Endings. They may be the part of the story that we think about the most. It’s that light at the end of the tunnel that we’re gently (or not-so-gently) coaxing our characters toward. It’s that part of the story that we hope will leave the reader speechless. But what makes a good ending? What will leave the reader satisfied after their eyes pass over that final period?
Image via Flickr by Hitchster
Brian Klems of Writer’s Digest said it best when he explained that the ending of a story is something that the reader feels. It goes deeper than just getting to the end of the final sentence. If done ineffectively, an ending could leave a reader feeling disappointed and dissonant, like there’s something missing. Stimulating emotional response within readers is something that writers should be very familiar with and it’s something that should be consistent throughout the entire story.
So how do we help the reader feel an ending? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, having just finished another novel, so here are some of my thoughts. As always, please add onto them where you see fit.
We could spend much longer discussing the climax of a story, so we’re only going to address it as it relates to the ending of the story. Where an “ending” begins is pretty ambiguous, but it’s probably safe to say that it happens somewhere around the climax of the story. This is the point where all of the rising action has been leading. This is the moment of truth for your hero (or antihero, or whatever).
What is it about a climax that signals the reader that they are coming to the end of the story? Is it because it’s the most epic, action-packed part of the story? I’m looking at you, Marvel. As cool as it is to watch the Avengers wail on some bad guys, it isn’t the action itself that signals the climax, but the fact that we know that fight is the top of the mountain, it’s the point that the characters have been struggling to reach.
No matter what the genre may be, readers can feel the approaching ending when a climax pits the hero against some test (whether that be a physical conflict, a mental or emotional trial, or a difficult decision). We could spend a long time discussing the facets of an effective climax, but for now, we’ll stick to something more definitive rather than descriptive. The climax, or the great test, the height of the rising action, marks the beginning of our ending.
Before we get into this section, it’s important to note that a writer will rarely perfectly satisfy every craving that a reader wants in their story. Especially if you’re entrenched in a story with characters that have captured the hearts of your readers, you won’t always do with the story or character what the reader may want done. And that shouldn’t be your focus, either.
As you go throughout a story, you set certain expectations and make certain promises to a reader. You promise that you will eventually answer questions left unanswered earlier in the story. You promise that you will resolve any conflicts, even if they began back at the beginning of the book. The reader expects that you will follow-up on these promises (and many more) somewhere in the ending of your book.
Not all loose ends need to be tied up at the very end. Trying to do so can cause some pacing issues and a potential information overload. But by the end of the story, the reader should be satisfied that many of their expectations have been met. This doesn’t mean that you have to answer every question. We always want to keep the reader interested, curious, and wanting to find the answers. As with any attempt at striking a balance, this can be difficult, but that’s why it’s great to have alpha and beta readers, and writing groups.
In short, keep enough promises and meet enough expectations that your reader feels satisfied and fulfilled, but also leave enough loose ends to keep them wanting more.
An ending is just plain unsatisfactory until we see how far the characters have come. We should see, at some point during the climax and/or the resolution how much the hero (and/or others) has learned and grown throughout the process of the story. If we come to the ending and find that our hero hasn’t changed much at all, then we have a static character, and static characters never go very far.
How can we accomplish this? The climax can often end up showcasing something significant that the hero has learned through whatever they may have endured in the story. But it may be even more subtle than something within the climax.
There is a great example of this in the film version of Return of the King. After everything is taken care of in Mordor and Gondor, the hobbits return to The Shire. There is a scene where they are sitting in a pub and all around them, other hobbits are laughing and marveling at a large pumpkin. Frodo and friends all share a look and a toast, and in that moment, we immediately know that these characters have come back changed. They have come home to find everything the same, while everything about them is different.
This is such an effective way of showing character development because there is such contrast between the hobbits of the fellowship and their neighbors (whom the hobbits were much more like before their journey).
This is not the only way to illustrate the character’s development. Somehow, in the end, we just need to see that the hero has come somewhere. Stories are often an escape, but they also show us how we can develop, grow, and overcome challenges. A character who has changed and become stronger often motivates us to face our own challenges.
Just as in any part of the writing process, there is no one way to write an ending. The story, its tone and content, should influence the kind of ending you write. I think we should all aim to write an ending that our readers can feel, one that they remember and that keeps them coming back for more.
What have you found that makes an effective ending?
Thanks for reading!