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Friday, October 9

Does Your Novel Just…Stop? What Makes a Good Ending

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Your novel’s ending will have more impact than everything that came before it.

Some writers have troubles with beginnings, or more commonly, middles, but for me, it’s always been endings.

I tend to rush them once I reach the book’s climax, and summarize what happens instead of dramatizing scenes to the big finish. I always have to rewrite those last three or four chapters several times before I get them right.

There are two reasons for this—impatience and story fatigue.

When I develop a novel, I reach a point where I’m tired of planning and want to move onto the writing. And that typically happens before I’ve fully fleshed out my ending, so I only know a general sense of what happens. And when I’m drafting it, I hit another wall of fatigue, where I’m so ready for it to be over and I can start revising. Then I rush past the ending I didn’t develop enough in the first place.

It’s a vicious cycle.

Which is why I’ve spent a lot of time finding ways to make writing endings easier.

When you understand what makes a good ending, you have the tools to write a great ending.


Writers often fail with endings because we don’t spend enough time on ensuring they satisfy our readers. We focus on how the plot ends, not necessarily how the story ends, and the book was never really about the protagonist. Or we write the obvious ending readers see coming, so there are no surprises. And then there are the endings that come out of nowhere and don’t resolve the novel’s core conflict—or have a protagonist who changes only because plot told them to.

There are plenty of reasons why an ending doesn’t work, but let’s look at what makes a good ending:

A good ending lives up to its expectations.


Endings start long before the actual climax—the beginning of the novel establishes the problem that needs to be solved. You set reader expectations for what the book is about and what story problem the protagonist is facing. Readers expect you to resolve this problem in an interesting way, and they expect the protagonist to win (in most genres).

You probably have some idea of how you want your novel 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.

To satisfy your readers, ask these two important questions:

What constitutes a win for your protagonist?


The protagonist has been after a goal and struggling with a problem the entire novel. What is it? What is the conflict driving the plot, the inner turmoil driving the character arc, the lesson driving the theme? What is the one thing that when it happens, the protagonist’s struggle (and journey) is over?

If you’re not sure, look at your beginning. What major problem occurred that set your protagonist on her journey? What has she been trying to accomplish (or avoid) all along? That’s what you’ll need to resolve in some way in your ending.

What constitutes a win for your reader?

This is what readers expect to happen by the end, even if they’re not sure how it’ll unfold. The killer is caught. The evil is vanquished. The couple live happily ever after. The self-destructive behavior is changed.

Odds are, the genre will play an important role here. Romance readers expect a happily ever after (HEA), mystery readers know justice will prevail, thriller readers are waiting for the pulse-pounding excitement—whatever your genre, there is a trope at the core that makes it “that genre.”

The type of book determines what type of ending readers expect.



A good ending cranks everything up to eleven.


Good endings escalate the stakes to the highest point in the novel. The climax is do or die, the protagonist faces their greatest challenge and risks the most they’ve risked all book.

If it doesn’t?

Then the ending just rolls on by and misses an opportunity to keep readers on the edge of their seats. And readers don’t rave to their friends about endings that just…ended.

It’s the ones that keep them up all night they can’t stop talking about.

The first draft of my novel, The Shifter, had this problem. The ending was exciting, but it didn’t raise the stakes any higher from the major event at the end of the third act. Because of that, the ending was just kinda there.

My agent 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 my protagonist’s struggle.

It’s easy to add more stuff to make things harder on your protagonist, or to include more people who might suffer a terrible fate, but the stakes aren’t really higher. More lives in jeopardy isn’t high stakes because readers don’t know or care about those people. They care about the characters they’ve been following all novel.

Look at what your protagonist has at stake on a personal level. Look at how that ties into the story, so the ending has more poignancy. Ask:
  • 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? 
For The Shifter, the theme is “trapped,” so feeling trapped factored into the climax. I looked for ways to trap my protagonist on multiple levels, make it impossible for her to escape with a major sacrifice, and then forced her to make an impossible choice.

Raise the stakes to the stratosphere and leave your readers breathless.

(Here's more on  Raise Your Novel's Stakes by Narrowing the Focus)

A good ending pushes past the obvious.


Predictable is a book killer—especially in an ending. Endings readers can see coming a mile away bore them, but the fact is, they pretty much know the hero is going to win in any book they pick up. There is only so much mystery you can squeeze out of “will the protagonist win or not?” The tension and wonder will come from how they do it and what it will cost them. This is why personal stakes are so critical.

It’s also why we need to surprise readers yet again before the novel is over. The protagonist needs to act in a way that is unexpected, and how they solve their problem is a surprise.

“Wait!” you say. “You just told me readers expect certain things and I need to meet those expectations.”

I did, which is why endings can be difficult.

Readers know (and expect) certain things common to the type of book they read. But it’s how the protagonist resolves the problem that will surprise them, and what price is paid in the end to win.

Defy expectations by giving readers what they expect, but not how they expect it.

