I’ve talked a lot on this blog about writing great openings, but I haven’t yet discussed endings. I can’t tell you how many submissions I’ve read that had a fantastic opening, only to fall apart by the end. Endings are so important to readers; if they don’t like the end, they won’t like the book. Ultimately, having a satisfying ending is a crucial part of your story that shouldn’t be overlooked.
When I say “satisfying,” however, I don’t mean that all endings have to be happy, or that absolutely everything in the book has to be resolved. There are many different types of effective endings that work for many different types of books. But it’s important to make sure that your ending fits your story, and that readers will be satisfied with it in some way. Even if everything doesn’t wrap up neatly in the end, readers should still be left with a sense of satisfaction.
So, here are my tips for writing a satisfying ending:
- Resolve the conflict
Again, this doesn’t mean that everything has to end happily. But readers should feel that the conflict has ended. For example, let’s say your story is driven by a conflict between a hero and a villain. Readers will keep reading in order to find out whether or not the hero will win. You can end the story with the hero winning, or with the villain winning, or both, or neither, depending on the type of story you’re telling. Any one of those has the potential to satisfy readers. But readers won’t be satisfied if the conflict doesn’t end and they still don’t know if the hero won. The central conflict of the story has to be resolved.
(A note here about series: Obviously the central conflict of the series can’t be resolved, or readers won’t be inclined to pick up the next book. But the central conflict of the first book should be resolved in some way. Think of books in a series as having both a story arc for each book and a story arc for the whole series.)
- Make the character’s actions matter
Part of what makes a resolution feel satisfying is that it has to feel earned. Readers have to feel that the characters have earned their happily ever after (or their tragic death, or whatever the outcome may be). Your characters’ actions should have consequences, and those consequences should affect the outcome. If a character makes terrible decisions but never has to face the consequences and everything works out just fine anyway, readers will probably feel cheated.
- Avoid excessive contemplation
I see a lot of endings where characters sit back and think about what they’ve learned, ponder everything that happened, drive home the message, etc. These types of endings are unnecessary and often feel sappy to readers. They don’t need to see your hero think about his experiences for five pages while watching the sun set; they already know about his experiences, because they read the book. Trust that your readers are going to pick up on the meaning of your story without spelling it out explicitly in the end.
- Think about genre
It’s really important to understand the expected ending of the genre that you’re writing in. Some genres have very established endings, and readers will be disappointed if yours doesn’t meet their expectations. Romance is probably the biggest example of this. If your book is a romance, the characters must get together at the end. If they don’t, it isn’t a romance. Now, you can still have a romantic subplot in a different genre that doesn’t have a happy ending, but you shouldn’t pitch your book as a romance unless the couple ends up together, because that’s a convention of the genre.
This is why it’s so important to understand what genre you’re writing in. If you’re confused about this, I have a genre glossary here.
- Demonstrate change
One of the most important aspects of an ending is a sense that something has changed since the beginning. If everything is the same, you may find readers asking what the point of the story was. Your characters should demonstrate that they’ve changed in some way after their experiences; they aren’t the same person they were in the beginning. Depending on the story, you may also want to show how the world itself is different. These changes can be drastic or subtle, depending on the story, but they should be present.
- End at the beginning
This might seem to contradict my last point, but bear with me. It can be incredibly effective to have an ending that brings the story full-circle and gives readers an echo of the opening scene. What can be powerful about this is that it still demonstrates change, but that change is made even more noticeable when juxtaposed with a reminder of where the character was at the beginning. That’s not to say that your ending has to be an exact recreation of your opening, of course, but thinking about how you can bring readers back to the beginning might help you create an even more powerful scene.
What do you think? Which kinds of endings work for you, and which don’t? Do you struggle with writing endings? Have any tips I missed? Let me know in the comments!
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