Why is it so hard to write a good ending? Why do we struggle and agonise and draft and redraft and throw it all away to start again, usually more than once? I wish I had a gloriously psychological answer that delves into how writers don’t want to let go of the worlds and characters they have spent so much time immersed in and therefore subconsciously sabotage themselves. Instead, I have the opposite – a horribly simplistic reason that won’t make any writer feel any better or any more capable of writing a good ending.
So what is it? Why, regardless of whether we are writing a poem, a short story, an article, non-fiction or a novel, do we struggle to write good endings? Well, it all comes down to this: it’s hard!
Told you it was simple. Frustratingly, annoyingly, head-scratchingly, solution-defyingly simple.
Clearly, then, I’m not going to be able to offer any iron-clad guarantees or firm rules to point you in the right direction. After all, I suffer from the same difficulties in writing good endings as much as everybody else does. In fact, this chapter was the last one I wrote for Project January and I started, stopped and disposed of what I had written four times before I was finally able to come up with something that didn’t seem to go in circles or pointlessly and completely in the wrong direction.
That’s unusual for me. Generally, I write a topic onto my ideas board, then spend some time thinking about it and don’t attempt to turn the idea into a blog post or chapter or short story or whatever it is the idea is about until it has almost fully formed in my head. Then I sit down and write and usually within an hour or two, I’ll have between a thousand and two thousand words ready to be added to my blog or the book I’m working on.
The problem in this scenario of how I usually write is that the solution when it’s not working is to simply walk away and give it some more time to cogitate. Usually, there’s no deadline that says I have to write something now. The problem with an ending is that there’s nothing else I can write instead without completely putting aside my current project. And when I’m so close to being finished, I want it done. If it doesn’t get done, it’s like running ninety-nine metres of a hundred metre sprint and then stopping to take a breather while all the other runners rush past you (assuming, of course, you weren’t behind to begin with – then it’s watching everyone in the race with you finishing well ahead of you and moving on to the next stage while you flounder just shy of the finish line).
So am I going to be one of those people who points out the difficulties and then leaves you all alone to figure a solution on your own? No, of course not. Even when I don’t know quite how, I always want to help in some way. And although I might not be able to provide a step-by-step guide to overcoming the struggles to write a good ending, maybe a discussion of the topic can provide a welcome distraction as well as some mental food for thought.
Types of Endings
There are lots of types of endings. In Project December, I wrote about “The Ideas Generator”, a simplistic seven-step process to develop story ideas by identifying a genre, a main character, a traumatic past incident, a secondary character, a profession and a trigger, then a type of ending. Although it isn’t a comprehensive list, the possibilities included:
*Poetic justice ending
*That’s life ending
*Setting up the sequel ending
*Back to the beginning ending
*Waking up from a dream ending
*Learning a lesson ending
Just because we can identify types of endings doesn’t mean it’s clear which one best suits a story. Some endings suit certain genres more than others. A romance story generally needs a happy ending or a marriage ending. A sad ending or a death ending will really upset anyone who has chosen to read a romance. So the story you’re telling may, to some extent, dictate the ending or it may just dictate what shouldn’t be the ending.
The one thing this list can do is be a prompt. Instead of choosing and fanatically sticking to just one ending, consider how your story could end by writing a descriptive paragraph based on each of them. It’s likely that several or even just one will stand out from the others. Then have a go at writing that ending in full. If it doesn’t work, try another. Or maybe a combination of several. The important thing is that you should be prepared to go in a different direction than you’d planned to if your ending isn’t working out. Sometimes when you write towards a pre-determined ending, you miss the signposts for a better one because you’re so preoccupied. Above all, don’t worry about choosing the wrong ending – you can always change it later.
The Final Chapter
Robert McKee, is his book Story, talks about the difference between climax and resolution. The climax is usually exciting and dangerous and not what the protagonist wants but usually what the story needs. The resolution, on the other hand, returns the protagonist to a sort of normalcy but not their normal life. In The Silence of the Lambs movie, the climax shows Clarice Starling tracking and shooting Buffalo Bill through the darkness of his basement. But the resolution shows her graduating from Quantico and then receiving a phone call from Hannibal Lecter, who assures her he won’t be coming for her. Without this, she would be left to wonder and we would be left to wonder – the story would be missing a satisfying ending.
