“Great is the art of beginning, but greater the art of ending.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Endings either affirm or undercut the story. It hardly matters if we loved the book. Endings are winner-take-all. Endings seal the reading experience, sending us on our way with a return on our investment or leaving us feeling cheated. The writer must give his last words as much thought as he gave his first.
If the beginning made readers, the ending should win fans.
If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, my last page first, and then I go back and work towards it. I know where I’m going. I know what my goal is. —Katherine Anne Porter
The last sentence in a piece is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one. —Joan Didion
When I’m beginning a book, I can’t work more than two or three hours a day… Then there’s the middle of a book. I can work eight, nine, twelve hours then, seven days a week—if my children let me; they usually don’t… . An eight-hour day at the typewriter is easy; and two hours of reading over material in the evening, too. That’s routine. Then when the time to finish the book comes, it’s back to those two- and three-hour days. Finishing, like beginning, is more careful work—John Irving
Like falling in love, a good ending ushers the reader into a state of acute awareness. Time is altered, senses are keen, the greater world is nonexistent. The nearer one approaches the end, the weightier words become until, finally, the last few—a single gesture—outweighs everything that has come before. Happy or sad, the ending is delicious. Perfection. The nectar of the gods.
But what makes a good ending? The answer seems as elusive as defining what it means to be in love—people simply know the real deal when they experience it.
Then again, maybe the answer is not so elusive. If you think back to your favorite novels, you’ll find their endings met a golden standard. Indeed, their writers won fans. How? Because their endings did not overlook the essentials.
Great Endings Have Four Common Qualities
Inevitability doesn’t mean the story outcome is expected. It means the foundation paved in every scene leads to it so that the ending is credible, even when readers are surprised. Inevitability is when they finish your novel and can’t imagine another ending working as well as the one you chose.
The surest way to accomplish this is to know the ending before you start your novel. Still, many writers approach their work in an organic fashion, with Point A taking them to Point B, just as it would a reader. They arrive at their landing point by taking one step after another, which usually maintains the story’s unity. Whichever way you choose to work, the revision stage will offer you the chance to ensure that Point A does in fact lead to Point Z. Make use of the opportunity.
Good endings result from choices the protagonist makes. If, for example, your hero, held captive by a psychopath, wins her freedom when the psychopath hits his head and dies, your readers will feel cheated. The hero should choose her own story. Every action and interaction throughout the story should support your character’s final decision.
Stories are about change. The changes might not be entirely good, but it’s disappointing for readers to reach the end of a book only to find the characters and events have remained static. Story is movement—your novel must carry readers along. It must involve someone with a goal, facing conflict, and evolving as he or she battles the obstacles in her path. If in the end your hero or main characters have learned nothing, your story will feel pointless. It doesn’t matter if the final change is as subtle as a shift in perspective or as dramatic as a revolution, so long as you show the journey.
An Emotional Landing Place
Those who have written strong endings knew when to end. They provided their readers with an emotional landing place. Though by no means easy to write, recognizing when a story is complete—not quitting prematurely or out-staying your welcome—is a leap in the right direction.
In The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls tells the story of her dysfunctional family, which ends with a message of redemption. Had she gone on to reiterate wrongs, place blame, or culminate with saccharine platitudes, she, the writer, would have taken stage and exceeded her story. Had she concluded before she found her own emotional landing place, the novel would have ended prematurely.
Remember that plot revolves around inner and outer conflicts. The payoff, then, needs to plumb the depths of both internal and external goals if it’s to satisfy. Construct your ending so that the story’s issues converge at the same time and place. How much better if tandem resolutions come to a head in one sensory moment.
The curtain can fall on a happy couple or an unhappy couple, but it must fall conclusively. Rhett Butler can say that he doesn’t “give a damn” about Scarlett O’Hara’s lot, but the story shouldn’t end until Scarlett declares with signature pluck, “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
Endings done right jolt readers with their fitness and package the novel in such a way that its emotional experience never dissipates. To learn about the choices involved and review the decisions other writers have made, continue to Endings Part II. Ten Ways to End Your Novel →