies to situations where you’re led to believe the main character died. But then, lo and behold, it turns out you misinterpreted the scene…just as you were supposed to.
Constructing a Satisfying Ending
Now that we have a pretty good idea what doesn’t make a good ending, what does make a good ending?
First and foremost, it should be believable, logical, and evolve naturally from the story. No Deus Ex Machina. This is the author’s final chance to shine. Like a professional athlete, they should make the difficult appear easy. And this can only be accomplished with careful planning. You and your reader have been drifting along in the fictive clouds for several hundred pages, but now the trip is nearly over and, good pilot that you are, you’re prepared for a smooth touchdown.
Approach the denouement of your story gradually and with deliberation. As you reach the latter parts of the book, begin to shorten your chapters and roll up any unresolved subplots. Gather the various strands of your story and spin them into a single, cohesive thread as you draw ever nearer to the final climactic event that resolves the conflict. By the way, this climactic event is usually not the end, but the prelude to the end.
The gunfight’s over, now it’s time to get out of Dodge. Quickly wrap up any loose ends and don’t waste words on long descriptions. Focus on introspection. Return to an object or place that you endowed with special significance…the old family home, a precious heirloom, a special photograph, etc. Let it initiate flashbacks. If possible, bring the major characters together. Fit them into a cohesive whole and showing the story’s impact on each of them. P.S.: They need not be physically present.
I give Herman Wouk an A+ for his fabulous ending of Youngblood Hawke. It’s the story of a truck driver from Kentucky who becomes a famous writer and falters under the demands of fame. In the final chapter, Hawke is dead and his editor, Jeanne Green, who once loved him, is back in his hometown.
Jeanne visits Hawke’s mother and she shows her how she’s turned his old room into a museum of sorts. We learn that royalties from his books have made her life comfortable. His sister and her husband are there too. Hawke willed his sister a book loosely based on her life. It was panned by critics, but is now required reading in many high schools.
Hawke’s agent, Ferdie Lax, is there to present a movie deal. Jeanne and her husband walk over to the new library built with funds from Hawke’s estate. Inside, there’s an entire room devoted to him. Along the walls are pictures from the early days. Jeanne is in many of them and she slowly wanders the wall remembering and reminiscing.
Yes, Hawke died, but look at his legacy…all the lives he touched and changed. That’s a satisfying ending.
Now go and do likewise.
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A former newspaper editor and publisher, E. G. Lewis’ articles have appeared in regional and national magazines. He lives on the Southern Oregon Coast with his wife, Gail, also a writer. He is the author of nine books.
His e-book, In Three Days – The History & Traditions of Lent and Easter is now available. E. G. Lewis also maintains an informative blog about the early church, Sowing the Seeds.