The Beginning in the Ending

On January 17, 2021, Some girl wrote, I love writing beginnings, and middles are fine, but endings always stump me. I can’t write endings that are a good end to the story.

My editors say they are extremely anticlimactic and aren’t a good fit to the rest of the story. Endings are the main reason I abandon stories. I once rewrote the ending four times and every time it felt awkward, abrupt, and anticlimactic. Anyone have any advice?

Several of us weighed in.

Melissa Mead: I have the same problem! Sometimes I try to link the ending to something in the beginning. And I try to focus on the heart of the story- Did the MC get what they wanted? Learn something? Change in some other way?

If it’s not too tacky to use my own stuff as an example, here’s one that I think works fairly well. It starts with “It was a nightmare come to life,” and “Gallop…gallop…gallop…,” and it sort of ends that way too, but something’s changed.

Me (now): This is lots of fun and the ending works beautifully.

Back then, I asked Some Girl for clarification.

Some girl: The stories I write feel like they were building up to something bigger than what I wrote down, but I can’t really tell what the story was building up to.

Sometimes I decide on the ending that fits before I write the book, but that doesn’t work either because as the stories move around, the ending I originally thought would work won’t anymore, and I don’t want to try to mold my story to fit the ending.

Melissa Mead: I agree with not molding the story to fit the ending. Maybe ask someone to read the story, then ask them “Was there anything you still wanted to know after you read the ending?”

SluggishWriter: I’m still working on this myself, but I find that the most satisfying endings for me are when you can directly tie it back to something in the beginning. For example, a character asks a question or makes a joke early on, then references back to that and provides an answer or some insight at the end of the story. I’ve heard of this being called “brackets,” too – as if you’ve enclosed your story by having one thing at the beginning, then closing it up at the end. And you can layer multiples of these within a story.

Christie V Powell: The climax is the main show-down with your antagonistic force. What has your character been fighting against the whole time? Then think of ways you can make it even more exciting. Make sure that antagonistic force, who or whatever it is, puts up a good fight.

You’ll also want to look at the major events of the story so far. What could they lead up to? Ideally, all of the conflicts lead up to this one moment. Remember in Ella Enchanted, when Ella is struggling with her curse at the very end? Her mind goes back over many of the major events of the story, showing how all of them have impacted the main conflict (Ella vs. her curse).

Story structure helps me get a better idea of what the climax should be, since it helps me define the important moments that lead up to it. I use a variation of the 3-Act formula, and I find that it helps me get the bones of the story down, so that my creative mind is free to work on details.

Since you can’t click on links, here’s a quick overview:

Act 1.A: characteristic moment(s), high action, inciting incident

Act 1.B: normal world, first plot point (“point of no return”)

Act 2.A: enter the new world, first pinch point (learn about the antagonist)

Act 2.B: reactions, midpoint (the main character learns a major Truth about the world)

Act 2.C: start acting with purpose, second pinch point (involve the antagonist, reminder of what’s at stake)

Act 2.D: act with purpose, often includes a “false victory,” followed by the second pinch point (low point of the story)

Act 3.A: finish off loose ends, prepare for climax. Trigger (climax set off)

Act 3.B: Climax with the antagonist, then resolution where the story and character’s beginning and end are compared.

Great thoughts!

Before the four years it took me to finish my second murder mystery for kids, Stolen Magic, I believed that writing itself was magical, and pantsing would always guide me to my ending, but I got so lost on that book that I realized I had to be more intentional in the future. If I had been, I might have achieved some of the story I was hoping to tell. I’m still sad that I couldn’t write that tale, which grows more alluring and more regretted as time goes by. (I like what I finally came up with, but that original idea is the one that got away.)

These days, I won’t start writing until I know the ending. Since I’m still mostly a pantser, I don’t usually see it in detail, but I have the general result in mind. Let’s use the fairy tale “Aladdin,” as an example.

