The End. Period.

On November 6, 2010, Marissa wrote, I have a question about endings… I decide if I like a book mostly based on how it ends and how it leaves me feeling, but I can never get that sense of closure in my stories.

Often when I approach the end of a book I’m writing, I want to have a bomb land on everybody. Problem solved.

But not satisfying.

A great story for satisfaction, in my opinion, is an anecdote in my friend Joan Abelove’s young adult novel, Go and Come Back (middle school and up). Joan was an anthropologist in the Peruvian jungle, and her book, which is told from the POV of a young tribal woman, is based on her experiences. Every incident in the book is essentially true.

In this one, Margarita, one of the two anthropologists is sick late one night. The narrator, Alicia, discovers this by hearing voices from their house. She asks what’s wrong and is told by Joanna, the healthy one, that Margarita has been vomiting for hours and nothing in their first aid kit has helped. Alicia asks Joanna if she has sent for Papaisi. Joanna snaps that she hasn’t, so Alicia gets him. He leads the sick woman out to the porch. By then everyone in the village has gathered to watch. Papaisi has his patient lie down. First he blows smoke from his pipe across her stomach. Then he seems to bite something off and immediately throws up over the side of the porch. As soon as he does, everyone in the village sighs with relief. Margarita sits up perfectly fine, cured.

Joanna gives Papaisi a pack of cigarettes to show her gratitude (this was the early 1970’s when smoking was much more prevalent). He accepts but then says that what he really would like is four aspirin.

End of incident. It’s just right. We have high stakes: the sick woman, the whole village as witnesses, the bizarre treatment from a Western perspective, the recovery. We start to wonder what else smoke blown across a belly will cure. Then, boom!, the request for a gift that’s almost a symbol of modern medicine.

That’s the ending with a twist. O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” is a well-known twist story.

Another pleasing shape comes in the circular story. I wrote about this kind in my blog post of July 9th, 2009. A circular tale ends where it began. The Lord of the Rings, for example, starts in the calm, peaceful Shire and ends there, but Frodo will never be the same. Two of my books are circular: The Wish and Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg. Of course, a circular ending may not be any easier to achieve than a more linear one. We still have to figure out how to return to that point of origin.

Often the key to the ending lies in the story problem. In The Lord of the Rings again, the issue is danger to Middle Earth. By returning to the Shire, Tolkien demonstrates that order has been restored.

In Ella Enchanted, which isn’t circular, the problem is the curse of obedience, and the ending has to resolve it. Either Ella will be cursed for the rest of her life or she’ll escape for the rest of her life. In my Dave at Night, as another example, the problem is finding a home. Dave lives at an orphanage, which doesn’t feel like one. By the end he has to be where he believes he should be – or know that he will be rootless at least until he grows up.

Figuring out your ending may take some thinking about the problem at the heart of your story. We can get too involved in the showing and the telling to ponder what it’s all about. I had that difficulty with Dave at Night and figured it out at a book signing for Ella Enchanted. Nobody came, and I sat there at a little desk in the book store and thought about Dave. By the time I gave up hoping for customers, I had my ending worked out.

Once you know the problem, reaching the solution may still be hard. In the case of Ella, I couldn’t work out how she could break the curse. At first I thought she could do it through rebellion against the tyranny of Hattie, but that wasn’t strong enough. You’d think it would have been clear right away that her love for Char was the crux of it, but I took a long time to get there.

Delaying the solution can keep a story going through a series of books. If Tolkien had gotten the ring to Mordor in The Fellowship of the Ring, that would have been it.

Sometimes I know my ending from the beginning, and I write toward it, but provisionally, knowing that my conception may change. Or, more often, I foresee the ending in a general way, but no specifics. In The Wish, for example, I knew that Wilma’s wish had to end, and the reader understands this too by the middle of the book, but I wasn’t sure what shape Wilma would be in after it ended. This isn’t bad, just having a general notion. Security and insecurity mixed together are good for writing, I think.

When I follow a traditional fairy tale, I have the fairy tale ending glimmering ahead of me. What I have to figure out is how to get there. Marissa, and others who have trouble with endings, you might try expanding a common story, which doesn’t have to be a fairy tale. Could be a myth, a religious story, a family anecdote that has a satisfying shape and a settled ending. Consider this a prompt.

