Monday, October 26

NaNoWriMo Prep: Planning Your Novel’s Ending

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

And now we've come to the final installment of the annual NaNo prep articles.

Getting to “The End” is pretty satisfying, both as a reader and a writer, but there’s also a lot of pressure. There are many things that need to happen--plots and subplots to wrap up, and those pesky character arcs to fulfill. And then there’s the whole “satisfying resolution” to worry about.

The ending is the last 25% of the novel, so we’re looking at another 12,500 words of your 50K (for the NaNo folks). At least one of those final chapters is going to be your wrap up, though that can be a much smaller chapter. There’s a good chance that you won’t know all the specifics about your ending in the planning stage. Don’t worry, because this is pretty common. Ideas and situations will develop over the course of the novel that will help flesh this out. Even if you do know exactly how the ending will unfold, you might find deeper meanings or ways to make it resonate more once that first draft is written.

So, we left off last time with the end of the middle (or act two). Your protagonist has just gone through a deep, dark moment and made the choice to stand and fight. They’re taking the problem to the bad guy. They’ll use all the things they’ve learned over the course of the novel to outwit and defeat the antagonist. They battle it out, and win (usually), then the story wraps up and we see the new world the protagonist lives in, and the new person they’ve become.

This pretty much sums up the ending. The final march by the protagonist to get to the final battle with the antagonist. I use the word “battle,” but it doesn’t have to be an actual battle. It’s just two conflicted sides trying to win. 

The ending will breakdown roughly like this:

Protagonist starts their journey toward the antagonist – obstacles are thrown in the protagonist’s way that will have to be overcome (results/conclusions of subplots often come into play here) – examples of how the protagonist has changed, showing how the protagonist has learned and grown through their experiences in the novel (the character arc) – resolution of minor subplots and secondary character arcs – one last surprising twist that raises the stakes and/or pulls together a variety of clues (this can be helpful or detrimental to the protagonist, though it’s often bad) – protagonist reaches antagonist, faces a do or die moment – protagonist does or dies – protagonist wins (or loses) – core conflict resolved – story wraps up.

The pace is likely to pick up as you close in on the ending, keeping the reader hooked and the pages turning. Tensions are raised, emotions are tweaked, and the reader is fully invested in what happens to these characters. They’re desperate to know how this all turns out.

Your ending is a great place to show that all-important character growth. Remember all those flaws and weakness you gave them? The mistakes they made that messed things up in the first 75% of the novel? This is where they redeem themselves. (Or do themselves in if that’s the kind of story you’re writing). They take all those life lessons you made them learn and use them.

At some point, there’s a good chance you’ll have your protagonist face something they failed against before. Their biggest flaw or greatest weakness comes back to haunt them. It might be in the actual battle with the antagonist, or the final piece of the puzzle to get there. The moment when the reader gets to see, yes, the protagonist has learned from their mistake and will prevail.

The ending is also where many of the subplots will resolve. This is important, because if you leave too many threads hanging, you might muck up the climax, or make the wrap up feel long and anticlimactic because the story keeps going long after it’s technically over. Secondary characters arcs are also frequently resolved during this march to the antagonist.

The final battle is the biggest moment in your book, let alone your ending. No matter what form it takes, the core conflict of the story is about to be resolved. The protagonist also needs to resolve it on their own. A little help from friends is fine, but the hero needs to do most of the work. It’s their problem, they’re the protagonist, and the reader wants to see them win. Convenient or contrived actions here will kill your ending and leave your reader unsatisfied. They want to feel that the protagonist earned this victory.

Endings need to be satisfying, though they don’t need to be happy. Whatever story problem you posed at the start of the novel has to be resolved, but it can be a bittersweet end if the goal was to teach the protagonist something and not so much about the event itself. They can “lose” and still win if that loss gets them what they really needed deep down. However you set up your resolution, fulfill that promise to the reader. Give them the ending they want to see.

One common pitfall with endings is that the stakes don’t get any higher after the second major crisis. Body counts might go up, but thousands dying vs. the main characters dying isn’t actually an increase in stakes, even though it feels like it should be. Stakes go up when the consequence requires a more personal cost and will force the protagonist to make a huge sacrifice. When you plan your ending, make sure the personal stakes of the protagonist are raised as well as any big-picture stakes.

After the final battle is the wrap up. This is usually a chapter, maybe two if there’s a lot to resolve (say with a series). Lose ends are tied up (though not all or it can seem too pat), readers get to see the fates of the various characters they’ve come to love (or hate), and the new life of the protagonist is revealed. We see the change this experience has brought them, good and bad.

And then it’s over.

And that wraps up NaNoWriMo Prep. Hopefully this has been helpful and will aid you in your quest for 50,000 words, and will help with future novels as well.

Do you know your ending yet? What challenges are you facing with it? Are you ready for NaNo?

Looking for tips on planning and writing 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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  1. I have spent today trying to finish my outline for NaNo. Yesterday, I wrote a lot and my story went stage left. It fit, but didn't tie in with the ending I wanted.

    Today I started backwards. I outlined the ending I wanted then went backwards from there and low and behold it worked. I got them tied together that made perfect since and even justified things that happened in the beginning.

  2. Really, really helpful, thank you! Sometimes structure is just the thing I need to help with my plotting. Have you done/are you doing NaNoWriMo yourself?

  3. Amanda, working back to front really does help :) I go back and forth all the time.

    Wendy, I've never done it, but I do want to. I'd planned to do it this year, but then the current WIP didn't get done in time like I wanted. Hopefully next year! Or I Might just have to do it on my own come Jan/Feb.

  4. This beginning/middle/end series of posts are very informative, and also give us non-NaNoers a lot to consider.
    I'm not even at the middle of my novel and yet it is so important to lay the right foundations now so that the novel eases into a satisfying denouement.

  5. I pasted and copied the pertinent parts of the beginning and middle of your NaNoWriMo series and FINALLY have competed an outline I love up to ALL IS LOST. I know the ending so hopefully today's post will solidify the rest of the outline for the story I so want to begin writing. Thank you so much for your posts. You are fabulous and when or if you ever publish a book on writing I will be first in line.

  6. Virtuefiction, I agree. I don't know how those pantsers do it :) I need at least a little structure or the book goes all over the place.

    Judy, that's great! I hope today's post gets you to the rocking ending you want :) One of these days I WILL get that writing book done. I have outlines and files for them, but I keep getting distracted by the novels. But it was on my New Year's Resolution list, so I might have to get one before the year's up.

  7. This panster is trying to become a BIT of a plotter. Thanks for the help!

  8. Rubianna, Anytime! Hope you find the right mix of pants and plot :)