Endings are my least favourite part of reading and writing. If someone wrote a book that never ended, I’d read it! In the past I’ve even left the final chapter of a novel unwritten for months, waiting for inspiration.
*watch out for spoilers, those unfamiliar with Hansel and Gretl or Harry Potter‘s finale*
What’s an ending?
To answer this question we have to look at why people read. It’s an emotional activity. The reader wants to get some sort of feeling from the story. Your characters and the plot they’re caught up in make the reader invest their emotions in the novel.
The ending must satisfy this emotional investment. They can finish with a feeling of joy, sadness or anger. Even frustration can make a satisfying ending, but it has to be directed towards the story and not the author.
What’s the problem?
Endings are such an issue for some writers because they are so important and they come last. The latter sounds painfully obvious, but I’ll explain.
Writing a hook that grips the reader in your first chapter is extremely important (see my post on prologues). The same is true of writing content that keeps your audience hooked through the main body of the story. They’re both huge hurdles that you as a writer have to overcome.
But once it comes time to write the ending, those obstacles are already out of the way. This is the part of your story that has to make the reader want to buy your next book or subscribe to your blog. In some ways, it’s the ending that makes the story.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on one chapter, especially once the excitement of a new project has long since worn off. Here are a few types of ending, intended to help you pick your preferred method of assaulting that troublesome finale.
The fairytale ending
“And they lived happily ever after.”
No, it’s not always that bad. I’m just using this as an example of what’s called a “happy ending”. The protagonist’s conflicts are resolved in a way that suits their primary objectives.
This doesn’t have to be happy in every sense. If your protagonist is a serial killer, their fairytale ending will likely make every other character unhappy (or not alive). Think about the story of Hansel and Gretl. Putting the witch in the oven was a terrible ending for the poor witch.
Pro: this makes it easier for the reader to feel like their emotional need has been satisfied.
Con: if yours is a complicated story, the reader might feel short-changed by a simple “happily ever after”.
The Harry Potter approach
This is more of a bittersweet ending. The enemy is vanquished, but something important is lost in the process.
What tarnishes the character’s victory doesn’t have to be external. It could be that the protagonist has to sacrifice a part of who they are in order to achieve their desired objective.
Pro: this gives the reader satisfaction from emotional complexity.
Con: neatly tying up the end of a writing project with conflicting outcomes is demanding. Getting it right could take a lot of effort and revisions.
A foul ending
There is a relatively straightforward way to do this third method and it has the added bonus of simplifying the act of putting together an ending. You allow the obstacle or conflict elements of the plot to achieve their desired outcome. Kill the central character and the story dies.
This might shock, upset or frustrate the reader, but it’s still a perfectly valid way to finish the narrative. A negative emotional response will give your audience what they want if it’s executed well.
Pro: quick and effective.
Con: could be interpreted as a cheap trick by the author.
Of course, an “unhappy ending” can also be made into something more complex. There are numerous ways to crush your character’s hopes and desires without killing them.
This approach can be extremely beneficial for you as a writer. Leave the protagonist as a withered husk, beaten down and dejected. The reader will remember the pitiful character and snatch up the next instalment, eager to discover how they claw their way back.
Pro: opens the road to a sequel.
Con: doesn’t sit well with the fairytale or bittersweet audience.
This is a cruel trick to play on your reader. I don’t mean simply dropping the story mid-sentence, but writing an ending where some form of stasis returns to the narrative without the central plot being resolved.
Having said that it’s an unkind position to leave the reader in, that doesn’t mean it isn’t an acceptable ending. It could be a highly successful finale. Your audience will be forced to sit for a while and try to put together their own conclusion. They’d probably rather you handed it to them on a plate, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. This is especially true if you’re writing part of a series.
Pro: this type of ending is made more memorable by the frustration it evokes.
Con: the reader might hate you for it and never touch your writing again.
Now at least you know the stakes you’re playing for. Any of these approaches could make you a bestseller, famous blogger or poet laureate. But each could also see your inbox become inundated with hate mail from disgruntled readers.
Endings are a high stakes game, my least favourite game by far.
Let me know in the comments if any of this was useful. Do you have any writing tips to share?
- Tip #1: The Prologue
- Tip #2: The Process
- Tip #3: Writing Faux Pas – Debunked
- Tip #4: A Useful App For Writers
- Tip #5: Writing The Main Plot