Some plots combine the climax and the resolution and some leave out the resolution altogether to maintain the mystery. But it can be a fine line because not tying up loose ends does have the potential infuriate readers. In those instances, a “To be continued” ending can be a great hook (the Back to the Future movies did this so well). But this only works if your story isn’t a one off, a stand alone. And if you don’t actually know where the story will continue on to, you might end up writing yourself into a corner.
The Final Paragraph
The final paragraph can sometimes be overlooked in discussions that focus on the overall ending and the final sentence. To be honest, there’s a reason for this. Almost nobody can remember the entire final paragraph of a book (unless it’s a one-sentence final paragraph, in which case it’s also the final sentence).
I’ve only read one final paragraph that was so powerful that it eclipsed the entire book and that was at the end of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg. In my review of the novel, I wrote, “The final paragraph of the book is perhaps the best final paragraph of any book I have ever read. As a writer who struggles with writing endings, I am envious. In fact, it’s an ending that could have been tacked on to the end of many, many books, if any of the authors had thought to write it. I’m going to quote it here in its entirety because it doesn’t give anything away but I hope it intrigues and makes others want to read the book if they haven’t already, just to get to that last paragraph and let it blow their mind the way it did mine. ‘Tell us, they’ll come and say to me. So we may understand and close the case. They’re wrong. It’s only what you do not understand that you can come to a conclusion about. There will be no conclusion.’ Pow! Straight between the eyes!”
What else can I say?
The Final Sentence
Just like opening sentences, final sentences face a lot of scrutiny. In my opinion, good writing is good writing and bad writing is bad writing whether it occurs at the beginning, the end or somewhere in the middle of a book. But it’s so much easier to locate the sentences at the start and at the finish so they easily become the subject of lazy judgement.
“They all lived happily ever after” generally isn’t an acceptable way to end a book these days. Mostly because it’s a cliché. But also because it’s completely fake. Nobody ever lives happily ever after. Real people and complex characters, if they’re lucky, lead lives of combined happiness and misery that mostly lead to a level of acceptable contentment.
The final sentence can embrace the poetic. Think of the “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”, which is from the end of The Great Gatsby.
It can go full circle. The closing sentence of my debut novel, Enemies Closer, reads, “Cassandra Broderick had been born in England, grown up in Australia, studied in America and was currently homeless but nevertheless amongst friends.” It’s a play on the first sentence that introduces the main character all the way back at the start of the book, which says, “Cassandra Broderick had been born in England, grown up in Australia, studied in America and for two years dated a Frenchman. The resulting accent was noticeably intercontinental…”
It can be reflective. In my upcoming novel, Black Spot, the main character of which is a teenage amnesiac, the last line is, “Don’t worry, Livia,” he says, running a hand through her hair and leaning down to whisper in her ear as her vision turns black, “you won’t remember a thing.”
It can be whimsical. The final sentence of Liberty’s Secret, an unpublished romance novel I wrote a very long time ago reads, “It seemed forever had never factored in the ability of a girl named Kennedy Freeman [the main character’s kid sister] to interrupt at all the right moments.”
I’m sure you can see as easily as I can that my final sentence efforts aren’t anywhere near as good as F Scott Fitzgerald’s in The Great Gatsby. But I don’t obsess over them. Because they didn’t need perfect endings. They just needed workable ones. After all, perfection almost never exists in this area just like so many others.
*Avoid entirely predictable endings. There’s nothing worse for a reader than investing all those hours in reading a book to get to the end and discover they saw it coming from a mile off.
*You will always have a choice to either have your main character saved or for your main character to save themselves. Don’t always assume that it’s better for your main character to save themselves. Let the story dictate the choice.
*Tie up loose ends… but don’t do it with a big information dump.
*If you choose not to tie up all the loose ends, make sure you have a really good reason why. It should be intriguingly mysterious, not frustratingly nonsensical.
*Avoid the deus ex machina (which means “gods of the machine”) ending – it’s a divine intervention ending where the bad guy, for example, gets eaten by a crocodile instead of getting his true comeuppance. It’s considered such poor form that criticism of this type of ending goes all the way back to the ancient Greek poets and philosophers.
*Ask your beta readers about what they think of your preferred ending and if they think there could have been a better one. If there’s a rough consensus, then they might be onto something.
*Remember that a good ending is a great advertisement for your next book.
*And, finally, don’t stress. Keep calm. Think logically. And, if necessary, wait for a moment of inspiration. There’s nothing that says the story has to be finished right now, no matter how much you might want it to be over and done with. Sometimes the writing gods just know better than you do.