Ciao, SEers. We’re wrapping up the series on beginnings, middles, and endings with (shockingly 😉 ) endings. If you missed our earlier discussions, you can find them by clicking the links in the beginning of this paragraph.
Novel endings are like novel beginnings in that you have a lot to accomplish in a short amount of time. You need to tie up all your plot threads in a satisfying and believable way, all while staying true to your theme and possibly setting up the next installment of the series. It’s also important to make certain your climax is in proportion to your escalating middle and your denouement is rewarding without being overly long.
Readers should be able to anticipate the showdown between the hero and villain, but you want to craft a climax that offers a surprise of some sort—an interesting reveal, an unanticipated twist. Tension is more critical here than in any part of your story. Consider writing your sentences in shorter length, peppering in a lot of fragments. Eliminate most or all of the description, as your characters will be too hyped up to take note of their surroundings.
Readers have invested a lot of time in your story. They’re expecting a payoff that your characters deserve. One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is the deus ex machina, or God in the machine, ending. Consider a quest where the heroes have to overcome insurmountable odds to reach their goal. Then, when all hope is lost, they don’t rally and find it inside themselves to win. Instead, a wizard appears and casts a spell to fix the problem and defeat the villain. Talk about leaving the reader unfulfilled! If it was that easy, the wizard should have done it to begin with and saved us all the time. If our heroes have undergone this journey, let them persevere and be the ones to beat the villain. Even if you don’t have a deus ex machina ending, make sure the heroes’ actions are in character and within the realm of possibility.
Whether you realize it or not, your novel has a theme. Love conquers all, good triumphs over bad, time heals all wounds, etc. When you craft your ending and have your surprising and deserved climax, it won’t work if the resolution is in contrast to the theme. For example, consider The Wizard of Oz. The theme is “there’s no place like home” and the story ends with Dorothy doing two important things:
- being in charge of her own destiny (she’s the actor rather than the wizard)
- returning home
If Dorothy had discovered she had the power all along but decided to stay in Oz, readers would not have been satisfied—even though she’s in a vibrant place with all her friends. Why? Because there’s no place like home. Her decision to remain in Oz would contradict the theme. Make sure to choose a resolution that works both for the character’s arc and the theme.
If you are writing a series, you need to consider any groundwork you need to lay to introduce the next installment. That doesn’t mean you have to write cliffhangers. In fact, I discourage that. While they do compel readers to seek out the next installment, they can also foster ill will. If you choose to write a cliffhanger, I’d suggest bringing your story to its logical conclusion (a full climax and denouement) then introducing a new problem. Never leave the story without a conclusion.
Consider the Harry Potter series. (Minor spoilers follow.)
- Each book was a standalone novel (beginning, middle, and complete ending). But readers knew there was more. He had seven years of school (kind of), so if you read the third book (his third year), you’d know there was more to come. More importantly, he hadn’t yet permanently vanquished his nemesis. He beats the antagonist in each novel, but the ultimate victory hadn’t yet been achieved.
- The stakes are increasing, book by book. At the end of the first novel, the majority of the wizarding world doesn’t even know he was in a battle, let alone who with. By the end of book four, the wizarding world knows something bad is happening, but many of them won’t admit what. By the end of five, they know. By the end of six, Harry has lost his biggest ally and, while he temporarily staved off the villain, it looks like all hope is lost. It’s only at the end of the seventh novel that all questions are answered not just for the book, but for the series.
One of the most effective ways to end a novel is to circle around to the beginning. Start in the same place. Use the same (or similar) line. Your character should have had a profound arc and changed in a significant way by the time the book ends. By comparing how the character is in the beginning with how he or she is in the end, you’ll have a poignant and memorable ending to the story.
A conclusion has a lot to accomplish, but if you did the work in the beginning and middle, it will practically write itself. If you make certain to answer all the questions in a satisfying and thematically-true manner, you will have crafted an ending to be proud of.
On the other hand, endings are hard. Fans of Supernatural will recognize Chuck’s prophetic words:
So, my advice? Try to eliminate the holes, tie up the loose ends, and give the characters their due. If you do it all right, you will have ended your story, but your characters will live on in the minds and hearts of your readers for years to come.
Do you have a favorite way to end a story? A favorite ending you’ve read that has stuck with you? Let’s talk about it.