Here are some fun tricks for creating twists in your ending:
  • Is there anything your protagonist swore they’d never do in the book? Force them to do it in order to win.
  • Does your protagonist have a strong belief that defines them? Force them to betray that belief, or have their actions to win shatter it.
  • Is there a line your protagonist refuses to cross? Shove them across it.
Catch the killer, but make it cost a sacrifice by the detective. Bring the two lovebirds together, but expose a secret that changes their relationship. Save the world, but do it without banishing the evil. 

The greatest sacrifices happen in the ending, so look at all the ways your protagonist can lose something they hold dear.


A good ending builds the thrill.


It takes time to heap enough horrible onto your protagonist so they’re willing to throw it all away for the win. Pacing is critical here, because speeding up the story helps build that breathless on-the-edge-of-your seat feeling.

It’s also a great time to revisit past failures:
  • What mistakes might come back to haunt the protagonist?
  • What previous problems can exacerbate?
  • What lessons haven’t been learned?
Let your characters worry more and think less. Which will help lead them into trouble. Let plans go wrong and cascade into more and more trouble. Everything they try fails or makes things worse. Put your protagonist on a slippery slope, and don’t give them a lot of time to catch their breath. Let them struggle. 

This is not the time for a lot of self-reflection or long-winded speeches, but action and reaction. 

And then it slaps the reader in the face.


Memorable endings throw in one last shock before the problem is resolved. Just when readers think it’s over and it can’t possible get any worse—it gets worse.

Yank the rug out from under your protagonist. Force them into a position where they really have to think outside the box, find something unexpected and crazy to do just to survive that no one will see coming.

Push them beyond anything you’ve done so far. Making the protagonist (and the reader) feel that it’s all or nothing, do or die, will put them right where they need to be.

And it forces you to think of over the top, last ditch efforts for them to succeed that will wow your readers.

(Here's more on the Anatomy of a Showdown) 

The ending is more than one, single moment in the story.


The ending is 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.

Thinking about “the ending” as more than one moment is what finally (mostly) solved my own ending problem.

I finished a draft last week where I only summarized the wrap up chapters, and the last three chapters took a single revision to get right. It’s the first first draft I’ve written where I didn’t hit that story fatigue and desire to just be done already.

Because I thought about what made a good ending for this novel before I tried to write it.

And it worked.

A good ending makes readers glad they picked up the novel.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and review the ending of your current manuscript. Identify which of these elements it has, and if they pass muster. If you discover you’re missing some (or even all), then brainstorm ways to revise and craft an ending readers can’t stop talking about.

What do you feel makes the best endings?

*Originally published March 2011. Last updated October 2020.
 
For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

Originally posted during the Blue Fire blog tour at Abby Annis.

22 comments:

  1. I am struggling with this. In rewrite #3 of my novel, I wrote my ending soon after my beginning and am now beginning act 3...Problem is, I feel everything is happening way too fast. At what point do high stakes, action, mysteries unraveling become exhausting for the reader? I feel my pacing is getting out of hand!

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    1. In my last manuscript I wrote the ending after I was a third of the way into the story. It worked wonderfully allowing me to work through the middle part of the story, weaving in details and action as needed.

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  2. Truly you are an inspiration Janice.

    I have to admit though, while I can see how ending a book or story can be hard, I honestly have a harder time starting. I either start too late, too early, or not it's just not written/rewritten well, even if I know I'm starting in the right place.

    I struggle most with getting the reader to CARE, right at the start, rather than think, "Who cares?" which you know has driven me to both the Heartbreak Hotel and the Insane Asylum and back many times, since my feelings as the writer are different from what the reader feels, no matter how long I let things get cold before going back to revise.

    I'm always going to know things the reader won't, and some of what I can't get on the page organically now is necessary for the reader to see what I'm trying so hard to show, and knowing what must be shown NOW, and not ten pages or chapters from now, if at all, is not always straightforward.

    I hope I can find something to help me in your archives.

    Taurean

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  3. Roberta: If you feel that way, trust your instincts. Look for spots where you can slow down, or add a scene that's more reflective. Something that focuses on the internal conflicts instead of the external. You don't want to drop the tension, but too much too fast *does* get exhausting. Also, major turning points are a good spot to slow down a bit because you've usually just done something huge, so you have lots of momentum to carry you through a slower moment. There's more on pacing Tuesday from author Jana DeLeon, so hopefully she will give you some more ideas.

    Taurean: Everyone has their sticking points :) Mine used to be middle back in the day and I figured them out. (now it's endings, go figure) If you go to the tag listings on the left hand side, you'll see a tag called "beginnings." That'll bring up all the articles on beginnings. Hopefully there will be something there that helps ;)

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  4. when studying screenwriting I memorized this: before you begin writing the script, know the end. everything builds to the finale. you describe this process perfectly!

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  5. Janice, I'd love to hear more about your struggles with middles, and how you developed a plan for them!

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  6. Crud. Lost long comment. :(

    Could you talk more about sad endings? What makes a sad ending feel like an ending at all, if the central character has [i]still[/i] failed to accomplish his or her goal?

    I have an unhappy short story I'm shopping around, and one critter just told me the ending fizzles, as though I wasn't really sure what my point was. Thing is, it's the ending I was working toward all along. Now it could just be his opinion, but I'm trying to see if maybe I made it seem if I was building toward something else.

