Breaking up (a reader from your book) is hard to do. Sometimes readers are able to limp through a book’s rough beginning. At times the bibliophile will still hang on through a weak middle. Even a bibliomaniac will not forgive a bad ending. The ending is what he/she was running toward the whole book. Don’t have your reader running toward the finish line with no tape, cheering fans, or ride home waiting for them. One of the biggest complaints from editors and readers is an unsatisfying or bad ending.
Steps toward a Good Ending:
- Know the ending from the beginning. I am a big fan of letting the characters take over my writing, but the writer has to be able to know where the whole story is going.
- Use an outline. This will help you see how the story will unfold, allow for plenty of conflict, and alert you to when the ending is coming. Sometimes it is not the readers’ feelings we are afraid of hurting by ending the book. It is we (the writers) who are afraid to break up.
- Once you know the ending, make sure all the ingredients are there. Like making a cake, if your story ends up as a cake, the reader is going to ask, “Hey, did she ever put flour in it?” Make sure there are some milestones or indicators in the story that somehow lead to the ending.
- Explore different endings. Brainstorm different, creative twists and turns that the book can end on. The, brainstorm something more different, creative, and twisty.
- Keep the same style, tone, and speed of the rest of the book. I have read too many books that seemed to rush to the end. The rest of the book was run at a marathon pace and then it turns into the Indy 500. Not only did the author change the pace, but the whole sport entirely. That did not leave me wanting to bathe in champagne at the last page.
- Get someone to read the ending. Like most writing components, the ending involves fresh eyes. Ideally, get a optimist, pessimist, and a detailist to read the story.
- Know when to end it. Know what the main conflict is, and the climax. When the main conflict is resolved or the climax is hit, the ending should come shortly after.
- Avoid “THE END.” Leave that to Porky Pig. If you have to write “The End,” you probably did not end it correctly. Have you ever listened to someone tell a story or account of something. He/she reaches the end of the story and everyone is still staring, waiting for the next sentence. The audience says, “And?” The storyteller says, “That’s it. I ate the sandwich.” Not a successful ending. Something is missing. Kids do this a lot: “My teacher… she came into class, and she had a pink shirt on…” THE END. We as the audience expected more.
- Tie up loose ends. Make sure what was needed to be conveyed was conveyed. Do not, however, be too detailed. The readers do not need to know what happened to the dog we read about that walked across the main character’s lawn in chapter 2. There is a balance to tying up the loose ends. The reader might like to imagine that the biology teacher and principal who sat next to each other on the bus as they escaped the town’s nuclear meltdown are going to date. We do not need to spell that out for them. The reader has an imagination. Let them use it.
- Real-life elbow room: Screaming, “No!” in a good way. I only remember two times saying, “No!” out loud during an ending. One of these times was during a season finale of Dexter. I did not see it coming. It was the death of a character I liked, and it left me drooling for the next season. Sometimes bad things happen to characters or dreams we were cheering for. When a writer kills that character or smashes that dream, it emulates life. The writer sometimes has Real-Life-Elbow Room to make bad things happen. Life is not fair.
- Leave the reader satisfied. Sometimes you just give the reader what they want. They want the good guy to win and the bad guy to be catapulted into an alligator pit. For some genres the ending is somewhat pre-ordered. For romances, someone better end up happily together. For mysteries, the crime better get solved or resolved.
- Master and then write twists. Get good at writing twists and then write them. Twists in stories can be tricky. You have to make sure the set-up is there, and that they feel right.
- Epilogues? An epilogue means “to say in addition.” It can be used to summarize or to look several days, months, or years into the future. If you use an epilogue correctly and uniquely, it could work for you. Avoid using it as a crutch to tie everything together. One brilliant use of an epilogue is in Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale. The book ends and the reader is unsure of the main character’s fate, but I was left mostly leaning toward hopeful. Then in the epilogue a society in the future is talking about the character as a historical figure. Atwood added another layer to this book with that brief epilogue. It was strong enough an ending for me to have remembered it and write about it here.
- Use dialogue. Successful use of dialogue between characters can end the book smoothly. Be careful not to get too witty or corny. A writing pitfall can result when a writer tries to end with one last good line. Search for famous last book or movie lines, and you will understand what I am saying.
- Read books that have great endings. Then go back and find out how, when, and why that worked. I do not usually suggest looking at things that did not work, but maybe looking at bad endings can teach you something too.
- Avoid the typical pitfalls of endings. Fixing everything, I am a cat, miracles, stranger out of nowhere, evil twins, comas, it was a dream, I am dead, then he took off his mask, and natural disasters. Avoid things that change everything suddenly and without warning. (To find an article on bad endings go to Milk Truck Endings.)
These tactics will allow you to mediate a harmonious break-up between your book and your reader. This will empower your reader to start a new relationship with your next book.