Endings, Part 1: What Was With That Ending?

Endings are some of the hardest things to write, the hardest things to create, the hardest things to get just right so that the readers are left with just the right impression.

There’s no other way to put it: Endings are tough.

That’s not to say that beginnings and middles aren’t hard, too. They are, don’t get me wrong. With beginnings, you have to hook your reader so that they will continue reading. You have to promise them that this is a story worth continuing. And with middles, you have to take your characters from Point A to Point B, while keeping your reader captivated the whole time.

It’s not easy.

But endings, to me, are the hardest of the bunch. Why? Because they are cumulative. They are the fulfillment of both your beginning and middle — your ending is everything you’ve been leading up to. If you don’t manage to nail it, you’re done for.

Sound intimidating? It should. Endings can make or break a story.

Maybe just because I’m really picky, but I have never really found many series with a ending that has left me breathless, holding the book and wanting to never let it go. The few series that did leave me that way were more because I was sad they were over because I’d grown up with them, rather than because they had such a great ending. (For example, while I was quite disappointed in the Heroes of Olympus ending, I still cried over it, because I grew up with the Percy Jackson series — which, on a side note, Percy Jackson and the Olympians had a rather satisfying ending.)

Series, I believe, are harder to write endings for than stand-alone stories. One reason is that they’re longer, so you have more characters and more plotlines, both external and internal, to wrap up. Your readers have stuck with you longer, so you have to deliver an even more epic ending.

By the way, by “epic,” I don’t necessarily mean full of action and heartbreak and explosions. No, to me, epic means more along the lines of something that leaves you craving more, even when you’ve finished. Something that makes you think of nothing else for the next few days. That makes your heart ache at every reminder of the adventure you’ve shared with the characters. That’s epic.

So now that we’ve defined endings, how should we go about writing a good one? Good question. Here are a few tips.

1. Write what your genre calls for. If it’s an action story, make sure to include plenty of action. If it’s a romance, make sure to get the characters together (unless you’re writing a tragedy . . .) and include nice, sweet scenes that’ll make your readers’ feelings turn to mush.

Bonus Tip: Endings are a culmination of conflict and stakes. So, obviously, your ending will be the biggest event of the highest amount of conflict and stakes and suspense you can manage. Again, like I said above, this is not to say it will be full of magical warfare or aliens invading the Earth. It will be epic, though.

2. Resolve the problem. If it’s a series, maybe you won’t defeat the big bad guy right then, but at least give your character some kind of triumph. Let them achieve what they wanted from the very beginning, even if it isn’t exactly what they imagined.

Bonus Tip: The resolution of the problem will most likely happen during the climax of your story. Often, though, the resolution will happen through this little device called “deus ex machina.” Ever heard of that? It’s basically a contrived way to get your characters out of a difficult situation because you are (probably) too lazy to think of a logical, creative way yourself. (“I’ve been writing this book for so long now . . . I’m tired . . . the ending’s finally here . . . can’t I just get it over with?” — thus the deus ex machina.) However, do not fall into this trap.

Often, I have found lots of endings to be ruined by too short of a climax. They spend a lot of time building a wonderful world and complex characters and then, BAM!, the story ends and I’m just left staring at the acknowledgments and wondering if someone tore out some pages, because how could the story end there? Was that really all of the story? Don’t hurt your ending by making it too short. And yes, I know, it’s hard to make action scenes long — don’t try to draw them out, of course. But write in the sensory details, the emotions of your characters. Catch your readers up in the intensity of the scene. And please, oh please, write your ending without using deus ex machina.

3. Don’t leave plot holes. Unless, of course, it’s a series. If it is a series, make sure you resolve those holes by the end of the series, though. But still, don’t leave too many things left hanging, even in the first book. Make sure to find all of your plot holes and make note of it — readers have an irritating knack of spotting things you didn’t think they’d see, or things you didn’t even notice in the first place. They’ll criticize you till you die if you forget about someone who was fairly important to the plot in the first book and then disappeared off the face of the Earth by the end.

Bonus Tip: Okay, so I know even your trained eyes can’t catch everything, so this is where your family and friends and fellow writers come in handy. Have them read your story! You are not alone, remember that. Writing is a lonely job, yes, but if you are to be left alone to your own devices . . . well, let’s just say that your story will be riddled with plot holes. (Believe me, when you have other people read your story, they’ll find a whole host of plot holes immediately that you haven’t even thought of. It’s unbelievable and kind of humiliating, but you’ll learn to deal with it; it’s part of being a writer.)

4. Give your protagonist an emotional satisfaction. This was kind of mentioned in Number 2 and the two definitely overlap. There’s the usual “protagonist goes searching for happiness/or love and figures that it’s where they were in the first place.” Stuff like that works.

