Three tips for nailing the ending of your story
Beginnings are exciting because you’re establishing the characters you’ve been developing, and, launching your great ideas. Middles are hard work because you need to keep people interested through the largest section of the book. But it’s endings that readers will take away with them.
It pays to give endings as much thought as you give to the rest of the book. Some wise man in Hollywood once said, if you haven’t spent 80% of your thinking time devoted to the end of your screenplay, you will have problems. That advice applies equally to books.
You could almost say that it’s better to write an unexceptional book with a good ending than a beautifully executed book that goes nowhere.
Endings are difficult to talk about because every finish is different. There are, however, some universal truths about endings.
Here are our top three pieces of advice:
- The ending comes from the story.
Endings are like life. People say you die the death that you’ve lived. Books end the way you’ve prepared us for. Setting up the ending is important. Of course you want to surprise us, or at least not serve up a predictable ending.
A publisher once told us that, halfway through their initial reading of a manuscript, they try to predict the ending. If their predictions prove correct, they will either pass on the manuscript or give the writer advice on how to change it.
So you don’t want a predictable finish, but you do want an ending that has been set up. It can’t be something that appears out of nowhere – a deus ex machina, in which God reaches out of the sky to provide an unexpected event or power to save the situation. Endings have to be prepared for.
- It’s all about character.
It’s important that your protagonist is pro-active. This relates to the first piece of advice: avoiding the lightning strike which saves your protagonist at the last minute.
But equally, you don’t want a companion, or any other character, to sweep in at the last minute and save your protagonist. It needs to be their darkest hour, but your protagonist must try to find the solution for themselves. That doesn’t mean they must be facing physical danger. They could be facing a threat to their peace of mind, or their emotional life, but the tension must continue building to that point. Don’t let it sag before the end.
The ending should also not involve someone we’ve never met before. The detective should find the murderer from among the characters who have been hanging around all along. It shouldn’t turn out to be someone who appears out of nowhere. Or if the hero decides she’s going to ride off into the sunset with someone, it should be with someone we already know.
- Wrap it up.
You can play with genre expectations. There’s always something different you can do. Think of the movie, 500 Days of Summer, which was set up as a romance, but then played with our expectations.
There’s nothing stopping you, for example, from writing a tragic ending. Endings don’t always need to be happy, but there needs to be a sense of the story being complete. And finally, as we advise with every scene, end early. Don’t let your finish trickle away. Once the protagonist has experienced the grand realisation or saved the world, or whatever, don’t allow your story to wander off into anti-climax.