Monday, March 8

The End: Talking About Endings -- And Not Just the Big One

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Recently I talked about chapters that ended too soon, and it sparked an interesting discussion in the comments about how we end chapters. It made me realize that I've never done an ending post, so today, let's talk about endings.

What makes a good ending?

It really depends on what kind of ending you mean. There are scene enders, chapter enders, and novel enders. Let's work top to bottom.

Novel Endings

Novels end when the core conflict of the story is resolved. How this is done is up to the writer, and there are countless ways to do it. But a novel end should do one major thing: It should resolve the story to a satisfying conclusion.

"Satisfying" can mean anything. It might have a happy ending, tie up every loose end and leave the reader joyful and bubbly. But it doesn't have to be happy, it doesn't have to tie up all the loose ends, and it can leave a reader feeling bad. But as long as they're satisfied by how the story resolved its conflict, it'll most likely work.

There are a few things I can do to point you in the right direction to see if your ending works.

1. Does it resolve the core conflict of the novel? 

This is the big "this is what my book is about" question that your protagonist has spent the entire book trying to achieve. This is a biggie for series books, as there's a larger story arc across multiple books. But the goal in that one book needs to be resolved (yes, I know some authors don't, but those are almost always big name authors will a proven track record and they can get away with things new and unpublished authors can't.)

2. Does it satisfy the major questions posed in the novel?

You don't have to tie up all the loose ends, but there are probably a few major things in the story readers will want to know answers to.

3. Is this the ending most readers are hoping for?

This one can waffle a bit, because we've all read books where we wanted one ending, but the book ended another way. I read one over the holidays like this, and while I wasn't satisfied by the ending, I could see why the author chose to end it that way. I'll be honest, it did affect how I felt about the book. Up until the end, I would have recommended that book to anyone. After the final chapters, I won't. So if you do have an ending that isn't how readers will likely want it to go, make sure it's clear that that's how it needed to go to make whatever point you're trying to make.

Chapter Endings

Chapters should end in ways that make the reader want to turn the page. That doesn't necessarily mean a cliffhanger or action scene, but some question left unanswered, some detail they want to see more of, some issue they need to see resolved. Something that makes them want to know what happens next. I like to be mean and make it as impossible as I can for readers to put down the book, because books I can't put down are ones I tell all my friends about. I don't want you putting my book down, even though there are places where the enders are quieter where you could. Any time a reader puts a book down, there's a chance they won't pick it back up again. Books that take me a month or so to read usually aren't ones I mention. It's usually when someone asks me if I read it, and I'll say something like, "Oh I did, it was okay" or "It's wasn't bad." Not the stellar word of mouth a book strives for.

The other school of thought, is to pace your novel so you give the reader lulls so they can put the book down and get to sleep so the book doesn't take over their lives, so to speak. Break it up into chunks so those who like to read in spurts can easily do so.

Scene Endings

Scene endings are a lot like chapter endings. They're places where the story has reached a turning point or resolution, and the reader has an opportunity to book the book down. I try to end my scenes same as my chapters, with something driving the story forward. But this is a spot where you can often have a quieter ending that gives the reader a breather if they need one. Scenes often end in the middle of a chapter, so characters are gearing up for an event, or just coming down from an event. There's usually enough inherent drive to keep the story moving, yet give a sense of resolution that slows the pacing down.

What type of ending you pick has a lot to do with how you choose to pace your novel, and what genre you're writing in. Fast-paced genres are expected to have un-put-down-able chapter enders, while slower-paced genres can end on quieter notes. Mixing them up is a good idea, as the same ending every time gets predictable, and predictable is boring, no matter what's going on in the scene.

Whatever type of ending you choose, figure out what kind of reading experience you want your reader to have. That'll go a long way toward determining not only how to pace your novel, but how to end it.


  1. I love this! It gives me so much to go on for when I am done with the first draft and ready to begin the first set of revisions! Something to strive for!

  2. Great post. I agree it's best to end your chapter with a cliffhanger, question, or something unanswered to make the reader want to read more. But sometime if you have more than one scene in a chapter, some of the quieter scenes will end quieter. Maybe sometime you can do a post about those quieter scenes that are necessary but maybe not as much is happening and how to best handle them. I think I figured out mine, but it took me a day to do it and not many words written.

  3. *wearing the uniform of the other school*
    Some pretty good points here. The different levels of ending have their purposes, and it’s important to know what they are.

  4. But is it so bad to read a book you HAVE to put down b/c you need a breather? One book did that to me, not because I found it slow or boring, but because some of the descriptions resonated with such creepy vividness that I needed a break if only to shiver and wonder who the heck among my friends would be willing to read it?

    I recommend that book to some friends who I know it won't give nightmares. I talk about it to the others (the things I admired, not the creepy aspects that would give them nightmares). Overall, I think the author did a good job with the pacing for my type of reader: one who doesn't mind being creeped out as long as there's a point to it, but who still needs to breathe.

    (I'm not naming it here due to your novel's MG audience, who I'm fairly certain would have varying levels of approval from their parents for the novel I'm referring to.)

    Now, books that need breathers b/c they meander, are difficult to understand, repulse me, don't keep my interest, or have no break between adrenaline rushes--those I'm not inclined to recommend to anyone.

  5. Good analysis of why an ending feels right and satisfying. I often spend a lot of time asking myself about the MC's core problem, the questions the novel is asking and what I want the reader to feel.

  6. I can do that Natalie. I didn't get my posts done for the week on Sunday like I usually do (expect delayed posts this week due to that, hehe), so I needed ideas anyway :)

    Carradee, no it's not bad for the reader to put it down, but it can be bad if there's nothing to encourage them to pick it back up. It's a subtle difference. I'm not against quieter ending moments, I just feel that you shouldn't end with things resolved. (unless it's the final chapter of course!) Give the reader a need to pick up the book again, even if the ending was quiet.

  7. I totally agree with what you said about chapter endings. I feel the same way - I don't want anyone putting my book down. I want them to keep saying to themselves, "Just one more chapter...just one more chapter..." until it's the end of the book and they've finished the whole thing! So as I write and revise, I'm trying to make the chapter endings as interesting, funny, or leading into the next as possible. I always ask myself, "Does this make me want to keep writing? Or editing?" And if it does, than I hope readers will feel the same.