Most important to me always is plot, but character is a close second. Briefly, Aladdin is criticized at the beginning for being lazy. But is he? I don’t know. He’s flattered into helping a man who poses as his uncle but is really an evil magician who promises to make his fortune. The magician takes Aladdin to a remote spot, where he gives him a ring and sends him underground to fetch a particular lamp. When Aladdin doesn’t hand him the lamp before emerging, the magician kicks him off the ladder and plunges him in darkness. Moving along, Aladdin discovers the genie in the ring and the one in the lamp and uses their magic to win the sultan’s daughter for his wife. But the magician returns and disguises himself as a merchant, exchanging, oddly, old lamps for new. Unknowing, the sultan’s daughter is transported in her palace to the magician’s distant home. With only the weaker ring genie to help him, Aladdin can’t just magically get her back. The genie can poof him to the palace, but he has to do the rest, using a poisonous powder that he just happens to have and the help of his wife. There’s a second part that follows involving the now dead magician’s younger brother, also a magician, but most modern versions leave that part off—sensibly, I think.

There’s a happy ending, but it’s unsatisfying because the genies do all the heavy lifting, and the actions of Aladdin, the sultan’s daughter, and even the magician are unmotivated. Is Aladdin really lazy? If yes, why? Aside from her rank, why does he want to marry the sultan’s daughter (whom he’s never met)? After they’re married, why doesn’t he tell her the truth about the lamp so that she’ll be careful with it? What’s their relationship like? What does she think about him? Why does the magician kidnap her? What else does he want the lamp for? Why did he kick Aladdin back underground when he could have been a little patient and gotten what he wanted? Why do the genies obey people?

Most of all, what is the key problem of the story? Because a satisfying ending has to respond to the problem. The ending’s seeds start sprouting as soon as we write or type our first page or chapter.

If the problem is Aladdin’s laziness, then maybe we have a coming-of-age story, and we have to show how Aladdin develops and regresses and eventually (for our ending) acts emphatically to fulfill his potential as a future sultan. If I understand Christie V Powell’s method, the Lie might be that Aladdin is well served by being lazy (and we can give him a backstory that explains this), and the Truth is that he can be truly himself only when he becomes the prime actor in his life.

If this is a love story and the problem is Aladdin and the sultan’s daughter coming to love each other, then we are heading for a different ending. In this one, conceivably, rather than vanquishing the evil magician, they escape with their lives and run off together, no longer needing the trappings of wealth and title.

If the problem is overcoming the evil magician, who has bigger plans than making off with a young lady, we’ll emphasize other aspects of the story.

Or we can tell the story of the ring or lamp genie. Or of the sultan, who lets his daughter marry a man purely because he’s rich. Or of Aladdin’s younger sister, who isn’t mentioned in the fairy tale, but she can exist. What might her problem be?

For each one, we design our characters to make the ending both difficult and achievable. And we create plot moments that challenge our MCs on the way to the ending we have in mind, which, if we’re pantsers, may unfold in ways that surprise us.

Here are three prompts:

  • Decide what Aladdin’s younger sister’ problem is and how, in broad strokes, it can be resolved. Write the story.
  • As a sequel to Peter Pan, write the story of Wendy’s youngest brother Michael after the return from Neverland. Decide what his problem is and how it may be resolved.
  • After the death of its king, Altava is plunged into civil war for the throne. Contending are the old king’s niece and the regent of a neighboring kingdom. Write two versions of the story and make one a tragedy and one a romcom.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. I usually think about what the character needs. Not necessarily the thing they’ve been chasing after the whole story, but the ending that is really right for the character and fully develops them into who they need to be. For instance, in one of my fantasy stories, the MC spends the whole story trying to end a war between her people. Eventually, she dies — which seems sad, but ends up perfect for her, because she is reincarnated (for lack of a better word) as a guardian spirit of her land, and she can continue to protect them, which is the thing that brings her the most joy. After her death, the other two MCs manage to end the war, so everyone has a good ending. There’s some sadness in it, yes, but everyone ends up where they need to be, and they grow and become better people because of it.

