Some writers have troubles with beginnings, or more commonly, middles, but for me, it’s endings. I tend to rush them once I get close, summarizing instead of letting things build to the big bang. I always have to rewrite them, usually several times before I get them right. I’ve given up trying to figure out why I do this, and have just accepted it as part of my process. Maybe one day I’ll solve this riddle, but for now, I just follow the same revision plan each time. Which are really things I ought to do in the first draft, but it never seems to work out that way.
What makes a good ending?
Tastes will vary of course, but generally, readers want to see the problem the book has been exploring all along resolved in a satisfying way. They want to be surprised by something they didn’t see coming, but a surprise that still fits with the story – not something out of the blue they couldn’t have figured out on their own. They want to see the protagonist grow or change in some fashion that made everything they went through in the book matter in a personal and meaningful way.
Yeah, but how do you do that?
For me, endings start long before the actual climax, because that’s when you start laying the groundwork for them. You probably have some idea of how you want your story to end. There’s a good chance it’s part of your one-sentence “this is what my book is about” line. Everything in the story has been building to this moment. If it hasn’t? Then that might be why your ending is giving you trouble. Try looking back and asking:
What constitutes a win for your protagonist?
If you’re not sure, look at your beginning. What major thing happened that set your protagonist on their journey? What have they been trying to accomplish all along? That’s what you’ll need to resolve in some way in your ending.
What constitutes a win for your reader?
You’ve set up certain expectations throughout the book and your reader is going to want to see those expectations satisfied. What promises did you make? What problems did you dangle? What risks were taken that hinted at greater consequences?
Are you escalating the stakes?
The first draft of The Shifter had this problem. The ending was exciting, but it didn’t raise the stakes any from the major event at the end of the third act. Because of that, the ending was just kinda there. My agent had me revise it, and she gave me some advice that really changed my thinking. She said to go deeper, not wider, with the story, and to tie it in thematically to Nya’s struggle. At first, I didn’t understand what she meant, but then I figured out that it’s easy to add more stuff to make things harder on your protagonist, but the stakes aren’t really higher. More lives in jeopardy isn’t high stakes because readers don’t know those people. They care about the characters.
Look at what the protagonist has at stake on a personal level. Look at how that ties into the story from a thematic aspect, so the ending has more poignancy. For The Shifter, it was about being trapped, so feeling trapped factored into the climax. Same with the sequel, Blue Fire, but this time it was all about escape. Those ideas influenced what was done so it tied into the rest of the story.
- What inner conflict has your protagonist been struggling with all along?
- How can you make that inner conflict butt heads with the outer problem in your climax?
- How might that inner conflict influence what the protagonist needs to do to solve the final problem?
- How might the theme be used to make the ending more powerful, and thus raise the stakes?
- What can you do to make the risk more personal for your protagonist?
You were saying something about a surprise?
Endings we can see coming a mile away bore us, but the fact is, we pretty much know the hero is going to win in any book we pick up. There is only so much mystery you can squeeze out of “will she win or not?” The tension and wonder will come from how they do it and what it might cost them. This is why personal stakes are so critical. But we also need to have our protagonist act in a way that is unexpected, so the way they solve their problem is a surprise.
One thing I like to do is look at the moral beliefs of my protagonist and have her do something she’d never consider doing otherwise. But the trick is, she still has to be true to herself. She can’t just throw out all she believes in. She has to make that choice, hard as it is, for reasons that fit who she is. Maybe it was a line she refused to cross before, or a risk she was never willing to take. Something that might even have been suggested earlier in the novel and rejected. But the stakes are higher now, and not doing it will result in something far worse than doing it. It’s a sacrifice she’s willing to make, even though it’s going to cost her a lot.
How do we get her to that point?
This is where the thrill building comes in. It takes time to heap enough horrible onto your protagonist so that she’s willing to throw it all away for the win. I like to start around the end of the third act, when your protagonist has just hit a wall or found a problem that seems insurmountable. She’s trying to solve it, really feels that she’s not going to be able to, but knowing she has no choice but to try.
Pacing is critical here, because speeding things up helps build that breathless on the edge of your seat feeling. Let your characters worry a bit more, think a bit less. Things start going wrong and cascade into more and more trouble. Everything tried fails or makes things worse. Put your protagonist on that slippery slope, and don’t give her a lot of time to catch her breath. Let her struggle, let things get worse and worse but she still manages to squeak by. Then hit her with the climax, and the start of the end.
Let her lose. Not “lose” lose, but force her into a position where she really has to think outside the box, find something unexpected and crazy that no one will see coming. For this to work, she has to be pushed beyond anything you’ve done to her so far. Feeling like it’s all or nothing, do or die, will put her right where she needs to be. And let you think up over the top, last ditch efforts for her to succeed.
Whatever your ending, remember that it’s only as good as what’s come before it. The entire story builds to this moment, and everything your protagonist has done will be put to the test in some way to solve this final problem. Look back and find things you can pull forward: stakes you can raise again, failures you can revisit, problems you can exacerbate. The ending is the climax of all of this, so it makes sense that all of this will provide the tools – and fodder – for your protagonist to save the day. Or not, if that’s the kind of ending you want.
Looking for tips on planning or revising your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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Originally posted during the Blue Fire blog tour at Abby Annis.