No matter how terrific the rest of the story, the ending of your novel is what readers remember. As you write a book, creating a great finale to your story can be a challenge. The beginning is important because that is where a reader decides whether they will invest time and money on your book. But book endings? That is where a reader decides if they will read your next book or not. It’s what readers talk about. The beginning must grab readers, but it’s up to the book’s ending to bring meaning to your story.
There are so many ways to end a story, so many types of book endings. Some authors tie up every piece and some endings feel more open and keep the reader wondering after the book is finished. You don’t want to frustrate your reader, but you do want them to think about your book long after they are finished reading it. So how do you write a memorable ending?
The best kind of book endings takes the reader by surprise, yet seems unavoidable once it is revealed. Hard to do? Well, as with everything in fiction, writing a fantastic ending just takes thought, perseverance, creativity and (of course!) work.
There are many different types of endings, but all involve CHANGE. Change in the protagonist’s future, change in his character and understanding, change of reader understanding (or all of the above). How do you show this change? Show it, through action, through dialogue. No telling allowed!
First Draft: Just Write Your Ending
Don’t stress. Let your right-creative-brain go free. Just write it. The moment you start thinking about what you need to do to make it a good ending (enter left-logic-brain) your creativity will evaporate. Look at writing the first-draft ending as a creative writing exercise. If your first draft ending is not brilliant, there is time to make it so. Plus, writing your ending this way may cause further discovery of your story. You can always go back and set up anything needed to make an ending work. No matter what comes out, it’s worth your time and effort to let it flow.
Try On Different Endings and See What Happens
Once you’ve written the first draft of your ending, completely rewrite it. Write an ending that makes you uncomfortable. Happy ending? Write a tear-jerker. One that is depressing. Write an ending where all is lost. One that makes you think, hey, I can’t do that! Push the envelope as far as you can. Sometimes the most powerful ending is the one that makes a writer uncomfortable. Just remember, you aren’t committed to an ending until it’s written in stone (which won’t happen any time soon!) This is another time to let your imagination loose and give your muse free reign.
Tragic, Happy, or Somewhere In Between?
All three types of endings can satisfy. When determining the type you will write, be sure you know what your reader expects if you are writing in a particular genre.
In a tragic (unhappy) ending, the protagonist does not reach his story goal. In a happy ending, the opposite is true and he achieves what he set out to get, or what he truly needed to achieve. In between? The protagonist gets his goal, but at a huge price. Maybe he has to give up what he wants to get his goal. Or he has to sacrifice something important to him. Or other subplot goals aren’t met.
Everything Nailed Down and Answered?
The ending should answer the core story question or resolve the story problem. If you chose to leave the main story question open-ended and unanswered, you will leave readers frustrated. Some authors choose to do this, but if you want to leave readers satisfied, you need to at least answer the core story question. Tie up the story in a satisfying way, BUT you don’t have to tie up everything. Resist the urge to wrap up every detail and tell the reader. Remember the end of American Graffiti? You do not have to do that—in fact, avoid it. You can leave some questions open in the subplots or with aspects of your protagonist’s future life (if they are still alive at the end of your story:)
Keep Your Reader Guessing Up Until the End
Predictability flattens out an ending, and you want to keep your reader engaged until the last page. Keep the protagonist’s goal and/or need in jeopardy as long as you can. Throw in a twist that keeps the protagonist from reaching his goal for more reader engagement as the story comes to an end. You have been thinking “conflict” all the way through, don’t stop now that the end is in sight!
Give Your Ending Meaning
Book endings must be in the hands of your main character. Your protagonist must resolve the conflict and story problem for an ending to have meaning. A solution cannot come by outside forces or secondary characters (although other characters can help). This will drain the ending of all meaning, which is the opposite of what you want to do.
Make sure the change the ending brings about is external as well as internal. What has your protagonist learned as he faces his new future? Completing the character arc (the way your character has changed due to events in your story) will bring meaning to the final pages of your book. Remember—show don’t tell is especially important here. Show us what he has learned through what he does and says. No telling allowed!
Make the final image memorable, something that will stay with your reader long after the book has ended, and be sure to connect it to what your book is about. Make sure the ending happens in a place that has meaning to the story. Finish your story with a strong image, strong emotion, strong meaning, and your book endings will resonate with readers forever.
Award-winning novelist Kathy Steffen teaches fiction writing and speaks at writing programs across the country. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, Between the Lines. Her books, FIRST THERE IS A RIVER, JASPER MOUNTAIN and THEATER OF ILLUSION are available online and at bookstores everywhere.