And They All Lived Happily Ever After: The Art of a Good Ending

There’s nothing quite like a good ending. It can be one of the most satisfying parts of a story, but it’s also one of the most difficult things to get right. It can make or break a story. I’ve lost count of the amount of books I’ve read or movies I’ve seen where I’ve come away thinking ‘it was all fine, up until the ending’.

So how do you get it right?

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I mean, I could just end this blog post here. (image: giphy.com)

First, I think it’s important to consider the kind of things people expect from an ending. There’s a handful of things that keep popping up regardless of the type of story they’re in: the resolution of character arcs, the final confrontation, the big reveal. They don’t always have to be big, world-changing things, but the events of the story have to come to a head in some way. A good ending will have been building up naturally through the course of the story, thereby building anticipation for the climax throughout the plot. This can be obvious – for example, everybody knew that the Harry Potter series would end with Harry fighting Voldemort – or more subtle, like in murder mysteries where the clues are spread throughout the story but only brought together at the end.

Of course, some types of stories lend themselves to certain kinds of endings. This largely comes down to genre or structure. In a romance story, for example, people will expect the couple to get together at the end, whereas in a murder mystery, people will expect the case to be solved. Equally, if you use any kind of numerical structuring device to tell your story – for example, getting three wishes, spending seven years at a magical boarding school, or having to complete a task in a certain time limit – then people are going to expect the story to end when the last wish is made, or in the final five minutes of your deadline.

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Just like writing my essays. (image: giphy.com)

Having these kinds of expectations can be really helpful as a writer. It’s a good framework to build your story around, and can help with both the pacing and plotting of the story as a whole as well as the ending. If your story ends with the couple getting together, then that dictates the shape of the rest of your story – as readers, we have to see them reach that point. A ‘ticking clock’ is also a really useful structural device: as well as providing a race-against-time ending, it also helps you build tension throughout the whole story. These two types of expectations tend to merge in crime novels. The conventions of the genre dictate that the murderer must be revealed at the end, and this affects the structure of the book. A good crime author will have planted the clues as to who the real murderer is throughout the book, but will have mixed them in with so many red herrings that the reveal is still a surprise.

It goes without saying that this is hella difficult.

Having these kinds of expectations about the way a story is going to end is something of a double-edged sword. It makes it easier for the writer to know where their story needs to go in order to reach that point, but readers are also aware of those expectations. It’s extremely hard to hit all the points you need without making a story seem formulaic. In some genres, readers are so aware of the conventions that it affects the way they view the story. The most obvious example of this is in murder-mystery novels. The first law of mystery novels is that it’s never the official suspect. Even if you build a strong case for that character being the murderer as a writer, the reader will discount them automatically because everyone is so aware of the genre.

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I did a blog post about this and everything. (image: rainybayart.com)

Of course, this can lead to a lot of fun too. Subverting readers’ expectations can be really fun, both as a writer and a reader. But it’s extremely difficult to pull this off and still have a satisfying ending. If you wrote a murder mystery where the murderer was never caught or discovered by anyone, you’d have a very tough time making sure that this was presented in a way that left the reader feeling satisfied when they turned the final page. The proof is in the pudding – if you can pull it off, it’ll work, but if you can’t, then you’re going to have some really irritated readers on your hands.

But what do you do when you’re writing something that doesn’t have an easy ending? While there are some stories that lend themselves to ending in a certain way, there are plenty of others that don’t. Your protagonist might have defeated their nemesis and completed their quest, but is that really the end of their story? Where do you draw the line?

For me, it’s just as important for a writer to know when to end a story as to know how to end a story. There’s been a real case of sequel-itis in the stories we tell each other lately, and it’s really driving me nuts. You’ll read a book or watch a movie with a really satisfying ending, and six months later a sequel is announced.

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I am trying so hard not to throw some very specific shade. (image: giphy.com)

I get the appeal of this from an authorial standpoint, but I have to say I can’t really think many times where this has actually worked. If an author has put a lot of time and effort into creating a world that they really love, of course they’d want to come back to it. A lot of writers will leave ‘back doors’ into their work – little plot threads that haven’t quite been resolved, just in case they want to come back to them in a fresh book. Sometimes, this can work really well, but it’s sad to say that most of the time it doesn’t. Continuing a story after you’ve properly written an ending is difficult, and sometimes it can undermine what has already gone before. If you story originally ended with your characters saving the world, anything they do after that is going to seem like a bit of an anti-climax. If you make them save the world again, it cheapens their efforts in the original story – an apocalypse should only come around the once if you want it to retain its dramatic effect. It can be really difficult to set something aside, but it’s far better to do that and write a really good ending than to just keep going until people lose interest.

Endings are hard. They’re something that a writer needs to consider in multiple different ways. Long before you pick up your pen, you should know how the story is going to end. You should also consider how people are going to expect the story to end, and decide whether you want to play up to those expectations or not. But the most important thing is that once you’ve decided on your ending, stick to it. Commit. A good ending will be building up all the way through a story, and carrying on after it’s finished will only cheapen it. It’s far better to go out with a bang than a whimper.

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Heh heh heh. (image: giphy.com)

And that’s it for 2018! No more blog posts until the New Year. I’ll be back in January with a bunch more opinions – see you then!

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Book Recipes: How to Write a Christmas Romance

Time for another book recipe! Let’s get in the festive mood and write a Christmas romance. Put on a Christmas jumper and mull everything you own and we’ll get started!

 

Ingredients:

  • One feisty career-gal heroine
  • One smouldering hero
  • An adorably small hometown
  • Buckets of schmaltz
  • Pointless low-stakes drama
  • A big-city nemesis
  • Santa hats
  • Supportive relatives who say meaningful things in the background
  • One pointless Christmas tradition designed to get people to couple up
  • Snow

 

Method:

  1. Our feisty career-gal heroine has to go home to her adorable hometown for the holidays. Not to worry, she’ll be right back in the New Year and nothing will have changed, at all.
  2. Arrive in the adorable hometown. Look at it, it’s so cute! Everyone’s wearing Christmas jumpers and baking apple pies. D’aawwww.
  3. Angst about how life in the big city is better.
  4. Introduce your smouldering hero. He’s from Hometown, he always has his sleeves rolled up and he’s always seen leaning against a truck.
  5. Have some forced comedy about how city people are rubbish at everything, ever. Bonus points if you can work in some melodramatic squealing.
  6. Ugh, the hero and the heroine have to work together, for Christmas reasons. It’ll be lame, they don’t have anything in common.
  7. But wait, what’s this? Looks like…romantic tension…
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Dun dun DUUUHHH (image: giphy.com)
  1. Go for a walk in the snow and think about life and stuff.
  2. The heroine has decided she’s definitely not going to make out with Smoulders McGee. Nope. No way. She’s going to go back to the big city and forget all about –
  3. Make out with Smoulders McGee.
  4. The heroine gets a call from the big-city nemesis. Now she’s conflicted! Mope, you’ll feel better.
  5. Talk about your feelings with a supportive relative. They mention that, for Christmas reasons, whoever you make out with on Christmas Eve will be your forever-husband, or something, but let’s not pay attention to that until step twenty.
  6. The hero and heroine bond over Christmas things and start feeling all squishy.
  7. But uh-oh, who’s this? It’s the big-city nemesis, here to ruin everything!
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Seen here in their file photo. (image: giphy.com)
  1. With their big-city powers, the nemesis engineers some sort of terrible Christmas misunderstanding! Oh no! Whatever will happen now?
  2. The heroine goes back to the big city, mopily, because love is dead and so is Christmas.
  3. But now she’s in the big city, everything seems rubbish. There’s not even any pie. She decides to go back home, for non man-related reasons, natch.
  4. But who should be waiting for her at the airport but good ol’ Smoulders, here to clear up that misunderstanding!
  5. Have a conversation like adults and work out the nemesis did the thing. Have some sort of hilarious Christmas-themed revenge.
  6. Go back home to Hometown with Smoulders, just in time for Christmas. Make out, fulfil the family tradition, get married, have babies etc.

THE END. Serve so sweet that you can feel the saccharine coating your teeth.

 

Tips:

  • Your big-city nemesis can be basically anyone in a suit. Evil fiancé? That’s fine. Evil boss? That’s also fine. Slenderman? I’ll allow it, he’s dressed for the office.
  • It is vitally important to the plot that you have at least three scenes in front of a roaring fire.
  • Everyone must wear a cosy Christmas jumper at all times.
  • Your family Christmas tradition doesn’t have to make sense or to be an actual Christmas tradition. Just wedge in whatever suits the plot.
  • If you have an opportunity to get your hero and heroine snowed in at a remote cabin in the woods where they have to spend the night, then take it, by God! What is this, Amateur Hour?
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This is BASIC STUFF GODDAMMIT (image: giphy.com)
  • Bonus points if you include a cute child who helps our couple get together! That’s what Christmas is really all about.
  • It’s always important to remember that country = good, town = bad. Also, in the city snow gets manky really quickly, so therefore the entire place MUST BE GROSS.

 

And here’s one I made earlier…

 

Piper Sterling pulled her hair into a ponytail and sighed. “Do you really need me to action this, Mom? You know I’ve got to prepare that presentation for Mr Dartleyman.”

Piper’s mother gave her a warm smile. “Of course I need you, honey. No-one else makes Christmas cookies like you. I remember when you were a little girl, you used to put on your grandmother’s apron and say to me, ‘Follow your dreams, Mommy, especially when they lead to cookies!’ Oh, it was the cutest thing! Do you know, when you –”

Piper rolled her eyes and put on her grandmother’s lucky apron over her suit. There was no stopping her mother when she was telling one of her stories. She acquired flour, eggs, sugar and butter by closing the deal with the fridge and let her mother talk about the lucky apron some more. Family legend had it that if an unmarried woman wore the apron on Christmas Eve she’d meet her true love and share a Christmas kiss. Piper didn’t believe it. Who’d want to kiss someone wearing something so unflattering?

“ – but you’ve always been such a good girl,” her mother was saying. “Anyway, I’m heading out for just a minute, but Brick’ll be along in a moment so you won’t be by yourself. Mommy loves you, sweetie.”

“Mom, I’m twenty-eight, I don’t need a – Brick?”

“Bye sweetie!”

Her mother closed the door. Piper shrugged, and looked around for an assistant who could turn on the oven and start preparing her baking tray, but her mother didn’t even have an intern. That was typical of her hometown. There was only one sushi place, nowhere could produce a decent kale smoothie and every time she tried to order her signature double-turmeric yak-butter vegan mocha latte, the barista would smile and say ‘Oh, honey, you always did have a sense of humour!’ The sooner she got back to the city, the better.

Let her mother send her friends round for a visit; she wasn’t going to be here all that long. They probably just wanted to gawp at her shoulder pads and killer heels and listen to her talk about mergers. A few more days – just until Christmas was over – and then she’d be back in Cityville in her penthouse apartment. If she went home early, she’d have enough time to really polish her presentation, and then Mr Dartleyman would have to give her that promotion…

“Mrs Sterling? I brought the – oh. Hey.”

Piper looked up, hands covered in dough, and felt the world shrink itself down to the kitchen.

Standing in the doorway was one of the best-looking men she had ever seen in her literal entire life. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with brown hair and eyes and blindingly white teeth. His checked shirt was rolled up at the sleeves, revealing a pair of forearms that should’ve come with a ‘Parental Advisory: Explicit Content’ warning. And here she was, wearing a ratty old apron patterned with dancing reindeer. And there was flour on her nose. She edged out from underneath the mistletoe hanging from the ceiling.

“You must be Piper,” said the stranger, ruffling the snow out of his hair. “I’m Brick Campbell. Your mom said there was some wood needed chopping?”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Piper said, trying to wipe off the flour. It didn’t budge and she started to panic. Flour on her suit jacket could lead to some serious decruitment. “I can do it.”

Brick raised his eyebrows. “No offence, but you don’t exactly look the type.”

“Well I am.”

“Really? They got much call for swinging axes in the big city?”

“…sure. All the time. In fact, I’m the head of chainsaw consultancy at Company Enterprise Holdings Inc.”

He leaned on the kitchen table and grinned at her. Another bunch of mistletoe was hanging over his face. “Is that so?”

Piper squeezed the dough and pretended it was his face. It didn’t work, he was too pretty. “Look,” she snapped, “I might seem like a big-city hotshot but I know where the pointy end of the axe needs to go. Into the wood.”

“Well…yeah, but –”

“Am I wrong?”

“That’s not really the – ”

Piper groaned and flicked the last of the dough off her hands. She was very careful not to pass under any more mistletoe as she went to the fridge and acquired some chocolate chips, dynamically. But when she turned back Brick was there, smiling at her, underneath a ceiling that was green with the damn stuff.

“I think we got off on the wrong foot,” he said. “Let me help you with that.”

He took the chocolate chips from her hands, their fingers touched and the world went pink and fuzzy. Oh no, Piper thought. Business school hadn’t said anything about this.

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

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Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)