42. What makes a good ending?


There’s any amount of advice out there to writers about how to write good beginnings. Beginnings are important, because if you don’t capture your reader’s attention in the first few pages, even the first few sentences, they obviously won’t read on. But there’s much less advice on writing endings, and they’re important too. If your reader isn’t satisfied by your ending, they probably won’t read anything else by you.

I stumbled on this question while doing the coursework for a fiction writers’ class that I’m taking with the University of Iowa. It had never consciously occurred to me before. Of course I already knew about plotting rubrics like Freytag’s triangle. I knew stories needed to have beginnings, middles and ends. But I guess what made me think about this anew was a discussion in the course about point of entry. Point of entry means the decision you make in a chain of events about where to start telling the story. It needn’t be the beginning of the chain, it can be the middle, or even the end. The choice of point of entry, like that of point of view, radically changes the way the story is told.

I began to wonder if there were similar choices about what you might call point of exit. And, of course, there are. The ending is the most important part of the story. Everything that happens has been leading up to the ending. Unlike real life, it’s the ending that determines everything that happens. It may take several attempts to find the right point of exit. Sometimes you stop too early, other times you stop too late. Or sometimes it’s even the wrong ending, which can involve you in going back and restructuring much of the story. John Irving, author of The Cider House Rules, famously writes his last line first.

I’ve mentioned before a story I wrote which had a beginning and a middle but no end. It deals with a character who begins to have memories that are not his. This is Zhuang Zhu’s Dream, which has just been published by Gold Dust. The lack of an ending was intentional. I mean, what would you do if you had memories that weren’t yours? You’d just get on with your life, there would be nothing else you could do. I sent it to Gold Dust, and the editor understandably rejected it. He wanted to know why the character was having these memories.

So, I wrote an ending. The protagonist goes to his doctor and is referred to a specialist. The specialist tells him that he’s probably confusing imagination and reality, not least because he lacks a particular structure in his brain which helps to keep the two apart. But then he is enrolled in a brain study in which he meets another subject who may, or may not, be the person whose memory he is sharing. I still left it open-ended. The reader could choose which explanation they preferred – the rational one that he was confusing imagination and reality, or the spookier one that he really was sharing memories with this other subject. The editor asked for a rewrite again. He still wanted to know what happened. So I added a clincher, and it got published.

The basic rule of endings is probably best expressed by Anthony Vicino who argues you have to keep your promises to the reader. He says:

“To write a good ending, you have to go back to the beginning and figure out what promises you actually made to the reader. If you’re writing a murder mystery, you’ve promised to reveal the bad guy. If you’re writing a light-hearted romance, you’re promising the main characters will get together, or at least have a happy ever after ending. If you’re writing a Narnia’esque portal story, you’re promising to return the reader to the regular world when it’s all done.”

But endings are about providing a satisfying close, not necessarily about resolution. You don’t have to tie up all the loose ends. Indeed, you shouldn’t or the reader will reject it as too neat, too engineered. A good ending should surprise, but also, in retrospect, seem inevitable. But it should also leave the reader with questions about what might be in store next for the characters they’ve come to know so well.

So there are probably five ways you can end a story well:

  1. Closure. The main dilemmas have reached a satisfying conclusion. This is the expected ending with many genre works. You can ask, has all the adversity and hazard you’ve heaped on your protagonist played out fully? This doesn’t have to mean that the protagonist has overcome the challenges – they may have failed. But ask: Is the conflict concluded? Has your protagonist come to terms with whatever flaws you’ve etched into their ever-suffering soul? If you’re writing a series, you won’t want to resolve or close all the dilemmas. Or you may resolve one mystery, only to tee-up another one.
  2. The plot twist. This works a bit like a joke. You trick your reader into thinking they understand the logic that drives the story, and then at the last moment flip it into another logic. This kind of ending is more appropriate to short stories than to novels.
  3. Mirroring the opening. This might be simply a return to square one, indicating that everything the protagonist has tried to do has failed. Generally it’s more satisfying if the mirroring takes the opening to a new level. You have to drop in hints during the beginning and the middle that lead up to this ending. This creates a sense of balance and completeness and is particularly appropriate for stories with a philosophical focus
  4. The open-ending. This is intended to leave your reader with questions, persuading them to think about possible answers. This is what I failed to do in the example I gave of my own story about the man with memories that were not his. It was an every-day ending, but readers don’t read in order to see a representation of the every-day. They read to escape or transcend the every-day. It’s hard to do this kind of ending well. Though the characters’ fates may not be extraordinary, they must continue to live their lives with new-found insight from what they have been through. This ending generally works best with character-driven tales.
  5. The revisit. After the ending, generally at the moment of climax, you revisit the characters in a final scene, often written as an epilogue. This is remote from the setting and timeframe of the main story, and may happen days, years or even generations after the main action. It gives your characters the opportunity to look back at what they have learned and what has happened since.

Whatever you do, the ending has emotionally involve the reader, and leave him or her feeling satisfied that you’ve reached some kind of conclusion or that lessons have been learned.

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