How to Write a Great Novel Ending
Writing great beginnings and endings is like finding bookends for your novel. Last week we discussed how to write a great beginning. This week we’ll go over great endings.
Five Ways to End Your Novel
1. The trusty plot twist: Plot twists are great alternatives to inserting last-minute characters who fix everything. A plot twist offers the unexpected, but the key difference is that it makes sense within the story’s world. A good twist feels surprising but somehow appropriate for the story and protagonist.
2. The “oh, no!” that leads to the “aha!”: Life is crashing down on your protagonist, the weight of the story’s conflict is becoming too much to handle, and he or she simply isn’t up to the task — everything is surely doomed. Congratulations! Your character is in the story’s darkest moment, where someone or something must serve as inspiration for rising against all odds and saving the day. In these desperate times your character searches within, has a eureka! Epiphany that ends your story with triumph and satisfied readers.
3. Going back to square one: This path takes your protagonist to the same dark moment already mentioned. But, when given a clear opportunity to turn his or her life around, the character… doesn’t. Instead, he or she returns to old ways, or the status quo. This type of ending works best if you are writing a character-driven novel.
4. Is this really the end?: Open-ended endings are tough to pull off and require quite a bit of character and plot understanding, but leaving your readers with thoughtful questions can get them talking and thinking about possible answers. This kind of ending is popular with many book series and draws the reader to read the next book.
5. Close the book: After the final climactic moment, don’t hang around explaining “this is what happens after.” Readers tend to lose interest once the story’s reached a satisfying conclusion.
Some writers like to experiment with different endings until they come to one that best suits their story. Don’t be afraid to write, rewrite, and rewrite again until your ending sounds natural, satisfactory, and complete!
If you want to become a better author, learning how to end a book well is crucial.
Tips to Write Better Story Endings
Build to an intriguing climax. A great ending is all in the build-up. A taut climax isn’t equally important for every genre. A novel that relies on twists, turns and tension (a murder mystery or thriller, for example) will require a stronger build-up.
Books benefit from a satisfying build-up. Placing complications in your story that get in the way a satisfying ending keeps readers interested in what will happen next.
How do you build to a climactic novel ending?
- Vary pace – write shorter scenes and chapters to increase momentum.
- Keep the largest confrontations between characters for your final chapters, but hint at their approach.
- Make sure your ending is earned, not improbable.
- A story with an improbable ending is frustrating because it rings untrue. Usually the ending that makes sense follows the simple logic of cause and effect.
This doesn’t mean that you cannot create an outlandish, fantastical, or unexpected ending. There are very few absolute rules when it comes to writing fiction. Yet laying groundwork for your ending and building the anticipation of a specific outcome (even if the outcome itself proves different to what you’ve led readers to expect) creates a sense of direction and objective.
An irritatingly unlikely ending may result if you get yourself into tricky tangle in your plot. Many fictional characters are a little too lucky and are saved by the bell. Be careful of letting a strong sense of cause and effect slip away in your closing chapters for the sake of convenient resolution.
Leave Room for the Imagination
An ending doesn’t have to be the end of your character.
Story endings that leave room for readers’ imaginations are enjoyable because readers get to picture what comes next, without being told. A little mystery, a little bit of incompletion remains.
This is especially important when you write series. Make sure that your final chapters convey a sense of something new developing or beginning, even as this narrative thread closes.
Review the best novel endings for insights into how to end a book
The best novel endings are masterclasses in how to end a book. When you write your ending, pick up a few of your favorite books. Read the final paragraphs.
• How the book’s ending connects to preceding chapters (does it repeat memorable imagery from earlier? What is ending-like about its language or ideas?)
• The tone of the ending – does it fit with everything that precedes it?
Bring home how your characters have changed
Probably the most important aspect of ending your story lies in change. Showing how your characters have changed at the end of your novel as they’ve reached their objectives creates a satisfying sense of development.
Use the ‘5 W’s’ to create the End
In addition to showing how characters have changed, use the ‘5 w’s’ – who, what, why, where and when – as a whole. Shifting to a climactic location for your closing chapters, for example, adds to the sense of an ultimate destination.
A change of place can help to establish a sense of climax and direction. Similarly, use shifts in setting along with character goals and motivations to show that your story is reaching its end.
How not to End a Novel
Last week, we discussed how not to begin a novel. Here are ways not to end one.
