Kidding. I have an inkling. Let’s break the ending down. You will need:
- A climax
- Falling action
*brushes hands together* Done!
Tip #1: Don’t Explain Everything
As you are wrapping up your story in a neat little bow, don’t be tempted to tie every loose end. It might take too long and drag out the story unnecessarily. Sometimes it is better to leave things to the reader’s imagination. You should wrap up the main plot as neatly as you can, but there’s a happy medium you must find: the point between an ultimate conclusion and a new beginning. Leave the door open a crack at the end — the story is finished, but there’s a thread that implies there is still a future for the characters. Depending on the genre, that could be a happy one or a grim one, but as long as the door is open just a bit at the end, then readers will be able to imaginatively explore a potential future with the characters you’ve created, and they won’t feel like the story has been sealed in a coffin forever.
For example, if the war has ended, and your characters are recovering in the final pages, you don’t need an epilogue explaining who married whom, how many kids they had, how their careers panned out over the years, etc., because that would cheapen the drama and leave your readers a little frustrated. They would have preferred life post-war to be a mystery.
This is also important in a romance novel, because we all know that after the Happy Ending, the couple isn’t actually going to live Happily Ever After. But we’d rather you not write an epilogue where they have an argument over how to decorate their bedroom. We want to close the book with a smile on our face.
Tip #2: Reality Comes First
If you have a really cool ending in mind for your story, but by the time you get to it, it just doesn’t suit the characters or the plot, do not force it upon the reader. Even if you have an outline, you will never be able to follow it 100%. Allow the story to progress semi-organically so the events don’t feel forced.
You might find yourself in a pickle during the climax when you realize that this is not what you had originally envisioned, so you make something Convenient happen in order to enforce the climax you’d planned. Don’t do that. Readers like me will be able to tell if the characters are being steered deliberately by the author, and it will take us out of the story.
Reality comes first. If you are reaching a point where the most logical thing that can happen isn’t something you anticipated, don’t fret. Let the Logical Thing take place, even if it’s tragic, even if it leaves you in the dark, wondering where to go from there. You will find your way through, trust me. It’s a simple Cause and Effect strategy. You set this up, now you have to deliver on the most likely outcome. (Likely does not mean predictable; as the writer, you hold all the cards. Perhaps you have had one up your sleeve all along that you hadn’t been aware of until this moment.)
*POSSIBLE UNPOPULAR OPINION ALERT*
[AND SPOILERS FROM A COURT OF MIST AND FURY]
I recently read A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas, and I found the climax extremely frustrating because the most powerful characters (the ones you follow throughout the book), are completely debilitated the whole time, which conveniently leads to Feyre’s sisters becoming immortal and Feyre landing back in Tamlin’s clutches, when it would have been much more satisfying if there had been a great battle, as I had been anticipating it for almost 700 pages. I could tell (from an author’s viewpoint) that Maas already had plans for the third book, so she wrapped the second up in a way that would keep those plans intact. Sometimes, it is necessary to bind the characters and force them to watch things happen. In my eyes, that was not the case at the end of ACOMAF, and that is why I enjoyed A Court of Thorns and Roses much more: Feyre actually had the opportunity to fight, even though she was trapped in a cage for much of story leading to the ending. It was satisfying because the victory at the end was earned. Whereas, at the end of the second installment, there was no real victory, no real fight, just characters with incredible powers becoming absolutely useless when it mattered most.
Which brings me to my next tip…
Tip #3: Make Sure the Ending Is Earned
If you build anticipation for a spectacular ending, you better deliver. Make the struggle for the protagonist excruciating so the victory is memorable. If you forsake the probable ending for the improbable (deus ex machina), you lose any meaning you might have conjured with the events leading up to it. If you want an ending that packs a punch and leaves your readers pumping their fists in the air, give us a victory or conclusion that is well-deserved.
Tip #4: Highlight Your Characters’ Growth
At the end, show how the characters have changed since the beginning. If your protagonist was prideful and subsequently humbled throughout your novel, show their humility in the end when they give up the crown to pursue better goals. If the protagonist (or adjacent characters) was a happy, go-lucky person in the beginning, show how the horrors of the plot have matured or hardened him/her.
Tip #5: Move Toward An Ultimate Destination
Give readers a sense of direction by shifting the plot to a different setting where it is clear the end is nigh. This could be a meaningful place for the characters (the beach where they met in a romance novel, for example), Bad Guy Headquarters, or the temple with the Thing they have been looking for. The readers don’t want to run into the climax and eventual end like a brick wall (Wait! It’s over??). You should establish the sense that the story is about to end as you build to the climax. This can be done in many ways, but the most obvious is leading your characters to a specific, meaningful location where they face their enemy and (hopefully) win. If the conflict is less concrete, then take your character to a place emotionally where they are forced to face their inner demons.
What do you think? What makes a satisfying ending for you as a reader? How do you wrap up your story as a writer? Do you have any examples of books with great (or terrible) endings? Leave them in the comments! 🙂