Monday, April 12, 2021

Story Structure: How The Wrap Up Works in a Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The wrap up is the final goodbye for the novel, and your last chance to leave readers with a good impression.

There’s a series* I’ve read several times, because the wrap up has such an emotional punch that it pops into my head at least once a year and won’t leave. This is not a mega-bestselling series, and it’s not perfect. And while it’s fun, it also has issues and does plenty of things I could use as examples of what not to do in a novel.

Yet I keep reading it. And not just one book, but five. All to get to that ending.

It’s not the climax that gets me, though that’s exciting. In fact, the ramp up to the climax is also emotion-ladened and always makes me cry. It’s what the characters do in that final scene and why they do it that makes me come back to this series every year or two.

It’s heroic. And uplifting. And sad. And offers a sense that the world is a better, safer place now.

And it’s not even our world.

But that’s not the point. The point is that the wrap up does its job and leaves readers in a positive emotional state that makes everything else in the series mean so much more. All the struggles and sacrifices and problems were worth it.

The wrap up is also called the denouement—the final moments of the story. Typically, it’s a single chapter, though it might contain a few scenes if there’s a lot to wrap up. Like the opening scene begins the novel, the wrap up is your ending scene that finishes the novel.

It gives readers time to catch their breaths after the climax, and ends the novel on the right emotional note you want to leave your readers with. That might be a happily ever after, a new outlook on the world, a warning against bad behavior, or a sense of lingering dread (to name just a few).

The wrap up is the last thing readers read, and it often determines if they want to read your next book or not.

Imagine you’re at a five-star restaurant enjoying a fabulous meal. In the very last bite, you find half a dead bug. Are you going to just ignore it and think, “Well, the rest of the meal was amazing,” and keep coming back to that restaurant? No way. You’ll never go back, you’ll shudder every time someone mentions it, and you’ll tell everyone you know how awful it was. It might even put you off that particular dish for life.

That’s what a bad wrap up can do to a novel.

Let's break down the basics:

Quick note: I’m using movie examples here because the turning points are more clearly defined, and they’re easier to watch and study than novels. But the same principles apply.

What it is: The wrap up ends the novel. It’s the final chapter that shows the conflict has been resolved, the characters are now done chasing that goal, and life will get back to normal, even if that normal has changed.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel Jackson does what he promised he could do at the start of the movie—send the team home. But he’s decided to stay on the alien world with the people they’ve met, and he’s found a life of happiness and acceptance he didn’t have before. The question “Can Daniel solve the riddle of the stargate” is answered.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss Everdeen returns home to the District and family she risked her life to protect. The question at the start of the story was “Can Katniss survive the Games?” and she proved she could.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie Hart is called to “an emergency” at the pageant’s farewell breakfast, which turns out to be a trick to get Gracie there. She’s awarded “Miss Congeniality” by her fellow contestants and thanked for her role in saving their lives. The question “Can Gracie learn to embrace both sides of herself?” is answered with a solid “Yes.”

When it happens: At the very end of the novel. It’s the last scene or two, and the final image readers are left with.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel says goodbye and the team returns through the stargate. The adventure is over. Everyone is safe and happy.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss returns home to a celebration, a hero and uncertain celebrity of her people. She survived the Games, but there’s also a hint that her adventure isn’t fully over, setting up book two.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie accepts her “Miss Congeniality” title and says she really does want world peace. 

What its function is: The wrap up lets readers know the characters they care about are going to be okay and have the life they wanted (usually—not all novels have happy endings, so adjust if yours is one of them). It gives readers time to wind down after the exciting climax, and process everything they just read.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel and the team say goodbye to the people on the alien planet, and O’Neill has healed enough from the death of his son to move on and stop considering suicide. The kids salute him the same way his son did. He’s going to be okay now, and Daniel is going to be happy living with the culture he studied his whole life. The people will be safe now that Ra is gone.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss comes home and her District now has a years’ worth of food and won’t go hungry for a while. She’s provided for more than just her family. But her life has changed from being the girl no one noticed to be the girl everyone noticed. She’s thrust into the limelight as a Games winner, which can’t be good.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie shows how much she’s changed by maintaining some of her polished pageant glamor and not reverting to the tomboy scruff. She appreciates her pageant friends, the people who helped her on the case, and she’s confident enough to even cry and not worry about being seen as weak. It also shows her in a relationship, so she’s no longer the loner with no friends, but someone who is surrounded by friends.

Why it’s important: It lets you end the novel on the emotional beat you want readers feeling when they close the book. This emotion will determine if they want to read the next book (if it’s a series), or another book you’ve written.
  • In Stargate, it's seeing Daniel and the team all get what they want, so you’re happy that everything turned out well for them.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's seeing Katniss survive and make it possible for her District to survive, so you’re happy that these people don’t have to struggle so much for a while. But it’s bittersweet, because you know the problem still exists. Katniss’ journey isn’t over yet, and she’s now fully aware of the larger issues that need to change.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's seeing Gracie happy and secure with her new self-image, in a relationship, and getting the respect she deserves.

In essence, the wrap up is to let readers know that all the terrible things the protagonist went through in the book was worth it, and you show them why.