In Go and Come Back, Joan uses the simplest of devices to end the book. The anthropologists are in the village for a year, and the entire story revolves around their time there. When the year ends so does the book. There is no bang, but no whimper either. Much has happened, and Alicia, the narrator, has changed. What makes the reader really happy, though, is that she’s left a deep impression on the visitors. They’ll never be the same.

Any time period will work for this technique – last year of high school, a summer, an internship, whatever. Naturally, you need to create action during the time you’ve allotted yourself, and characters have to evolve, but you don’t have to invent a climax of high drama for the reader to feel closure.

I’ve used an epilogue in several books to tie things up and make the whole feel complete. As a child I liked epilogues, because I wanted to know what became of this character and that. If I loved the book, an epilogue never told enough. I wanted to follow the characters into the sunset and watch their happy futures unfold –  which would have been boring.

But prompts aren’t boring. Here’s one. You may know the story, “The Lady and the Tiger.” If you don’t, it’s basically this: A princess, whose nature is jealous, falls in love with a man below her station. The king finds out and arranges a punishment for him. The man is thrown into an arena with two doors. Behind one is a beautiful maiden and behind the other a tiger. If he picks the maiden door, he lives, but he has to marry her. If he chooses the tiger door, he gets eaten. In the arena he looks to the princess, who knows what’s behind each door, for a signal. She has to decide whether to endure his marriage to someone else or condemn him to death. The story has no ending; the reader is asked to decide what the princess will do. So the prompt is to write the ending.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Endings are tough! I tend to meander around and never really say `the end'. Thanks for this post. I'll have to put some of these ideas into practice -especially figuring out what the real problem is so the end can solve it!

  2. I'm sorry nobody came to your book signing, but I'm glad it gave you the opportunity to finish Dave at Night! That is a good book.

    If you ever have a book signing in the Kansas City area I will most definitely come.

  3. Hello! I've been lurking in the shadows reading this blog for a long time and finally decided to comment.

    When I'm trying to finish a book, I have two key questions I keep in mind.
    1. Is the character's change (since I want a dynamic character) clear to the reader?
    2. Is the conflict resolved in a logical way?
    If I can answer "yes" to both of these questions, then I'm pretty sure I'm finished.

    Also, I read once that, after you write your beginning, you should read to where the action starts and cut everything before it. I think sometimes that is true for the end too. Read to where the action stops and cut everything after. That way I can make sure, like Gail said, that I'm not following the characters into the sunset.

    Thanks for the great post and prompt!

  4. It is always fun to hear the story behind the story! And it's interesting how an ending picked (like Ella breaking the curse because of something bigger than herself) can be so right that it seems obvious and as a reader you couldn't imagine that the writer struggled.

    Twist endings strike me as the most difficult. And as I kid I loved prologues too.

  5. I can't believe no one came to your book signing! I went to one and was so happy at meeting you! Endings are defiantly the hardest. The adventure is finally ending, and the hungry reader longs to know how the characters will benefit from the journey.

    How would you end the Lady and the Tiger?

  6. The ultimate twist ending for me was in Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins. The problem with most twist endings is that they aren't as satisfying as those that have been led up to and foreshadowed- or the author takes a twist that you didn't want. That's why I liked the ending to that particular book- it was surprising, but the book ended in a satisfying way.
    Great post!

  7. Ah endings…
    I adore circular endings, especially the one in "The Lord of the Rings". Most everything I write has a circular ending if I can make it work out that way. I don't know, I just love them, they leave me so satisfied.
    @ Maddie, I agree with the ending to Gregor, that was a really great ending (a whole great book, actually.)
    I love books that go out with a "bang" especially in series. If anyone has read "The Lost Hero" by Rick Riordan, my heart nearly stopped when I read the final line!
    @ Ms. Levine, I loved the ending to "The Two Princesses of Bamarre" it was sad, but it was a good sad-bittersweet- I guess. It was one of the most satisfying book endings I have ever read.
    I absoluetly love the story of "The Lady and the Tiger". So mysterious, and cliff-hanger(ish) and awesome. We read it in my English class this year and we had to infer about the ending, personally I think the princess led her lover to his death. Kind of morbid, but I've just always thought that…
    Thanks for the post, Ms. Levine! 🙂