  2. authorlikeHIM says:

    Hello! I often write stories using the Three Act Story Structure (Abbie Emmons on YouTube has many good videos on it). In this story structure, the character starts the story with disbelief about the world and something that they believe will bring them happiness. Through the course of the story, they learn how wrong they are, and in the end, as Melissa Mead mentioned, they gain happiness but not in the way they were expecting. They learn the truth and it changes their life, they realize the happiness they wanted wouldn’t be happiness at all. The ending is about the character changing, coming to a new conclusion, and learning the truth. Hopefully, that makes sense, I’m not the best at explaining it. 🙂

  3. My recommendation for endings, borrowed from the chapter in Writing Magic about beginnings, is to pay attention to the ending of every book you read. How does it make you feel? Is it a good ending? Why/why not? Being able to express what makes a good ending is really helpful, and after a while, you’ll start getting a feel for it. The visceral reaction to writing a perfect ending is one of my favorite things about being a writer. But that’s not to say there’s something wrong with mediocre endings. A completed story with an average ending is better than an uncompleted story waiting for the perfect ending. Finding the perfect ending is a matter of either extreme luck or a lot of editing, and sometimes both.

  4. How do ya’ll keep from over-polishing? Like I try to write first drafts, but I can’t, I just can’t. I see whatever’s wrong and try and fix it and get stuck on the first three pages. I have to write as well as I can and fix mistakes. How do you write first drafts?

    • I just type as fast as I can without making too many mistakes. I try not to look back, although occasionally I do. When I do, I wind up over polishing.
      Also, in Writer to Writer, by Gail Carson Levine, she suggests rewriting criticism and rewrites under your text you don’t like, but move on after five rewrites.

    • I usually write my rough drafts either during NaNoWriMo or using that style. You’re not allowed to fix things, at all. Instead, I go back to the spot I want to fix and make a note about what needs to change. Then I move on. Some chapters are more notes than actual story, but at the end, I have something I can work with.

    • Like what Christie said, NaNoWriMo is my answer. A deadline (like having only a month to write my first draft) will keep me writing feverishly and not have the time to look back over it much until the first draft is done. So if you don’t want to wait for November, then you could also just set yourself a deadline.

  5. Last post I mentioned that a story I wrote was in the top ten in a statewide writing contest. Well, I just found out that I won my age group! There were almost 1200 entries and 553 in my category. I still can’t really believe it.

  6. CVP, Melissa's friend says:

    Hey, everyone, Melissa Mead is a frequent contributor to this blog. She’s facing some serious health challenges and could use some prayers or good thoughts or whatever you do.

  7. Gail Carson Levine says:

    Sad news for all of us: Melissa Mead passed away last night, as I read from family and friends on her Facebook page. Her voice here was always cheerful, kind, encouraging, and helpful. I’m going to miss her a lot.

  8. Hi Gail,
    I’m working on a western about a young outlaw who is injured in a storm and spends the winter on a ranch with a bunch of young cowboys. In the spring, he helps lead a raid on the outlaws. I have the beginning and the ending figured, but I’m struggling with the middle. How do I write about the winter without it getting boring?

    • If it’s about the outlaw’s conversion to the right side of the law or something like that, it could be about his indecision between the two sides. There are lots of great things that can come out of that!

    • What’s the antagonist up to? The middle is a good place to have a couple of encounters with the antagonist or its forces. It’s also a good place for character development. It sounds like your outlaw has a change of heart in order to turn on his fellow outlaws, so you’ll probably want to focus on building the relationship between him and the cowboys. So in the first half, he might be more distrustful, then in the middle he realizes that something needs to change, and in the second half he’s making strides toward being a new person.

  9. Hello,

    I am a graduate student at Simmons University in Children’s Literature. This semester, in History of Children’s Book Publishing, I am doing a course-long study of Ella Enchanted. I loved the book so much growing up that I still have entire sections effectively memorized (I used to recite it to myself when I was trapped somewhere boring).

    I am trying to piece together the publication story for the first project, and I was hoping you could help me fill in some of the gaps that are emerging.

    If you are willing to answer some of my questions about the editing and publication process, especially in that first year, please email me at the address linked. I would greatly appreciate hearing from you.

    If you do reach out, let me know if you’d like to see a copy of the embroidered book cover for Ella Enchanted that a dear friend made for me several years ago.

    Thank you for your time.


  10. Brambles and Bees says:

    I am struggling through the first chapter of a story I am currently (and very slowly) working on. I feel like it’s bland and downright boring. I rewrote it once because I had almost no interesting bits in it. The reason I feel that it is so dull is that I struggle with dialogue. I feel like it should be easy, put two characters in the same room and make them have a conversation, but I can’t seem to find a natural way to do so. I also haven’t introduced that many characters who get close to the MC (he is very quiet) so I’m not quite sure how to add dialogue.