The reader expects a major event, only it doesn’t happen. A bad ending that fizzles out or miraculously rescues characters from a tricky situation can ruin a good book. Anti-climax, of course, is a valid literary device, but this path is a risky and some may see not delivering what you have foreshadowed as a cop-out.
• Avoid cliched twist endings (example: ‘it was all just a dream’)
• Avoid miraculous rescues (lightning strikes the villain just as they’re about to kill your protagonist? Thanks, nature!)
• Beware of a total lack of resolution/continuity
Great Options for Ending Your Book
• The full circle: Everything comes back to the beginning scenes
• The surprise twist: Novels such as Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn pull the rug out from underneath readers, keeping readers guessing to the end
• The ‘choose your own adventure’: Some novels’ endings are open to interpretation. The reader must decide how to interpret the outcome with fewer certainties
• The ‘happily ever after’: Everything resolves tidily, fulfilling expectations established during the novel
If you’re not sure what type of ending to use, write multiple endings and let them sit a while. Read through your entire manuscript from the beginning and see which flows best and makes the most cohesive sense for your whole story.
Ending your novel is more important than beginning it, despite the reasoning that the opening entices the reader into the work. Both are skills to master. However, fixing a problematic opening in a revision is simple compared with fixing a befuddled ending. Traditionally, endings are viewed as “happy”, “sad”, “pensive”, “surprise”, “abrupt” and the rest of the gamut. However, it really doesn’t matter “how” your novel ends, it’s “where” your novel ends that is critical.
Anti-Climax endings are usually recognized by their failure to please, surprise, or even keep the reader’s attention. It is generally caused by having a more powerful scene a few chapters from the end, which “peaks” your novel too soon. It’s downhill from there. This is corrected by toning down the zenith chapter, although it might break your heart. Usually, the culprit scene and the final scene have similar settings, characters and tone. Change the earlier scene’s intensity, setting and character mesh. Intensify the last scene. The last scene must be the most important and memorable scene in the novel or why should the reader even bother to make the journey?
Runaway train endings are recognized when your pacing is too fast. Your ending comes up suddenly, catching the reader off-guard. You don’t want your reader asking “Is that it?” This usually stems from wanting to finish the book. Take the time to determine how your story will end. Put clues on the ending throughout the book. Think about when your “ending” begins. If it starts in the last two chapters, back up and rethink. The earlier your novel’s ending begins, the stronger and firmer paced the ending is. Most novel endings begin in the middle of the work and some in the first paragraph of Chapter One. You must be continually building toward the end.
Contrived endings are grafted onto the novel, and usually because the author is using a strict outline. The stronger the outline, the more constraint there is for character development. Characters are forced to say and do things that the author wants them to say or do. When the work concludes, the end is usually contrived.
Developmental endings are common. Authors do not always see that their style much change by the end of the novel. Expositional styles in the first third of the novel, work less and less as the work progresses. Developmental devices stop working by the last third. Too many times last scenes are a suite of settings, flashbacks, hula dances, complex actions requiring science degrees and the like. Endings can be action scenes, but simple ones, with intensely short sentences, without metaphors and similes. Extensive movement should be simplified and clear. Character activity and dialogue should be emphasized. Build, build, build to a climax, and never introduce a new character in the last twenty pages.
Dribble out endings are evident in works that do not have an ending. They have no impact. The reader is supposed to ponder the ending because the author forgot to write one.
Epilogues can be good, because readers what to know some of the details beyond the end of the story. The problem with epilogues is that they are sometimes incorporated into the last scene. Epilogues are “not” the ending. They just come “at the end.” An epilogue settles details in a satisfactory way, leaving something open for perhaps another “book” in a series, and makes the reader feel better for reading your work.
Be assured that when you revise your novel you “will” rewrite your ending. You should, just as you should craft a dozen openers revise your endings in the same way to see what provides the most satisfying ending.
Get Your FREE Copy of The Comprehensive Novel Editing Checklist
This is the first post in a series of blog posts about how to edit your novel. If you have a first draft that you would love to publish this year, be sure to pick up a copy of my novel editing checklist and if you haven’t already, sign up to make sure that you never miss a post of this editing series.
Confession: I never know what my ending will be when I start. I leave that to my muse to figure out as I go along. 🙂
Hmm, and I never really know where my story really starts when I start writing.