Bonus Tip: In this tip, I would like to bring up three very popular Young Adult series as examples. Be warned: there may be spoilers.

First, the classic Harry Potter. In the end of this series, Harry has defeated Voldemort and it’s finally over, almost unbelievably so. The world is free of the Dark Lord, but not without its losses. However, within our protagonist, we still see a semblance of happiness and hope, and in the epilogue, we can tell he’s become content with his life and is finally at peace. Has Harry Potter reached an emotional satisfaction here? Yes, I think so. Check.

Next, I’d like to focus on another iconic series: The Hunger Games. Like many others, I was immediately captivated by the first book and even the second, but the third book left me a little disappointed. Most of it felt slow, and then the ending felt entirely too rushed. Many characters died in just a few pages for seemingly no reason and Katniss’s actions in the epilogue seemed to defy her original intentions earlier in the story. It seems she’s found happiness and perhaps is a little more content with her life. Is she emotionally satisfied, though? It’s a little vague.

Finally, I’d like to turn our attention to a story that was spawned from The Hunger Games’s success: the Divergent trilogy. When I first read Divergent, I thought it was a fairly decent book. When I read the second, however, I was disappointed. And upon re-reading the first two and then reading the third when it came out . . . yeah, Veronica Roth, I decided, didn’t really know what she was doing with the series when she started it. SPOILER WARNING: Divergent ends with Tris, our protagonist, dying. Her brother, Caleb, a coward and traitor from the beginning is trying once again to redeem himself by sacrificing himself to save the others. But Tris, seemingly selfless as she is, decides she can’t let that happen and takes his place and dies. I read on Roth’s blog her explanation of why she did this, saying that it was in Tris’s core nature to be selfless. However, while reading the books I never really saw that in her. And to me, it was only ever told to us that Tris was selfless, not shown. That aside, can our protagonist be emotionally satisfied when they’re dead? Sure. However, Tris was not.

The whole book of Allegiant was convoluted, featuring POVs of both her and Four with no real point or distinction in both, the revelation behind the Divergents was contrived, and Tris’s death was simply shock value. Was Tris emotionally satisfied before she saved her brother? I do acknowledge the fact that she probably did it because of whatever bond they shared before he stabbed her in the back, but I do not believe she was content with the relationship they currently shared, not her current relationship with Four. Allegiant was the most disappointing ending I’ve read in a while (in case you didn’t get that from this small rant).

5. Leave a sense of resonance. Most authors want their readers to feel something very specific at the ending of their story — relief at the characters living to see the next day, sadness over the book ending or a character dying, excitement for the next book, contentment from how the book turned out. Whatever it is, you want your reader to feel something. They have to finally place the book down, and say something like, “Wow. That was just . . . wow.”

Bonus Tip: The Dictionary defines resonance as: “the prolongation of sound by reflection; reverberation.” In our case, it’s not necessarily sound, but the prolonging of heartfelt feelings by words. Make sure the story continues to stick in the reader’s mind, even after they’ve finished turning the pages. How do you leave a sense of resonance, though? Other than following the tips above, I’d say that word choice is very important. Whatever tone you want to resonate with your reader when they finish is what sort of words you’ll want to use.

Structure, too, is important. If you want your reader to speed through the climax and feel the suspense, then short chapters and lots of white space on the page. If you want the ending to be a bit slower and savored, then you can include more descriptions and such.

Of course, your last scene is the most important, too. What is the very last impression you want to leave on your reader? A sweet conversation and kiss between the main couple? A philosophical statement that the protagonist finally understands? When writing the last scene of your story, it’s best to probably keep the cast of characters small and intimate. The resolution should have already happened and your protagonist has (most likely) come to terms with how they’ve dealt with things. Imagery is very important in scenes like this, because it helps permanently etch the scene in your reader’s mind. They know the end is near and they will be craving every last detail, especially if they have loved every bit of the book until now. Don’t drag the last scene on too long, but make it short and sweet, with just the right amount of things it needs to leave that sense of resonance.

I’d actually written more on endings, too, but this has already gotten really long, so I’ll be splitting this into a two part series. So I’m ending it here for now. Next time, I’ll be talking about different types of endings.

So, what do you think? What books have you read do you think have the best endings? Which endings have disappointed you the most? (Not necessarily restricted to just books, either!) How do you usually go about writing your own endings? Do you plan them about before even beginning your story? Have you ever found yourself using deus ex machine before? Do you think you’re solving the conflict well, not leaving plot holes, and giving your protagonist emotional satisfaction? What about resonance?

Thanks for reading! I hope this has been helpful to you in some way.

Until next time. Keep on writing!

~ J. Dominique