“The most-asked question when someone describes a novel, movie or short story to a friend probably is, “How does it end?” Endings carry tremendous weight with readers; if they don’t like the ending, chances are they’ll say that didn’t like the work. Failed endings are also the most common problems editors have with submitted works.” – Nancy Kress
December is a good month to think about endings with another year winding down. If we were in a novel, November would be the climax of the most horrible thing to ever happen to your character – lucky November! No wonder it tends to be a grey month. But now we are onto December when the hero gets conquer to her fears, the boy finds the girl, the quest locates the lost treasure. Hurrah!
For me, the ending is the most important part of any story.
What did I say?
What about that critical first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page you slaved for months over? There are workshops and blogs and books written about the importance of the first words of any story.
But here’s a little test. Given these two reviews, what story would you pick to read:
“The novel is slow to start but keep with it, because it gets fantastic and the ending is awesome!”
“The novel starts off great, the concept is really cool but the ending sucked.”
Get my point? Here’s what John Irving said about endings:
“I have last chapters in my mind before I see first chapters, too. I usually begin with endings, with a sense of aftermath, of dust settling, of epilogue.”
My theory is that we spend so much time working on the first lines because that is what will get us into the door of an agent or publisher. But readers do not forgive bad endings. By “bad” endings, I don’t mean sad or tragic but an ending that doesn’t provide a proper resolution or fit the storyline.
I have rules about endings.
This is based on zero research but as my experience as an avid reader.
Rule No. 1: The ending must fit with the genre. If I’m reading a mystery novel, I better be told who did the crime by the end. If this doesn’t happen, I will never ever read a book by that author again. I won’t even give the book away to another person. If you want to get creative and strange and break all the rules, write poetry, not a mystery novel.
Rule No. 2: Have an ending! Do not leave me on a cliffhanger. I don’t care if you do this because you want to sell book 2 of a series and you think by leaving nothing resolved, I will be compelled to buy book 2 to find out what happened to these characters. Wrong! If you frustrate the reader, they will hate you.
Now, it’s okay not to wrap up every little detail and it is even fine to keep open a bigger quest or question for books 2 and 3. If you’re writing a series then this is essential. But at least end the narrative arc for that book.
Rule No. 3: Complete the ending. Very often, I see authors end a novel right when everything is resolved but never let us readers peek into that space of time in the character’s life after that resolution. Don’t overdo it but give us a little something.
Let me give you an example: The Hunger Games. Imagine how maddening it would be to have that first book end while Katniss is still in the arena of death? We needed some post-victory time and to get back to Rule Number 2, it allows the reader to glimpse the set up for book two.
Rule No. 4: The ending must fit the story arc or the question you have set up in the opening chapters. A good ending must meet the expectations the writer created throughout the novel. A good ending will circle back to the beginning. It doesn’t have to end with a complete finality but like a good meal, leaves the reader satisfied.
I like this quote from Garry Trudeau: “That’s what fiction writers do: create characters and do terrible things to them for the entertainment of others. If they feel guilty enough, they write happy endings.”
What about you? Do you have rules about endings? What is the best ending to a book you have read?
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