So what is so hard about endings?
I’ve just written the last word on my first draft of a Work in Progress and have employed all the brain strain I can muster to get it right. There's no easy answer. The ending is what the reader walks away with – the resonance of the entire story. Wrap up the novel well – deepen the reading experience – and you’ll knock your readers out! But how?
Opening lines grab attention but it’s that final sentence that leaves the reader with a lasting impression. I flipped through a few last sentences of recent novels and found brilliant ending sentences harder to find than brilliant opening sentences. Maybe this sums it up. Most authors struggle.
What is it about endings? At its simplest there are only three options.
- Positive ending. Protagonist gets what he wants.
- Negative ending. Protagonist doesn’t get what he wants.
- Ambiguous ending. We don’t know if the protagonist will get what he wants.
Slight twists can turn each option into something more complex. In the positive ending the protagonist may get what he wants, but with a negative result i.o.w. at moral cost. In the negative ending he might have to give up what he wants, but gains by doing what’s right. This is often used in a ‘battle’ ending. At the end of my Egyptian novel Eye of the Moon, my hero had to give up what he’d hoped for throughout the novel… to regain the crown of Egypt… because the battle was at too great a cost. Too many lives were being lost. Not to give the protagonist his goal, is a risk for an author because readers want success but sacrifice can also be very powerful.
The ambiguous ending is sometimes the only choice. But don’t think of it as being weak. Sometimes it just ‘feels’ right and its power lies in it being able to generate discussion. What now? A good example of a powerful ambiguous ending is The Road. I won’t do the spoiler thing here.
What worked for me this time around (I’m a non plotter) – somewhere in the middle of writing the first draft I brainstormed all possible endings, however feasible or silly. Then with a list in hand I reduced them to the three strongest possibilities. And finally I found the one that felt right.
Once I had the right option there was still the business of needing to write it well. What makes an ending resonate? In my struggles, I came up with this:
- feels right for this type of story
- is not predictable and still has an element of surprise (hard one that)
- maintains tension until the last
- has some flourish
- calls not just for physical courage but moral courage as well
- has emotional appeal
- ties up most but not necessarily all loose ends in as little space as possible (the reader wants to reach the end)
- has a last sentence/ paragraph that leaves you feeling wow! like that moment of silence at the end of listening to a great piece of music.