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  7. @Joe -- Maybe it's not clear that the goal has failed utterly? Sometimes with "sad" endings, I get the feeling that a story just stopped in the middle of a try/fail cycle instead of reaching the conclusion.

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  8. *nod* I'm wondering if I've dropped the ball on the internal vs. external goal department. The external goal has failed utterly, but I'm thinking now that I haven't really paid attention to his internal goal, and maybe that's why it's still not clear.

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  9. I'm having the same problem with my ending. I know how I want to end it but I know it's way too fast and uncomplicated. I don't want my ending to be one big info dump. "This is what happened" and so one and so forth. This is, however, my first draft and I shouldn't be worrying about getting it perfect but getting it done. Great post!

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  10. This is exactly the kind of through process I use for planning my own endings. I like seeing what my protagonist is willing to lose in order to triumph.

    I also like seeing the events buld towards what I call the "Luke Skywalker Moment," the part of the story where the odds keep getting stacked in favour of the antagonists, and the reader starts to realise that soon the protagonist will be the only person who can overcome the threat, as with the Death Star battle in Star Wars. :-)

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  11. I have trouble keeping myself from rushing through endings too, whether I'm reading or writing. I'll be in such a hurry to find out what happens at the end, I'll blow through the last chapter of a book and miss most of what happens. It's only during subsequent reads that I discover how much of the ending I missed the first time. I just can't help it.

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  12. Endings:
    Would-be novelist meets publisher
    "how long is a novel?"
    Publisher (sarcastically) "Seventy thousand words "
    Novelist "Then I've finished! Yippee!"

    Word Count Rules OK

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  13. Great post, as usual, Janice. :) I'd also love to see how you've devised a plan to tackle "the middle"!

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  14. Ann: Thanks! I know there are folks out there who like to discover the ending as they write, but I can't get started without knowing the end in some way.

    Melissa: Will do. :)

    Joe: Ooo I hate when that happens. Sad endings are tough, because a good ending satisfies the reader and they usually don't want to be unhappy by the end. So the trick is to have a sad ending that in some way is what the reader hopes for or understands is the right way to go for that character. I think theme plays a stronger role in sad endings as well, because winning isn't the goal. A larger purpose is typically conveyed in a sad ending.

    I'd suggest looking back at your beginning and see what you hinted at as being a "win" for your protag. If readers are expecting that to happen, and it doesn't, and the protag fails, it's likely they'd be upset by that. You can also see if there's a way to let the protag win in a way that also allows the sad ending. Like when a hero sacrifices themselves to save the world kinda deal. Does that help?

    Megan: Good observation.

    Hannah: So true, get the story down, then fiddle as much as you want. I always infodump my first draft endings and have to fix them. Once you see how it plays out, you'll have a better sense of what to dramatize and what to sum up.

    Paul: I think we have the same writing process :)

    Chemist Ken: If the book is really good, I do that in the third act right before the ending. I'm in a hurry and I rush through it. Then have to go back and read stuff over.

    DJ Harrison: LOL If only it were that easy!

    Heather: Thanks! More on middles on Thursday.

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  15. Endings can be so hard to figure out for a writer. Really the entire novel or memoir hinges on it and it makes the difference between a memorable book that you'll be talking about for years to come and a forgettable one. Great post!

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  16. Indeed. It's the last thing a reader takes away from the book, and if that's a bad taste, it affects the entire novel.

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  17. Hi Janice,
    I'd like to talk more about sad ending. I somehow like a sad ending, because it's kinda tell your reader that sometimes things doesn't always go like you want. The guy doesn't always get the girl. And maybe it can make your reader want a continuation of the story itself.
    I guess if it's executed perfectly, it can has a much more powerful impact rather than a happy ending.
    For example, Romeo and Juliet, they didn't have a happy ending, they're both dead, but the story is still being told up till now, or Titanic for another example.

    But somehow I also think that a sad ending makes readers feel pointless, dissapointed and asking 'what's the point of reading this story?' how do you get around that?

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  18. I like a sad ending every now and then, too. I read (and write) women's fiction, and sometimes you'll get one of those. Or a bittersweet ending. In romance, of course, the couple must have their HEA/HFN.

    I cannot begin writing a story in earnest until I know the ending. How else will I know what to write toward? Of course, I may not know how I'll arrive at that ending. I figure that out as I go, pantsing and plotting along the way with that final image imprinted on my brain.

    As always, Janice, a helpful post filled with provocative questions to help the writer iron things out.

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    1. I'm the same way with endings. I didn't used to be, and that caused a lot of trouble for me.

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  19. My historical novel follows the historical record accurately, so my ending was cast in stone before I even started. Then I started thinking: "What about the guy who turned 'state's evidence' afterward?" I couldn't make it fit the story well enough, so I think I will offer it as a bonus: "All Debts Are Paid." It could be in an addendum or a download for those interested enough to want it. It's actually pretty interesting, and it happened on Christmas Day two years after the bad guys met their fate at the end of a rope.

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    1. That would make it easier :) I like the bonus story. Readers love extra context. You could use it as a newsletter freebie, or just have it on your website.

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