Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Keys to Great Endings

by Crista Rucker
2004, Crista Rucker


A perfect ending: everyone one has read at least one and, as writers, we all strive to write one. The ending is the checkered flag of the writing journey and the culmination of the hours of blood, work, and joy that go into creating a novel. One would think that the ending is the point where a writer could begin to relax. After all, the worst of the work is over, right? You've agonized over the characters' every nuance and you've hammered the events of your plot into a coherent order (or incoherent, if you happen to be a Surrealist); it should all be downhill from here.

Yet, if you're anything like me, you fret over the finale to your work just as much as, if not more than, you did over the opening or the characters. It is a precarious balance between writing a killer finish to your novel and creating an ending that will send it hurtling towards the nearest wall. If you look at the endings of your favorite books, you might find that there are certain keys that most great endings have in common.

The first and most important key to a great ending is inevitability. When a reader finishes your novel, she should feel like there is no other possible ending that would fit the book. Writers such as China Mieville, with his critically acclaimed novel Perdido Street Station, seem to have mastered this concept. The ending to this novel is grim and sad, but if you sift through the scenes leading up to this climax, you see that there really is no other possible way the novel could have ended without destroying the themes and invalidating the scenes that built to the climax. Even in surprise or twist endings, which are currently very popular, it is fun for a reader to re-read the novel to see how each scene interlocks and weaves the pattern that will become the ending. 

The point to remember in creating an inevitable ending is to plot your novel so that every scene reflects how the novel will end. Even scenes that belong to a subplot or exist merely for character development should provide a small insight as to why the ending occurred and why, given the characters, setting, and prior plot points, it is the only one that fits. The easiest way to do this would be to know the ending before you start to write or plot your novel, but this can also be done in the revising stage once the final outcome is known and all the scenes are written.

Another key to great endings is to ensure that the characters' actions create the ending. The ending should come as the result of a choice that the main characters make. Every action and interaction, even down to every word of dialogue, whether your characters are talking about what to eat for breakfast or hashing out a plan to murder the villain, should foreshadow that final choice. This ties in with that sense of inevitability and is the prime method used in Mieville's novel to construct his ending.

The third key to creating a great ending is an ending that actually ends. While this may seem simple in stand-alone novels, what can writers do if they are writing a trilogy or an ongoing series? These types of books are very popular right now and the readers want to buy the next book to find out what happens next. So how does this suggestion apply to those type of books?

If you are working with a series, at the end of every book, something must end. Most popular series have multiple plot threads and numerous subplots, so finding something to finalize shouldn't be too difficult. A reader usually doesn't want to tear through 400+ pages of a novel only to come to the end and discover that nothing is resolved.

Take for instance one very popular fantasy series, George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. In the latest novel, A Storm of Swords, while the ending doesn't tie everything up, most of the characters are brought to end of their current circumstances. They are introduced to new adventures, so the readers know that when they pick up the next novel in the series, they won't be reading about the same exact circumstances as the last. It will be something new and different. This makes the end of this particular novel in this series successful.

Now that I've listed a few keys to successful endings, what factors can make for those endings that make the reader want to toss your novel directly into the trashcan? First and foremost of these is the ending where nothing changes. Most readers don't want to reach the end of the novel and find that everything stays the same. Something must change. It can be as subtle as a shift in the character's personality and emotional state or as dramatic as a complete change in a political system.

This factor ties back into the keys about inevitability and the character's role in the ending. If your character is the one guiding the novel, then it is inevitable that there will be some sort of change in this individual or in her circumstances. If there is no change at all from the beginning to the ending of your novel, then what was the purpose of your work other than to string a bunch of scenes together?

A device to avoid when constructing your ending is the ending by chance, otherwise known as Deus ex Machina. While the Greeks employed this often in their plays, in modern fiction, it is nearly impossible to do without frustrating the reader. For example, in a novel about a spunky princess' efforts to defy the evil warlord trying to take over her kingdom, if during the final face-off said warlord dies by a fatal heart attack or some other natural phenomenon in which the heroine had no part, then the reader is going to feel cheated out of the climactic battle between the two that you have been building since page one of your novel. This is likely to result in the previously mentioned occurrence of your novel hitting the bottom of a trash barrel.

Satisfying endings are one of the many challenging aspects of novel writing, but well worth it if done successfully. They can keep readers coming back for more. Remember, the ending is the last chance you have to impress your reader before they pick up your next book. Do you want to wow them or leaving them feeling dissatisfied?

China Mieville, Perdido Street Station, ISBN #: 0345459407

George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords, ISBN #: 055357342X