Today I want to discuss how to write a good ending to a story. Finishing a book can be tricky. As we’ve recently discovered in my post about plotting a novel, endings are part of a dramatic arc and a character’s emotional journey. Ideally, they return the character to an emotional point similar to where they were at the beginning of the story or to a slightly worse or better one. (The character has, of course, changed over the course, it’s just that they’re in a similar place in their arc.)
If you’ve structured your story well and woven in enough internal (with self) and external (with others/world) conflicts for the character, the ending should be fairly easy to write. That’s why, for some, this post will seem like a cop out. But there are others of you out there who may be struggling with finishing your book and wondering why your particular plot is proving so tricky to wrap up.
Finishing a Book: What’s Involved?
How does the character feel with this ending? Do they return to a new normal? Or are they still way off-balance? A character arc left with too much discord is unsettling.
Pacing and Timing
Does your ending come too quickly after the climax of the story? Does it drag on too long after the climactic action has finished? In most stories, the climax happens about 1/5th or 1/6th of the way from the end and then things wrap up fairly soon. If you saw my diagram in the plot post, you’d notice that the distance between points 3 and 4 is rather small.
Part of this will stem from the “core emotional experience” you want your reader to walk away with. Is your book a place where you’ve created a fair and right and optimistic world? Or do you want to leave off on a pessimistic or unresolved note? Is your ending of the big-fireworks-silhouetted-against-the-sky variety or the quiet-yet-meaningful-moment-type? Both work, so do many things in-between. I would just make sure the ending matches the tone and voice of your story. Endings, for many reasons, put pressure on people and sometimes force them away from what they’ve established throughout a manuscript. If you’re feeling stressed by your ending, make sure what you’re doing feelings characteristic to the piece you’ve already written. It’s usually trying to do something that resolves too cleanly or not at all or otherwise doesn’t fit your characters or story that’s causing problems.
Include Enough Resolution
One problem I frequently see is an ending that gives the reader too little resolution. And I don’t mean a quiet-yet-meaningful-moment-type ending. Those are very effective when done well. I’m talking about manuscripts I’ve finished where I’ve felt the distinct urge to check for more pages hidden somewhere past the last one. The ending feels so rushed and unfinished that I simply can’t believe the author has chosen to finish the book at that point. This is often the case when a writer is leaving their story open for the possibility of writing a series. However, as I discussed in an earlier post about writing a series query letter, it’s always best to resolve the first story and make sure it stands alone, even if you’ve plotted out Book 2 through Book 22.
Finishing a Book Shouldn’t Be Hard
Endings are a delicate balance. Make sure yours comes at an appropriate time, isn’t too rushed or too drawn out, and matches the emotional, thematic, character and story tone that you’ve already established. I hear that many writers struggle with finishing their stories but, as I already said, I think that might be a symptom of something amiss in the greater manuscript. If you’ve got a story with a dramatic and emotional arc and you’ve chosen the right plot and characters, the end of that winning combination should be one of the easiest things to write. If you’re struggling, maybe go back to the middle and see if the problem isn’t hiding there.
Struggling with your novel’s ending? Get one-on-one, in-depth feedback on your manuscript when you hire me as a fiction editor. I’ll look at all of your novel elements and help you weave them into a satisfying conclusion.
21 Replies to “Finishing a Book: How to Write A Good Ending”
This is a great post! I wrote a draft once (actually, I’ve written lots of drafts, but that’s not the point) and when I went back to revise, I found myself looking for those missing pages at the end of MY OWN DRAFT. I couldn’t possibly have ended the story THERE, could I? Wha??!!??
So, yes, very important to have the right ending.
Loving, loving, loving this series on plot! Could not come at a better time for me.
Geri — That ending was a little abrupt for my tastes… Could’ve used more character development. Perhaps a revision is in order? 😛
That last paragraph was written for me. Seriously. I re-wrote the ending for my last ms at least four times. They all sucked. Then I realised there were some plot issues. I fixed them and then the ending practically fixed itself.
Thanks for another great post.
Thanks for an informative post. I have to admit, endings are my weak spot, but in most of my fiction writings, so I’m not sure if the problem is hiding within the story of it’s just plain old me.
I will start looking throughout my stories though and see if I’m missing something.
While I tend to struggle with openings and creating that perfect first paragraph, my endings almost write themselves – so I guess it’s nice to get the difficult part out of the way early. Thanks for another great post!
Dude! These revision posts are fabulous. Thanks so much! I loved the plot post in particular. I’m mulling over ideas for a new WIP, and it’s been helpful using these posts to challenge my ideas and test things out.
Geri/Mary–that was funny!
Yep, these posts are great. Very helpful. I like the idea of heading to the middle to see if the problem is hiding there …. that’s a great suggestion.
Thanks for the post.
Mary, can you think of any books with pitch perfect endings? What are your faves?
@jmartinlibrary — Eeeek! This is an insanely difficult question because the ending is only pitch perfect in the context of the book as a whole. Recently, and I know everyone in the world is sick of me talking about this, I’ve adored the ending to HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT by Natalie Standiford. But don’t go and copy that ending, because the whole thing depends on all that came before it, obviously.
Oh, no. I don’t want to copy an ending. No worries there. The ending of a book is make or break it for me. I don’t need everything tied up in a neat little bow, but I need to feel some type of resolution or emotional growth one way or another.
I’ll have to read ROBOT; the word of mouth is really good. Thanks.
Thank you – this is a wonderful post! I’ve always struggled to find the perfect balance between ending too early and ending too late. When reading, a satisfying and thoughtful ending leave me thinking about the book long afterward.
HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT sounds likes a wonderful read. I’ll definitely check it out.
wonderful post — and one i needed to read. i’ve stalled on my latest story and while i know the climax, the ending has eluded me.
now i know where to look and where to discover what’s missing in the overall story. thanks!
This is very helpful. I’m working on an ending now.
I think the ending also depends on the age group of the reader. For a middle grade or younger book, I would tend to write a “safe landing” ending. The tension is resolved, at least for the most part.
But as the readers get older, I tend towards a more complex ending. Perhaps bittersweet. Certainly the characters need to have taken steps along their journey, but my sense is an older reader likes to be left with questions to ponder.
Anyone else have any thoughts on this?
It really bothers me when the ending drags on too long past the climax. It releases the power of the climax like a deflating balloon. It’s as if the writer didn’t want to let go of their characters. You got to know when to cut them loose.
Brilliant. Thank you. So many things to remember, it’s nice to be reminded of the basics.
I learn so much from Kid Lit