I’ve shared my tips for writing endings before, but I often see some of the same issues in manuscripts repeatedly. Endings can be so challenging to write, because they have to fulfill the promise of the story and leave readers feeling satisfied. As a reader, it’s frustrating to get to the end of a great book only to find that the ending doesn’t fit. How can writers avoid disappointing readers with their endings? Here are some common problems to look out for:
- Not resolving the conflict
This is by far the biggest issue that I see with endings. The purpose of an ending is to resolve the core conflict of the story—the problem the protagonist has been trying to solve since the very beginning. If the core conflict isn’t resolved in some way, readers will be left feeling unsatisfied or like they wasted their time. Now, when I say “resolved,” I don’t meant that everything has to be tied up with a bow or end perfectly happily. The tone of your ending is entirely up to you. But the problem has to be addressed in some way.
Let’s say, for example, that your core conflict is the protagonist’s survival. They’ve spent the entire novel trying to survive in a particular situation. Now, there are many possible endings—maybe the protagonist lives, or maybe they die. Maybe they survive, but not in the way you’d expect. Or maybe they spend the whole novel trying to survive only to find out that they didn’t really want to after all. Or maybe they die, but not in the way they thought they would. There are endless possibilities to play with. But what’s going to leave the reader feeling unsatisfied is if this problem isn’t resolved at all—if they aren’t told by the end whether the protagonist survives or not. If the reader has spent 300+ pages waiting to find out what will happen only to have the story end abruptly with no definite change for the protagonist, they’re going to feel cheated and frustrated.
- Lacking a character arc
On a similar note, endings will often feel unresolved if the protagonist doesn’t change or grow in some way. The character should have an arc that involves their response to their experiences. If the protagonist hasn’t changed in some significant way by the end, the entire story may feel pointless. If the events of the story haven’t affected the character at all, then they don’t matter. Make sure that your protagonist undergoes real change as a result of the story; make the story matter to your characters and, by extension, your readers.
- Not fitting the genre
It’s so, so important to understand the conventions of your book’s genre. Different readers have different expectations for how they want stories to end, and they’re likely to select genres to read based on those expectations. If you’re writing romance, for example, then there must be a happy ending where the couple gets together. If that isn’t the case, then you’re not writing a romance at all and shouldn’t pitch your book as one. Similarly, readers expect mysteries to be explained by the end, with the culprits captured. Your ending must fit the conventions of your genre and give readers what they signed up for. (If you aren’t sure what genre your book is, check out my guide to genre.)
- Being the wrong length
The length of your ending can have a big impact. Different books require differently-sized endings, and getting it wrong can negatively impact your readers’ experience. If the ending is too fast, it will feel rushed, with everything resolved so quickly readers don’t have time to take it in or enjoy it. But if it’s too slow, it will feel boring and unnecessary.
A good tip here is to compare the length of your ending to the length of your beginning. With typical story structure, endings and beginnings are each about 25% of the manuscript. (For endings, this is measured from the climax to the final page). If you’ve taken 100 pages to set up your story but only 20 pages to end it, that resolution is probably lacking. On the other hand, if you spent only 20 pages beginning the story and 100 pages ending it, the resolution is probably dragging significantly.
What do you think? What do you like and dislike in endings? What do you struggle with when writing them? What are some common problems I missed? Let me know in the comments!
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