 Things to Remember When Crafting Your Wrap Up

1. It’s the payoff you promised your readers.

You made promises to your readers in the opening chapters about the type of book, character journey, and story it was going to be. This is where you make sure you’ve kept all those promises.

Yes, the protagonist has just vanquished the villain or saved the day, but readers totally expect that when they pick up the novel. The wrap up is where they get the “happily ever after,” even if it doesn’t play out exactly like a fairy tale.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel has answered the question of who built the pyramids, validated his theories, and got to see what was on the other side of the stargate.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss has survived the Games and provided for her family, saving her sister and even saving Peeta, repaying that debt.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie is accepted and respected for her skills and her good heart. She caught the bad guy and finally accepts both sides of herself.

Whatever big questions and promises made at the start of the novel should be answered and revealed by the end. If it’s something that made readers pick up the book, give them an ending that made reading the book worth it.

(Here’s more with Three Things “The Intern” Can Teach Us About Keeping Our Story Promise)

2. It’s the bold stroke, underline, emphasis of your theme.

The wrap up often ends with the protagonist living their new life after they’ve undergone the change and growth of their character arc. Theme is usually tied into that arc, so the wrap up is like a big old cherry on top of your novel’s theme. It’s shows the protagonist has learned the lessons of the novel and is a better and happier person for it.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel stays behind, having solved the big riddle in his life. He knows what’s important to him and he embraces it.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss wins, yet that win is bittersweet, because she knows the life they all live is wrong. The Games are wrong, and they’ve changed her from a girl who survived to a girl who wants to fight.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie is awarded "Miss Congeniality" and sees the women she used to scorn as admirable women she’s honored to know.

The theme often echoes through the wrap up in a way that shows the protagonist is a new person, and has grown, or learned, from their experiences in the novel.

(Here’s more with What Every Writer Should Know About Theme)

3. It often mirrors the opening scene in some way.

If the opening scene is the “before picture” of the novel, the wrap up is the “after picture.” You start the novel showing what’s wrong in the protagonist’s life, and end it showing how that’s been fixed or resolved. The “what’s wrong” might be something in the world, or something that’s going to affect the protagonist in the story, so it doesn’t have to be the protagonist’s direct problem.
  • In Stargate, it opens with a mysterious stone ring in Egypt, and the mystery of what it is. It ends with the secrets of the stargate revealed.
  • In The Hunger Games, it opens when Katniss awakes alone in bed, looking for her sister on the day of the Reaping. It ends with Katniss returning home from the Games and being greeted by her District.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it opens with Gracie standing up to bullies and being shunned for it. It ends with her surrounded by friends being awarded for saving them all.

The final scene shows readers how the protagonist and their world has changed for the better (usually), and gives them a glimpse of that new and better world.

(Here’s more with The 5 Turning Points of a Character Arc)

4. It gives a sense of where the characters will go from here.

Novels are about change, and the structure goes from the protagonist’s ordinary world to outside the protagonist’s known world to the protagonist living in their new world. Normal -> adventure -> new normal after the change the adventure made on the character and their life. The things they wanted have been achieved, or at least the first step that shows they’ll continue to grow or move in the right direction.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel stays behind with the woman and culture he loves. His theories were proven true, and he’ll continue learning about a whole new world and people.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss becomes the new face of her District, but she’s a changed person. She survived, but at what cost? And what will the Capitol do now?
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie is happy, has friends, and has her job back.

For stand-alone novels, you can wrap things up and end the story, since the protagonist’s journey is over. For a series, you’ll usually leave that final scene with a sense of more to come, or even a statement of what has to be done in the next book.

(Here’s more with Does Your Novel Just…Stop? What Makes a Good Ending)

5. It wraps up any loose ends in the plot.

If you’ve had a lot of subplots or multiple story threads, you might not have had time to resolve them all before the climax. The wrap up is the last chance to tie up those loose ends. Anything readers might still be wondering about can be resolved before the last page, just make sure it fits the flow of the story. You don’t want to simply explain away any plot holes or inconsistencies.

You’re also allowed to leave a few threads untied. Not all secrets need to be revealed, and you might want to let readers wonder a little after the book is over. Just make sure any threads you leave hanging aren’t threads that will unravel the entire story if pulled on. Tie up the critical elements of the story.

(Here’s more with Writing the Ending: Tying Up All the Loose Ends)

The wrap up is the final goodbye, and a chance for readers to gently disengage from the novel.

Books that just stop can jar readers and leave them unsettled and unsatisfied. But an ending that answers their lingering questions, shows them where their favorite characters are now, and suggests where those lives will go, provides readers closure and a soft farewell they’ll remember fondly.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine your wrap up. Are you hitting the moments listed above?

Here's the entire story structure series:
What are your favorite wrap ups and final moments of a novel or movie?

*The series is Jean Johnson’s “Theirs Not to Reason Why.”

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 ShifterBlue 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.
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  1. “It lets you end the novel on the emotional beat you want readers feeling when they close the book.”

    Janice, this sentence caused an epiphany for me! The moment I read it, a final sentence came to me for a short story dear to my heart. That story has been languishing since I unsuccessfully entered it in some contests and also submitted it to some publications several years ago. Now I think I’ll try again. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    1. Oh good! I hope the story turns out great and you sell it!