When we type “the end” on the story we’re writing, there’s a sense of satisfaction. To give our reader the same feeling of completion, however, will take some work. How do we know we’ve written a good ending?
In January, I spoke at a masterclass on the subject of getting the ending right every time. You can watch that interview here.
If you’d rather read all about it—carry on.
To end your story perfectly, it’s important to understand genre expectations and to meet three basic requirements.
All readers have expectations, but genre readers have even more specific expectations.
Please, do yourself and your readers a favor, read plenty of books in the genre you’re writing. This will familiarize you with the norms of that genre.
Sure, you can Google it, but reading how other authors execute the parts of a successful story will help your writing. I promise.
Not all books fit into a genre. Books that don’t clearly fit a genre often get lumped as “literary fiction.” Beware! Literary fiction readers expect those books to be literary – high-end language and deep themes.
Romances must end happily with the couple together and the main story should center around the couple getting together. Mysteries have a sleuth who solves a crime. Science fiction happens in a technological society, outer space or a foreign planet, and deals with problems around those things.
Some genres require a positive outcome at the end. Others will forgive authors for a negative (hero dies) or ambiguous (is the hero better off?) ending. As the author, it’s your responsibility to understand these “unwritten rules” and break them at the risk of losing readers.
Every book has a story problem. It’s a question the reader asks at or near the beginning of the book.
Incredible Journey: Will the pets make it home alive?
Jurassic Park: Can dinosaurs and humans co-exist?
There is a challenge the hero must overcome. Or they go on a quest.
By the final scene, that challenge has been faced. The quest is completed. The question the story posed is answered.
Susan May Warren likes to call this the “payoff on the promise.” We’re promising the reader more than several hours in a world of make-believe. By introducing a character they relate to and throwing him into earth-shaking trouble, we’re promising he will have gotten himself out by the end.
Fail to deliver on this promise and the reader won’t forgive you for it.
The best, most memorable stories involve character change. Why? Because people are complex and life is about learning and growing. A great story is about that process for your main character.
In the beginning, the character has a huge problem. They can’t conquer it. But as they take the journey of the story (plot), they learn things. They’re tested and they fail.
By the end, they have learned and grown enough they can face their demon or solve their problem. They are different at the end, and as long as that change doesn’t happen too quickly or easily, the reader will cheer and applaud.
Most readers feel the best resolution if they catch a glimpse of the hero’s new life.
We see Harry Potter standing up to his bullying relatives because he faced true evil and survived.
As far as Jurassic Park goes, we see that the theme park is a bust, but everyone who survived has learned to appreciate the people they have. And perhaps digging up dinosaur bones is preferable to meeting a live dinosaur.
Once you’ve determined if your ending will be positive, negative or ambiguous, the next step is to check these four other boxes. The story satisfies genre expectations. The story problem is resolved. Your main character grows and learns, becoming different in some way by the end. You give readers a glimpse into the character’s new reality.
What makes you walk away from a book thinking “that was the perfect ending”?