The Writer’s Ramble Edition!
Writer’s Ramble is a monthly multi-blog feature put together by members of my writing group (fantastically known as “Word Vomit”). Every month, we all share our thoughts on a specific writing topic and combine them all in a one-stop hub of information on our Writers’ Ramble website. I am stoked to be among such talented and insightful writers, and have learned a ton about the craft of writing in the short time I’ve been with them. All I’m saying is, if you find the topic of the month enticing, head over to www.writersramble.com for even more advice from these amazing writers and leave with a brain full of writing awesomeness.
How To Write Satisfying Endings
A lot more goes into writing a great ending then most people realize. There are so many elements to consider, everything from conflict resolutions to character growth, and they all have to weave their way to a single, satisfying ending. In this post, I’ll present my four essential elements of story endings and speculate on why some strategies work better than others when concluding a story.
Pictured below are the books that contain my all time favorite endings:
As a reader, I reveled in these endings for months, talking about them as often as I could; and that’s what great endings do – they make you want to share the experience with other readers. I knew I’d love them, but couldn’t really pinpoint why. Now, analyzing them from a writer’s perspective, it’s clear to me that each of these books have a handful of common attributes – ones that I feel are essential elements in crafting a good ending:
I’ve always preferred endings that result from the culmination of many events. The sort of story progression that starts to build momentum near the middle of the book before careening towards the end – taking the reader along for the ride in the process. It’s all leading up to that moment where everything falls into place – the conflicts reach a climax, the hero fulfills his destiny, and things work out the way they’re supposed to. You know the ones I’m talking about, the books that keep you up until 3 AM on work nights because you just can’t bring yourself to put them down? It all comes down to good momentum. Granted, you can have all of those things without good momentum, but the books that really stick with me all have that hold-your-breath/can’t-put-it-down excitement that make the journey so much more satisfying.
2. Emotional Investment
That’s right, relatability of the main characters throughout a novel plays a huge role in how I feel about the ending. While this attribute seems a given, it is amazing to me how many authors don’t take the time to get the readers emotionally invested in their protagonists. How you build your conflicts around the characters and how they progress an developed through each trial are probably the most important elements of storytelling. If a novel lacks those essential conflicts and development, it’s almost impossible to get me worked up about an ending… even an unbearably sad one. Meanwhile authors who can make me truly care about the character and their conflicts have the power to turn me into a sobbing mess.
3. Feeling “Right”
Any of you who have heard the mixed reviews for the ending of “Allegiant” by Veronica Roth know how subjective a “good” ending can be. A lot of it comes down to the individual tastes and expectations of the reader. I’m one of the people dissatisfied with the ending of the Divergent trilogy and, as I’ve finally managed to figure out why, I’ll explain my reasoning [without spoilers].
Although it’s nearly impossible to please everyone, and ending that makes sense within the framework of the story will generally satisfy most people. In my opinion, Allegiant’s ending wasn’t the logical result of the culmination of events that had preceded it. The momentum leading up to the ending, and in fact the conflicts themselves had the potential to be profound, but instead felt contrived and random.
That’s not to say it a great ending needs to be predictable, it just needs to make sense. I would go so far as to say that unpredictable endings are the best, provided the reader can look back and see a logical progression of how it got there. Essentially, just make sure your ending makes sense in hindsight. Good or bad, an ending has to feel “right” to the reader.
All of the books I love for their endings have clear conflict resolutions and completed story arcs. The resolutions don’t have to be happy ones, but I will admit I like them better when they are, and I don’t think I’m alone. Marg McAlister Writing 4 Success said it best:
“Most readers treat a novel as an escape from the real world. In the real world, things go wrong; sometimes consequences are dire. A book, however, offers an opportunity to spend a few hours in a happier place, where (mostly) things work out in the end. Authors should keep this in mind.”
Note that McAlister didn’t say specifically not to kill off characters, she just said things needed to work themselves out. If characters need to die to make that happen, be very conscious when that their deaths aren’t for nothing (or worse, for shock value… Mockingjay, I’m talking to you). I understand that sometimes a story calls for a heart-wrenching ending, I’m just not someone who enjoys reading them often. A book that makes me cry because I’m happy always sticks with me longer than one that makes me cry because I’m sad. It’s okay to write a story where things don’t work out for the best, but you might lose a bit of audience appeal, removing that instant urge to recommend it to other people.
Combining the Attributes
Whether you’re writing a stand-alone novel or a twenty book series, focus on building that great momentum, investing the reader in your characters, and resolving your conflicts – letting all of these things influence what the “right” ending should be. In my opinion, having a good ending is almost more important than having a good beginning. The best advertising you can get for your book is word-of-mouth, and a great ending will get people talking!
So how does YOUR ending stack up? Jennifer Bosworth in an article featured on the official NaNoRiMo Blog provides a few great questions to ask yourself during revision:
- Have I set up the ending of this story, or does it come out of nowhere? Have I been too obvious about my set-up, making the ending predictable?
- Have my main characters arced? Have they completed a transformative journey?
- Does my ending support the theme of the book?
I’ve added a few more:
- Does your ending have a good lead-up (in other words, does it have sufficient momentum?)
- Have the main conflicts been resolved?
- Have the characters ended up where you feel they should?
Knowing a little bit about what the expectations for a good ending can go a long way in helping you shape your story. I hope you found my breakdown helpful.
Don’t forget to check out advice from our other contributors (here) – you never know what bit of information will spark a solution for your own writing. The more you know, the closer you are to becoming a successful writer!
This is great. Thanks for sharing! I can definitely relate to #1 as a reader. Those are great and horrible times, great because you finished an amazing book and horrible because you’re a zombie at work the next day lol.
Thank you! My boss can usually tell when I’m reading a good book because my butt’s dragging the next day at work. It’s both an amazing and horrible problem to have, haha. Glad I’m not alone! :)
Great article Niki. We’re all really glad to have you in our group!
Thank you – I’m extremely glad to be a part of it!
I fully agree with your choice of The Hero of Ages as an example of a great ending. The entire Mistborn series is phenomenal, and the Hero of Ages wraps everything up so beautifully.
However, I have to say that, as far as endings of individual novels go, I actually thought that book one of the Mistborn series, uh, you know, “Mistborn” :), had a more satisfying ending. I mean, sure I was very excited to read book two after I finished book one, but I’m certain I would have been completely satisfied had Sanderson simply ended it there as a stand alone novel. It was that satisfying to me.
Yeah, I definitely see what you mean – I love that Sanderson was able to make the first one satisfying within itself. For me, I think the third one edges out because the character I felt most drawn to throughout the series was Sazed (oddly enough). His contribution to the end of the trilogy is what keeps me thinking about the series even years later – so profound!