How to Write a Killer Ending
This post is part of a series dedicated to National Novel-Writing Month. If you’re participating this year, make sure you download my free NaNoWriMo workbook. If you’re abstaining, never fear. These posts will help you become a better writer no matter what (or when) you write.
Well, friends, it’s almost the end. You’ve been pounding the keys for close to a month, and it’s about time to bring your novel to a close. But how do you do it? How do you walk away? For many first-time novelists, crafting a satisfying ending can feel like trying to execute a perfect backflip — daunting, if not impossible.
After you’ve poured so much heart into your book, it’s easy to become obsessed with really sticking the landing. Often writers can get paralyzed right at the end — afraid of screwing things up in the final chapters.
If this sounds like you, never fear. I’ve compiled my best tips for writing a killer ending, but the most important thing is to actually finish. Unlike back-flipping off a trampoline, you can always rewind, refine, or erase until you get it just right — no neck brace or painkillers required.
1. Ask yourself: Is this really the end? As a sci-fi writer, I mostly work in series. It’s not just that series sell and readers like them; it’s also how I think. For me, it’s fun to spend three, four, or five books with a cast of characters in the world I created, and often it takes that long to resolve the major conflict.
For that reason, the end of a novel isn’t really the end; it’s the jumping-off point for book two, three, four, or five.
Personally, I like to be able to hold the entire series in my head before I begin book one so that I can seed information in the early books that will become relevant in later installments. But many writers — especially beginners — aren’t sure whether their book will be a standalone or not. Quite often I’ll hear, “Oh, we’ll see how it sells” or “I will if I feel like it,” but I’d like to caution against this thinking.
It’s important to know by the first or second draft if your novel will have at least one sequel — or, at least, if you’d like to create the possibility for a sequel. You don’t necessarily have to know how many books will be in a series, but you must know if you need to tidy up all those loose ends and if your protagonist’s character arc will terminate at the end of book one.
2. Take inventory of your “boxes.” “Open boxes” is a term I use to refer to all those loose ends I create throughout the course of a novel. An open box can be a major plot line (like the fate of Lord Voldemort), a subplot (like the burgeoning romance between Ron and Hermione), or even something as small as who takes over the Defense Against the Dark Arts post after a professor is killed, let go, or run off.
Opening boxes is a fantastic way to keep readers engaged throughout a series, but you must remember all the boxes you open so that you can close them by the end of a book or series.
Usually, when I’m working on the second to last book, I’ll create a big list of all the open boxes that need to be closed by the final installment. (Sometimes I’ll do this for an earlier book if I notice a few too many loose ends or if I need to keep track of character injuries.)
Just recently, I created a list for book three because I knew there would be a substantial time gap between books three and four. This list included things like:
Did Si Damm survive the explosion?
What happened to Kelso?
Fallout of attack in Times Square
Will Teegan help them?
Does Ping have a limp now?
Is Jade still battling an addiction?
Is Tripp cooperating with Mordecai?
3. Consider the feeling you want to convey. For me, writing an ending starts closer to the middle of a book or series. I’m rarely aware of theme when I begin writing, but usually by the middle of a novel or series, a theme starts to emerge. The more I write on a subject, the more my own feelings begin to surface and solidify. Sometime I even surprise myself with my worldview.
Most of the books I’ve written fit comfortably in the dystopian subgenre. And since I write series, many of the books within that series end on a doozy of a cliffhanger. (Some more traditional writers criticize this style, but I think the current format of television and genre fiction has prepared readers for this type of ending.)
But by the end of a series, readers need resolution. In my case, they’ve often emerged from an emotional rollercoaster, and they want to end with a satisfying mix of feelings. Even though I deal with some heavy themes in my books, I never want to leave my readers with a feeling of hopelessness. Often my characters are emerging from death, destruction — even war — but by the last book, I want them to be okay. This doesn’t mean that everyone lives happily ever after, but it should mean that they are no longer in mortal danger and the characters who are still living achieve some sense of peace.
4. Follow your genre. This bit is rather boring advice, but it’s completely necessary if you care about satisfying your readers. Certain genres have very cut-and-dried formulas for how a novel should progress — including the type of ending that readers expect. This doesn’t mean that you can’t be creative; it just means that there are conventions that you must follow.
Romance is a good example of a genre with very specific expectations for an ending. Romance readers like to believe that the girl always gets the guy, so a happily ever after is more or less mandatory. Literary fiction generally allows for more angst in an ending, and dystopian fiction usually hints at some pain and suffering that will never be fully resolved.
If you aren’t sure what readers expect from your type of book, go read five or six books that fit squarely in your genre. You don’t want to copy these endings, but you should be able to determine the basic flavor of ending those readers expect.
5. Allow yourself to really feel it. After I’ve spent five books (or close to two years) with a set of characters, the ending can be emotional. Usually, we’ve lost some good people and made heavy sacrifices in service of the cause.
For the writer, the ending also means saying goodbye to characters that feel like close friends. You won’t always feel satisfied with where you leave a character. Even if your protagonist is cozily sequestered in her mountain cabin away from the remaining zombies, you’ll likely be leaving her with some emotional scars that won’t ever heal.
If you’re trying to be realistic with your writing, things won’t ever be perfect; the idea is to follow the campsite rule and try to leave your surviving characters better than you found them. They won’t necessarily be happier, but they’ll be wiser. It’s okay if dealing with these complex emotions leaves you feeling a bit ambivalent. The key is to allow yourself to fully feel those feelings so that you can write about them with as much realism as possible. Cry if you need to. Take a long walk. Be moody for a day. Just write the ending.
For me, writing a real honest-to-god ending is never easy. Sometimes it takes a few chapters to fully wind down, and it’s difficult to walk to the line between satisfactory and hokey. You may need to rewrite the ending several times before it feels “right,” but what’s important is that you allow yourself to walk away.
Fiction often mirrors life, and life is rarely perfect. Depending on your genre, the ending may be bittersweet, but that is part of the human experience.
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