  8. @ Grace – I agree with you about "The Lady and the Tiger." From the thoughts of the princess that we "overheard" in the narrative, I think she would have chosen the selfish course and directed him towards the tiger. She might, of course, have been overruled by her better nature…
    Or, of course, the lover might have realized by this time that the princess was very selfish, and so chose the opposite door from where she pointed him.
    On the other hand – oh dear – he might have only _thought_ she would act selfishly when in reality she _didn't_…
    Nuts. Maybe the writer really was smartest in leaving the ending hanging. 😉

  9. It's strange but I haven't ever really given any thought on how something should end because I have so many problems with staying with what I write. I really like circular endings the best. It gives a sense of closure, that no matter how crazy things were, and how much people change, there are things that remain the same.

    About the ending of the lady and tiger. . . I quite liked the ending. It isn't really a story, but a question on the limits of love and if their are limits and if love is truly capable of conquering everything and make us better than we were before. People who believe that princess chose the lady, believe that even a selfish person can care and love someone else so much, she'll think of his happiness first, even at the expense of her own suffering. People who believe that the princess chose the tiger, either believe that the princess cant overcome her nature or that her love made her so jealous and possessive of her lover that she was unable to let him go.

    When I read the story, I always believed that the princess chose the tiger. And that the guy knew that she would chose the tiger, but that he too would rather die than marry someone else. But now that I read Rose's comment, I'm not sure. It can be so many things. It will be a fun story to try doing definitely. I might end up writing this, but I'll want to read the story first, so i can match the author's style. So that when you read it, it reads like a continuation of the original.

    Great Post!

  10. I guess I'm an optimist. I think the princess cared about him enough to choose the lady. Bluewikii, I love what you said about the story being a question about the limits of love.

  11. I've never really thought much about circular endings, but now that you all mentioned it, I both see where I've read them and the good qualities of the message it gives. It's definitely something to play with. Often, my story's ending will evolve over the course of writing, so it's the beginnings that need the most help, but an ending is powerful, too. Thank you for this post.

    Hmm . . . I'm not sure which way I think it ended. I've never actually read the piece, so I don't really know which one seems more likely. I'd have to say that because the princess was jealous, she probably picked the tiger. However, I would have to say that my initial reaction was 'Of course she picked the lady!' To me, that seems like the more human thing to do. But perhaps really the more human thing to do is to pick the tiger, because it's hard to accept that you can't have something you want. But I agree with Bluekiwii, too, after reading what Rose wrote, I'm not so sure. And I agree with Chicory, I love that thought about the story being a question about the limits of love, too. It's definitely a question, and the fact that it has no ending leaves it as a question for the reader to ask herself, what do these things really mean? How could it end, and why?

    @Grace – I know what you mean about the Lost Hero – not only did it go out with a bang, but it left both a lot of questions and a lot of answers. That's why I both love and hate series . . . especially when you have to wait for the next installment! 🙂

  12. I found that the author did end up writing a continuation… Kind of ruins it. I began writing it and it made me feel so bad. I tried to put myself in her shoes and realized how hard it would be. On the outside looking in you want to tell her if she loves him she would show him the lady but it really would be so hard. Still, I trust this character, although I did not actually read the story, to choose the lady just because I doubt anyone could really live with the thought of killing someone who you truly loved(especially since it takes two to tango).

  13. Grace- I for one hate "leave you hanging" endings, unless it is the end of a series, oddly enough. If it's the end of a series, you don't have to sit impatiently counting down the days until you can get your hands on a copy of the next book. (which, in some cases, can take quite a long time!) Your imagination can take over, and I'm more content that way. The only time I can think of this happening was in the Incredibles (movie), for which, thankfully, Disney did not make a sequal. I was a lot happier with a "cliffhanger" ending than I would have been with whatever sequal they managed to come up with.
    but that's just me. 😀 and I, for one, cannot wait to get the next book in the Lost Hero (heroes of olympus) series. So that's cliffhanger endings for you.

    About the girl and the tiger story… I think the princess would choose the girl door, because she loves the man enough to let him be happy with someone else without being petty about who he's marrying.

  14. It would be interesting to write the lady and the tiger story with multiple endings, actually. It would make an interesting exercise. But I think the story is probably best left hanging, actually.