    • Ooh, dialogue. I struggle with that so much, and honestly, I think it’s one of the hardest things to do as a writer. Thankfully for me, I have a list.

      Speech mannerisms are real helpful. For sample, your MC may stutter, or speak softly. Someone else may use big words to impress people, like Charles Chiltington in the Lemoncello books. Some may joke and use wordplay as often as they can.

      Then you said your MC is shy. Great! Shyness is a great dialogue shaper. Add in your MC’s thoughts about this conversation. Is he wishing the person would go away, and is being very cursory as a result? Does he know this conversation is important and is terrified with every word he speaks? Does he think of all the other people in his life who would talk so much better, and compare himself? So many options!

      And how do they speak? Maybe your MC is thrown into a camp with people from all over the world. One may be a princess who measures every word carefully before speaking it. One may fling her words about recklessly. One may drawl everything as though the words bore her insufferably. One may laugh every other word, or cough. Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter coats her words with too-sugary syrup, and coughs delicately whenever she wishes to interrupt, usually with unkind words or insults, again disguised with syrup. She and another teacher push one another’s buttons, until one of them explodes.

      What are their outlooks on the world? If someone sees everyone against her, she’s going to be scared, and that will come out in their words. Luna Lovegood (again from Harry Potter) is unflappable, and she says weird and obviously fanciful things with absolute belief in them, becoming annoyed when they are threatened. She tells the truth even when it’s very uncomfortable, and drops several hints about herself in dialogue, like her longing for friends and her loneliness, her love for her father, her slight craziness that only makes her more lovable, and her loyalty for anything she believes in.

      And accents! One character may have a thick Southern accent, saying ‘ah’ for ‘r’ and drawling out the words dripping with honey. You get to decide weather it’s too sugary, or bored, or kind and motherly, depending on your character. Two characters may have the same accent and speak totally differently. And I could go on and on and on but I can’t write about this forever and I’ve got to wrap up, so bye and hope this crazily long post helps!

  11. Hey! So, this has absolutely nothing to do with the topic, just a cry for help, if you will. I recently finished my first Free-Style poem. There’s little order to it, just stanzas arranged somewhat poetically. I sort of love the wild unrhyming freedom it gives me, but the thing is, I’m having trouble with the backstory. It goes from a long description of the battle to suddenly a Phoenix rising from the ashes. I know the Phoenix needs more description, but one of my readers wondered why there’s no description as to where we are in the story currently. The poem starts during the aftermath of a battle and leads into a Phoenix rising from the ashes of the war. I meant for this to be kind of symbolic, and I don’t want to change it all because of one reader. And this particular friend really likes to know things, not just make up the rest of the story for herself. So, I guess the real question is… Do I need to add more reason and background to the story/poem? Or do I just let the readers use their imaginations? And if I do add more background details, how should I do it?? Any help is greatly appreciated <3!

    • There are very few rules in poetry. But maybe the Phoenix could get two stanzas, not to brief or too long but describing it and hinting at the symbolism and depth behind it? Something like this.

      Battle hush and war cry stilled
      All eyes turned
      Towards a flash of flame and gold.
      A Phoenix rising towards the sky

      Help of warriors,
      Circle of time
      Flame of courage
      Bird of battle
      Phoenix of light.

      Something like that, but it is your poem. You decide what works, what you want in it. Sorry if it’s not super helpful, but poetry is so personal, it’s hard to tell someone else how to write it.

    • I would say go with your instincts. Do you really want to change it? Is it bugging you enough that you feel the need to make it clearer, or do you like it the way it is? Personally, I like a little room for imagination in poetry. It just depends on the reader, and not every reader will like your poem. So, I would say to just go with what feels right to you and what you really want.

  12. I do like it the way it is. I don’t think I do want to change it, I just don’t know if it would be appreciated more if I include a bit more clarity. Although honestly, I like the feeling of mystery I get when poetry isn’t chock-full of explanation. And Evelyn, I’m not sure I could do that, seeing as my poem is 11 stanzas long, and I’m thinking of adding more. But thank you! I can’t wait to get back to work on it!

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