If the beginning is crucial to grab the reader, and the middle answers all of their questions, the ending must satisfy. Endings are tough, because by the time your story reaches the big crisis moment, the author is forced to make a big decision:
How does it end?
Will the ending be happy? Tragic? A cliff-hanger? Subdued?
To be effective, the ending of your story must:
- satisfy the reader
- resolve the central conflict
- leave room for more
Allow me to explain these points in more detail.
Satisfy the Reader
How many times have you read a book, enthusiastically turning the pages in desperate need to see how it ends and then find yourself saying, "What the?" This is why endings are so difficult, because it's possible that you, the writer, want to make a different point than the reader was expecting and you let them down. Sometimes the only right ending is the one that will infuriate the reader. Endings are where the writer must be the most clever, the most brutal, and the most literary.
Can a tragic ending satisfy a reader?
Shakespeare made tragedies work. So long as the tragedy makes sense, the ending will leave your audience weeping and moved. If you kill off the hero simply to be spiteful, then the ending will feel like a cheat.
Are happy endings overdone?
Of course not! Then again, the happy ending must make sense. Did the hero work hard to achieve the, "Oh yeah!" moment? Did the protagonist change on an emotional, physical, and/or spiritual level in the process? I believe that human nature makes us yearn for happy endings. And to be honest, the most satisfying endings for me, personally, are the ones that leave me feeling all warm and fuzzy.
Resolve the Central Conflict
You've spent the story putting your protagonist through hell. He's been down, he's been broken, and now he must face the worst possible thing that scares him the most. During your ending, your protagonist must triumph. That's the key. A character can resolve a conflict, even if they die in the process, or someone they love is lost, or their world is destroyed. Think of Scarlet O'Hara, who's lost everything...except she can always go back to Tara. She still has a reason to get up, brush the dirt off her face and keep going.
The whole point in telling a story, is to create a problem, and then solve it.
So solve your problem. Resolve the central conflict. Kill the bad guy. Save the world. Rescue the damsel. Cure cancer. Have your protagonist do whatever they need to do to give the reader a sense of satisfaction.
Do cliff-hangers ever work then?
Some elements of a story must be resolved. A resolution to the central conflict must at least be attempted. Look at Harry Potter. JK Rowling accomplishes two resolutions at the end of each of the first six books: the school year finishes, and the driving conflict in that particular book is resolved.
But at the same time, Voldemort isn't beaten at the end of any of first six books. He might make an appearance, might battle with Harry, but he always gets away. In fact, he and his followers continue to get stronger. We are left wanting more, wanting Harry to kick Voldemort's butt as soon as he is able. We are left wondering if the world isn't just going to get worse. So if you plan on using a cliff-hanger, then you had better be ready with the next book to resolve the tension you've left in the minds of your readers.
So they buy the next book!
Leave Room for More
After you've written the climax, you have a few pages, perhaps a chapter, to work on the dénouement. This is the part of the story where everyone hugs, cheers, then goes on about their business for the next adventure. Those last few words must leave the reader wondering:
Will our hero pursue another adventure? What will happen to the world now that everything has changed? What would I do if all of these events happened to me?
Questions are the key. The reader must be left pondering a couple of questions so that your story lingers in their mind long after they close the book, or set down the story. These questions allow the story to resonate with readers. Make them think about what they've read and apply it to other books, or movies, or their own lives, or what have you. Leaving the reader wanting more will give your story staying power and make them search out your next work.
In summary, the ending is the dessert. You ate your broccoli, and as per the deal you made with Mom, now you've earned your ice cream!
Give the reader their ice cream!
Another important point to keep in mind is that:
You must try your endings on for size before you commit.
That's why I called this post Elusive Endings, because sometimes it's hard to find the right ending on a first try.
This is where being part of a writers' group comes in so handy. Most of the time, one of the most important critiques I receive is hearing whether or not the ending worked for people. Often, the ending will work for some members of your group, but not all of them. That's okay, because endings don't always work for everyone.
If no one likes your ending, then you must rewrite.
Don't call an ending "right" until you're sure it works. Sometimes this will take multiple attempts and a variety of possibilities.
Do it now
- Read the endings of three of your favourite books of all time and determine what you liked about them.
- Write the ending to the story you chose to write the middle for in the exercise on The Long and Slow Trudge Through the Middle.