You might have heard the saying: your first chapter sells your novel, and your last chapter sells your next novel.
Even if you write a captivating beginning and an interesting middle, readers will want to hurl your book across the room and never buy another one of your novels if the ending doesn’t satisfy.
So what does it take to write a satisfying ending?
Let’s back up a little and look at the structure of story endings. Endings consist of two parts:
1) The climax
The climax is the point of highest tension and action. Everything in the novel leads up to this moment when the main characters confront their fears and weaknesses in a final struggle. The detective risks his life to catch the killer. The potential lovers risk their hearts by professing their feelings for each other.
Here are some tips for a writing a climax scene:
- Avoid “Deus Ex Machina” endings: This Latin phrase translates to “god from a machine.” It derives from Greek plays in which a god was lowered onto the stage by a machine to solve the mortals’ problems. For modern readers, this is not a satisfying end. Don’t let your characters be rescued by an outside source or by mere coincidence, e.g., the cavalry charging in to save wagon train at the last minute. The main characters need to resolve their problems on their own.
- The best endings are surprising, but inevitable. The novel’s end should feel like a logical culmination of all the events that came before, even if the reader didn’t see it coming.
- A good ending can be surprising, but shouldn’t come totally out of the blue. You need to foreshadow all the elements of the ending. Leave hints and clues throughout the book. Don’t spring a new element at the reader in the middle of the climax. For example, if you’re writing a crime novel and you’ve set up a dead millionaire’s daughter, the wife, and the butler as suspects, you shouldn’t suddenly reveal in the climax that he also has an illegitimate son who’s the murderer. Watch the movie The Sixth Sense for a well-done surprise ending. The ending makes you see the events in the movie in a different light. All the clues were already there, the audience just didn’t see them for what they are.
- All the elements of the climax should be set up earlier in the novel. Don’t introduce new material or new conflicts in the climax. If your main characters are about to confess their undying love for each other, you shouldn’t have one of them suddenly decide that she can’t start a relationship because she’s about to move to Australia because of a great job offer. If you want to do that, you have to introduce the conflict between love and career earlier in the novel.
- Don’t evade the big confrontation. The main character needs to face that final collision, the showdown with the adversary, so you can’t suddenly find a peaceful compromise.
- Make sure you show the climax in a dramatized scene full of action and emotion. Don’t tell it to the reader; show it with action and dialogue.
- The story’s ending should resolve the conflict and answer the story question. Will the main characters get their happily ever after? Will the detective catch the killer? If you’re not sure how to end your story, your real problem might be that you haven’t developed a clear conflict or story question.
2) The denouement
The denouement wraps up the story and shows what happened to the main characters as a consequence of the climax.
A good denouement should have three characteristics:
- Closure: The ending needs to give the reader a sense of what’s going to happen to the characters after the story ends. What will their lives look like now that they mastered (or failed) the story’s major conflict? Make sure all loose ends are tied up. Keep a list of all the conflicts you have set up and all the questions that needs to be answered before the book ends. Even if you’re planning a sequel, you need to wrap up the major plot points of the book. Readers hate if they have to wait for the second book to find out what happens to the main characters. Give readers the feeling that at least a partial resolution has been reached.
- Dramatization: The final scene should be a scene, not exposition or long contemplations. Show through your characters’ actions and dialogue how the events of the plot have changed them. For example, in the first chapter of Backwards to Oregon, Luke refuses to be called a girl. In the novel’s final scene, you’ll find the following interaction between Luke and her wife Nora:
“Howdy, cowboy,” Nora drawled.
Luke stalked closer. “We don’t raise cows,” she said, pointing at the small herd of Appaloosa horses prancing around in the corral, “and,” she bent down to whisper in Nora’s ear, “I’m not a boy.”
They have a herd of horses, so we can assume that setting up a ranch is going well, and we see that Luke is now much more at ease with who she is.
- Brevity: Keep the denouement brief. If the denouement goes on for too long, it takes the power of the climax away. End the book as close to the climax as possible. Try to tie up subplots earlier so you don’t have so much to explain at the very end.
By the way, a satisfying end doesn’t necessarily mean a happy end, even though some genres set up certain expectations about what kind of ending is acceptable. Romance readers usually expect the main character to end up together. But even then, happy end doesn’t mean the characters have to be deliriously happy and get everything they ever wanted. It’s enough to finish the book in a way that lets readers know that the characters will face the troubles ahead together.
Do you have any other tips for writing satisfying endings? Which books or movies had an ending that worked for you? Please leave a comment.
Beginnings, Middles and Ends by Nancy Kress
Elements of Fiction Writing: Plot by Ansen Dibell