This week's Refresher Friday takes an updated look at endings. Enjoy!
An ending can make or break our novels, because they answer the story questions we posed to hook our readers in the first place. If that answer isn't satisfying, the book won't be satisfying.
Let's look at some ways to craft the right ending for our stories.
Make Readers Want to get to the Ending
In order to care about how a story ends ends, readers have to first care about the characters and the problem at hand. To do this we:
- Give them a problem/mystery/question they want to know the answer to
- Make the journey to get there interesting, and reward them with bits of information and new mysteries about that problem along the way
- Give them characters interesting enough to make them invest time in them
One quick note here: This point is not the theme. It’s an external plot. No one goes to a superhero movie to remind themselves that truth, justice and the American way prevail over evil. They go to see heroes kick butt and stop the bad guys’ plot. The theme makes all that plot stuff matter and helps us craft a more satisfying ending, but it’s not the point of the book. A theme isn’t a plot. A theme helps craft the plot.
(Here's more on developing the theme)
Even if the point of the book is the character growth, it’s still about something happening. Will that person change? Will they realize something? They might discover “love conquers all” but they do that by experiencing an external plot that changes them. They don’t just decide to change and then change. Something external triggers than internal change.
(Here's more on creating character arcs)
Make Sure the Ending is Surprising, Yet Inevitable
Depending on what the story question is, the ending might be obvious and it won’t be a surprise--for example, murder mysteries solve the murder, and romances end with a happy couple. To see that ending is why readers picked up the book. But how they get there is where all the fun is.
Look at your ending and pose it as a question, such as: Will Frodo get the ring to Mt. Doom?
This is the plot goal of the book, and will probably be a yes or no question. This is what readers expect to see answered when they start reading (even if the real question of the novel shows up a little later in the story).
The surprise comes in how the plot unfolds and what happens between points A and Z. How the protagonist solves the problem, how it affects her, and what price she pays to do it. It's the journey.
Look at your ending:
- How does your protagonist solve the plot point of the book? Add surprises here by solving it in unexpected ways. Don’t take the obvious path.
- How does this affect the protagonist? Tie in your character growth or theme here. The ending is more than just two forces battling over X (regardless of scale).
- What price does the protagonist pay for this resolution? Stakes matter. They give events meaning and make the reader more curious in how it all turns out. Have you ever been to a sporting event where you didn’t care for the sport or either team? Did you care who won, no matter how good the game was? Same thing. Readers need to care about the outcome, and if the hero fails and loses nothing, then the problem is meaningless. (Even if failure means something horrible happens. If it doesn’t affect the protagonist or characters the reader cares about, they won’t care)
- What new information is revealed that connects to this problem? Last minute twists, final reveals to long-awaited secrets or mysteries, all that can happen in the end to surprise a reader. The discovery that things weren’t what they seemed or there was more to it can add a twist to what seemed inevitable.
You Don't Have to Tie Everything Up
The core conflict (the point of the book) should be tied up, but everything else is up to you. You want to fulfill the promise you made to the reader, but other plot threads can be left open and give a sense that things go on. Some readers actually complain if things are wrapped up too nicely, claiming it’s just not realistic. Rule of thumb: the bigger deal you make out of a plot thread or question, the more likely it is you’ll need to tie it up. If a good part of the story goes into trying to resolve it, resolve it.
One note here: Steps to series are typically okay to leave hanging. If the goal of the book is to get to X so they can ultimately do Y in book two, it’s okay to leave Y hanging. The point of the book is to do X.
Series books often have a primary conflict that spans the series, so you can’t resolve that in book one. But there are usually steps along the way that ultimately get to that primary conflict. For example, in my teen series The Healing Wars, stopping the Duke is a primary conflict that affects the trilogy. But each book revolves around a step to doing that, and each book has a core conflict separate from the trilogy conflict.
If you have a series or trilogy with a bigger story arc, it’s okay to let than hang. But only (and I can’t stress this enough) if the point of the first book isn’t to solve that conflict. If you need to read all three books to solve the plot question posed in book one, you’re going to have a very difficult time selling it. First books in a series need to stand alone for new authors. (established authors can leave more hanging, but it’s still not popular with readers)
It Doesn't Have to Have a Happy Ending
How you end it is up to you, as long as it’s the ending that fits the story and satisfies that promise. But be warned here. Endings where the protagonist loses can be a hard sell. And by “loses” I mean they gain nothing from having had this experience. A loss that allows the protagonist to win in another way can work if the character growth demands they “lose” what they thought was important but gain what they needed from it (and this would be set up in the story of course). But if that yes or no question ends with a no, you’d better have a darn good reason why or there’s a serious chance readers will be disappointed.
If you’re planning a sad ending, I suggest bittersweet ones. Yes it’s sad, but there’s some ray of hope or joy that makes the sad ending mean something. Some hope. Hopeless endings are really tough to pull off.
(Here's more on the bittersweet ending)
One caveat here: Horror stories are exempt from this. Sad endings work for this genre since the point of many horror novels is to show the horror and the futility of something. Death and destruction are expected.
(Here's more on happy vs. sad endings)
The Main Character Can Die if Needed
It’s tricky, but the protagonist can die if the story requires it. It poses risks, however. If the main character dying is a shock or unexpected, there’s a decent chance your reader will not be happy about it. If the character sacrifices their life to succeed, you stand a better chance at having readers accept this. It all depends on what leads up to that death.
A bad example is an unnamed novel I read where the main character dies halfway through the book, and I stopped reading it. That was the character I cared about, and once they were gone I stopped caring. It actually made me angry and I felt tricked by the author.
A good example is the novel Life As We Knew It. In the end, the main character could live or die. The book was set up so both outcomes fit the story and satisfied the reader, because by then it wasn’t about her surviving, but how the experience changed her.
If you want readers to get to your ending, make sure the story feels like it’s moving all the way through. Let every scene offer something entertaining and provide new things to discover and learn, with characters to like and enjoy reading about. If readers feel like they’re slogging though gunk to get to the good parts, they’ll stop reading.
What makes a good ending for you? What makes you want to read on? Plot? Surprises? Characters?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
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.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound