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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!