Today, we wrap up my mini-series on common problems in beginnings, middles, and endings. Week one focused on beginnings, week two discussed middles, and this week, we’ll take a look at common problems with endings.
The ending resolves the core conflict of the novel and puts the protagonist up against the antagonist. It’s the moment readers have been waiting for the entire book (no pressure), so the most common problem is not living up to that promise in some way.
The only thing tougher than an ending is the middle. Except for the beginning.
If an ending isn’t working, it’s often because we’ve forgotten what the point of the novel was. We end the story, but it’s not the ending we promised, or it doesn’t resolve the things we set out to resolve.
Let’s look at five common problems with endings:
1. It's the Wrong Size
Structurally, endings are about the same size as beginnings (roughly 25%). They follow similar paths, but instead of getting the protagonist onto the plot path, the ending gets her off of it. When the ending is the wrong size, it either feels too fast and everything resolves so quickly readers don’t have time to absorb (let alone enjoy), the climax, or it’s so slow it feels like the novel will never end.
Endings that are too short: Look for places where the story is rushing to the payoff and not letting enough tension build. Watch for places where you’re summarizing the action instead of dramatizing it, as this is often seen in too-short endings. Also check to see how the ending compares to the beginning size-wise. If one is 100 pages and the other is 35 pages, odds are a lot is still missing. Try fleshing out what feels sparse and slowing down a little to let the tension build.
Endings that are too long: Look for places where the ending rambles on after the climax is over, or it takes too long to get there. It could also be that there’s too much description or infodumping as loose ends are tied up and explained. Try resolving some of those issues earlier in the ending (closer to the beginning of act three than the end), or leaving some loose ends untied. You might also need to trim excess description, infodumps, or internalization
(Here’s more on crafting strong endings)
2. It Doesn’t Resolve the Core Conflict
The whole point of an ending is to resolve the core conflict of a novel. But sometimes we forget what that point is and end up solving a problem in the climax that doesn’t actually fix the problem posed at the beginning of the story—and the one the protagonist has been trying most of the book to solve.
Try letting the climax solve the core conflict, and resolve the problem the plot set out to solve in the first place.
(Here’s more on the core conflict)
3. It Doesn’t Involve the Protagonist
This is more common in larger-scale novels with multiple point of view characters, but it can happen anywhere. The characters finally fight their way to the climax, but the protagonist isn’t the one who defeats the antagonist and saves the day (however that unfolds in the novel). This is especially problematic if you could take out the protagonist and the ending still works.
If the protagonist isn’t the hero, then why have readers been following her all book? Put the protagonist back in the driver’s seat and let her solve the problem.
4. The Protagonist Doesn’t Grow
In most novels, the protagonist is going to learn something and grow in response to her experience in the novel (the character arc). When she doesn’t, readers can wonder what the whole point is and the novel can feel like a waste of their time.
Look out for endings (and arcs) where the protagonist has gone through all the deliciously evil things we did to her to get her there, but by the end, she learns nothing, and is no better or worse off than when she started. Had she not gone through this experience, her life would not have changed at all, or so little it doesn’t matter.
Try giving the protagonist a character arc and a reason to experience the plot of the novel. Make what she does matter to her.
(Here’s more on character arcs)
5. The Ending Doesn’t Fulfill the Story Promise
We make a promise to our readers at the beginning of a novel (sometimes before then, with what we say in the cover copy). “This is the type of story you’re going to read and you will have this reading experience.” Readers expect us to live up to that promise, and when we don’t, it affects how they feel about the book.
Look for endings that don’t fit the beginnings, and don't keep the promise made at the start of the novel. Maybe it started out as a political thriller and turned into a romance, or started as an adventure that turned into a story of self reflection. Whatever the reason, the story promise made at the start is not kept.
Keep the promise. Try adjusting the plot to fit the story you want to tell, even if that means changing the ending, fixing the beginning, or adjusting other major events in the novel.
(Here’s more on keeping the story promise)
The ending is often what determines how much readers like the novel, so we want to do our best to make sure our endings are satisfying, and live up to all the work we did to get there.
Do you have trouble with endings?
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.
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