    Speaking of cliffhanger endings, I've always hated when a chapter in a book ends with a cliffhanger, because when you stop reading, you're left wondeing what happens next. I think more often than not, I end up putting down a book in the middle of a chapter because it's so hard to put it down at the end! But when I write, I love leaving things hanging. Not only is it such fun to do, but it leaves you as the writer something to think about, so when you come back torpid story after a break, you have some super cool ideas to work with.

  15. By the way, I have a question . . . in my most recent story, there are three MCs. It's kind of turning out that one of the characters in my story is a villain to one of the MCs, and that's what her story is about, but to another MC, the same character is the person who solves the problems and becomes a sort of good guy. How can I write this and make it seem realistic? I honestly didn't mean for it to get quite this complicated, but it just kind of happened. Any advice?

  16. The princess chooses neither. She lets the man choose. If he can't make his own choice, then he shouldn't be helped. I know it sounds harsh, but it's true. I mean, if you can't choose between two doors, how can you choose anything else. And even if she did tell him which door to choose, her heart would be broken either way. It's a paradox. Granted, I love paradoxes, but they can be frustrating. I mean, it's like everything leads to the same ending.

  17. @Jenna Royal
    Do all of the MCs know eachother? If so, then maybe you could have it that the two that have the third MC as either an enemy or a friend are friends. Then this 3rd person comes along, and they get into fights about it.

  18. @Jenny Royal

    So from what I understand, one of your main characters act as a villain to one character and at the same time are pretty decent and help out another character.

    This actually reminds me of a villain I mentioned before, Yubaba. She is a witch who has turned countless of human beings into pigs and overall seems very selfish and greedy. At the same time, she is kind and loving to her infant son.

    What this example shows is that people act differently to different people. Sometimes we meet people we cant stand. Have the character act villain-like to people they cant stand or who are getting in the way of something they want. Have the character help the character she likes and admires (maybe even love?)

    Remember that villains sometimes don't have be evil. They can antagonists–just have to get in the way of the main character. The antagonists are people who present an obstacle to the main character.

    Hey do you want to know the universal plot that is in every story?

    1. Character wants something.
    2. Character hit obstacles to get what they want.
    3. Character overcomes or doesn't overcome obstacles.

    Every character in the story has their own plot. Even if the writer decides not to focus on them in the story. So then, the question becomes, what does the villain want to accomplish during the course of the story? What type of person are they?

  19. Thank you very much for your advice – it was really helpful. I'm looking forward to the challenge, if I can figure out how to get it right. The thoughts about the MCs nature are really helpful. I'll play around with it and see what I can do.

    About the plot itself – sorry if I wasn't clear. The character I was talking about wasn't actually one of the MCs – he's one of the MCs father and another's employer. He's kind of a villain to them both, but his son's relationship is more complicated than just hating him. He's a role model for his son, too, both somebody that his son hates and loves, if you know what I mean. It's tricky to figure out, but what you said about the 'villain' having thoughts and feelings and goals too should help flesh him out.

  20. Ugh! For me endings need inspiration. That means rain.(strange, I know, but I find rain comforting.) Unfortunately, it probably won't rain anytime soon up here. It was a high of -9 Celsius today. Sad. Anyways, I was wondering if anyone had a way that they get through an ending, that they wouldn't mind telling me? I feel nosy, but I really need some help.
    @ Ms.Levine: I have always loved your books. There's one thing I'm wondering about, though. Why did you decide to become a writer?

  21. @Mysterygirl

    To find an ending, I mull the last scene I've imagined (usually the scene in which I'm stuck) over and over in my head until I get a breakthrough. Then I can start writing again.

    I just did this today, in fact. I had a story where the lovers couldn't be together. I just couldn't think of a way for them to overcome the odds. It's been a few months, off and on, of thinking through the story (particularly that scene in which they realize nothing can be done), but today I finally figured out a realistic way that they can be together.


  22. Mrs. Levine,
    Once I get a idea, I have trouble narrowing it down and making notes, if not a plan about it. I defiantly need some sort of plan, because otherwise I get too lost. And also, once you have a plan how do you get it on to paper? I find this part especially hard. I have 'the dreaded first page' syndrome and the second and third and fourth. In fact, up until I am about half way through my 2nd chapter do I stop deleting almost everything I write and starting again. But, as this can take me longer than I month, I loose interest and abandon the story. Anybody who has ANY help would be very, very appreciated.

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