On February 18, 2017, Angie wrote, I recently completed my second manuscript, and am deep into the revision stage. Something I’ve struggled with in both of my novels is writing a final, satisfactory ending. Once my characters’ stories are resolved and every plot point is checked off, I have serious trouble working up an appropriate send-off. I’m just done. I’ve received feedback that the ending in my current manuscript feels abrupt, and am struggling to rectify that problem in subsequent drafts. I’d love some help working through this end-of-the-road roadblock!
First off, congratulations on finishing not one but two manuscripts!
When I was taking writing classes and in the learning stages of becoming a kids’ book writer, the advice I heard most often from teachers about endings was, When you’re done, get out. So it’s possible that the criticism Angie received was just one person’s opinion and the ending is fine.
But let’s assume, for the sake of having a post, that the critiquer is right. What to do?
If every plot point has been checked off, have they all become equal? If yes, that evenness may give our ending a flat feeling. To break it up, we can think about which conflict is at the heart of our story. Fundamentally, what’s our story about? That conflict, the one the story turns on, should stand out in our ending, and we can look for ways to amplify it, perhaps make it come last.
Along the same lines, have we made our plot points’ success–or failure–hard won enough? If the solutions are too easy, the ending again, can feel flat or abrupt. In revision, we can go in and beef up our MC’s struggle. We can give our villains or our opposing forces more power, a few more weapons in their arsenal.
An ending doesn’t have to be unpredictable. As I’ve said here many times, when we’re working from a popular story, a fairy tale or a myth, the end is known. And even if we’re not, most stories follow arcs that readers are used to. The interest lies in how we get to the end of the rainbow. We can surprise the reader and make the ending more satisfying by throwing in lots of monkey wrenches–twists that aren’t predictable–along the way.
We can think about what feeling we want the reader to be left with. In a tragedy, for example, we want hankies to come out. Have we made our readers care enough about our MC to weep for her? Have we shown why her losses are devastating? (If I know someone has to die in a story, I usually make that character–like Ella’s mother, like Dave’s father in Dave at Night–super lovable.)
In an adventure story, we probably want a feeling of satisfaction. Our heroine has accomplished what she set out to do, with great difficulty, probably at some cost, and she’s grown along the way. We have to make sure those things have happened.
In a happy love story, we want rejoicing. Our MCs have been foolish; they’ve made mistakes; they’ve misunderstood themselves and each other. But finally, the blinders have come off their eyes. They’re together at last. We have to deliver on all the mishaps along the way to make the ending feel earned.
What else makes a satisfying ending?
My mind travels to the TV mystery series Bones (high school, possibly middle school, though I’m not sure). The series, which wrapped up recently, was episodic, meaning that, mostly, each mystery got solved in the episode in which it was introduced. In later seasons, when the mystery was solved and the murderer dealt with, the final scene almost always took place in the home of Temperance Brennan (Bones) and her husband, Seeley Booth. Chit-chat happens; often a minor spat between Brennan and Booth is charmingly resolved. The audience feels settled.
We can do something similar. After the blood has been mopped up and the main conflict resolved, we can end with a smaller scene that gives the reader time to collect himself. If we like we can use an epilogue, as I’ve done more than once, to hint at the uneventful futures of our characters.
I’d call that an order-is-restored ending. Shakespeare used this kind of ending in his tragedies, as I was taught in high school. The problem of a play, like Hamlet, is so grave that the balance of the universe is disturbed. Storms result. A ghost walks the earth. Madness afflicts Ophelia. But at the end, following the death of Queen Gertrude and King Claudius, the stage littered with bodies, good governance can resume, and all will be well.
There’s also the circular story, which I devoted a post to years ago. The circular story ends where it began, and that return provides the sense of completeness. Lord of the Ring and The Wizard of Oz are examples of stories that begin and end in the same location.
Not every book ends neatly. Take Gone With the Wind–or my understanding of it. Rhett Butler says his famous line and decamps. He understands himself better than he had before, and we readers understand Scarlet, but she doesn’t understand herself, which we realize is her fate. We know that her future life will be full of events and turmoil, whatever they may be. (I haven’t read the sequel, so I don’t know what the modern writer has dished out for her.) Still, despite the lingering possibilities, Margaret Mitchell’s ending works, I think because of the way the characters become resolved.
And there’s “The Lady and the Tiger,” which I’ve talked about before here and which is a short story rather than a novel. Look it up if you don’t know it, because it ends with a question mark, and the reader has to decide what happens. I’m not sure if this would be satisfying in a novel, but it’s great in this particular short story. The story raises a big question and then asks the reader for an answer, and the answer is more revelatory of the reader’s character than of anyone in the story itself.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Rewrite the unsatisfying ending of a book that frustrated you. Make it work!
∙ This is an old and silly joke that I may have told before here: A congregation’s rabbi is dying. His most important congregants gather around his deathbed to hear his final words of wisdom, which are “The world is a barrel.” His listeners are shocked. What are they to make of this? They beg him to explain. He lifts his veined eyelids. His watery eyes go from face to face. His chest heaves. His wheezes sound painful. Finally, he gasps out, “So it isn’t a barrel”–and dies.
Make the barrel world be true for at least the youngest person around the bed. Write an adventure in this barrel world and bring it to a satisfying ending, which can be the same or different from the ending in the joke.
∙ Pick a moment in history–an assassination, the fall of Rome, an election, the purchase of Manhattan from its original inhabitants, whatever. Go into it in detail, peopling it with real or imagined characters. Ignore the historical outcome and follow the characters to an ending that flows from their conflicting wishes.
Have fun, and save what you write!