You’ve spent months, maybe even years writing a story. Now you’re nearing the end of your characters’ journey and you’re thinking, “How in the hell do I wrap this up?” You’re not alone. Writing endings can be one of the most stressful parts of storytelling.
If you’re writing from an outline, you may find that the ending you had dreamed up months ago is no longer valid. Or perhaps it is valid, but seems a bit weak.
If you’re writing without an outline, the sky’s the limit on what your ending could be, and that’s what makes the decision so tough. So what do you look for in writing an ending?
Last year I wrote a post on how to write a plot. Without a strong plot, the ending isn’t going to carry much weight. First, look at the plot of your story and make sure it’s strong. Has the main character or characters had their world turned upside-down? Now, have they worked to overcome some seemingly insurmountable obstacle? If you a strong plot, the reader is going to be on-edge wondering what’s going to happen to the main character/characters.
Sense of urgency
A great climax comes from your characters having no way back. If the character could just turn around and go back to their normal life, they’d have no reason to move forward and face their antagonist. Without having everything on the line, the reader is left with no sense of urgency for the main character. No sense of urgency leads to little to no interest in what happens next.
How does your character change?
In the end, your character needs to change in some way. If they don’t, the entire story has been literary masturbation. The change can be as big as the character sacrificing their life, or as small as the character gaining a little perspective on a single aspect of life. Big or small, something needs to change.
Now, asking a character to change isn’t the same thing as giving the character what they want. A character can change through failure. Maybe they face the antagonist and fail. Look at 1984. (Spoiler alert) At the end, Winston Smith goes from fighting Big Brother to loving him. He loses. But his change makes the entire story even more haunting.
Deliver a knockout
In James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure, he states that the end should have a knockout. The last part of a story should be memorable to a reader, and deliver that last punch that ignites a reaction. In 1984, the last sentence of the book “He loved Big Brother.” is a knockout. You realize that this character you’ve been rooting for has lost. It’s heart-breaking.
Give your story a knockout punch. You can flip the story on it’s head (like in the Sixth Sense), or tie everything back to the beginning of the story in some way. Show how the character has changed.
One of my favorite movies of all time is Being There. At the end, Chance is walking outside and straightens a small tree – a tie back to the beginning of the movie where Chance is taking care of “the old man’s” garden. The knockout comes when Chance literally walks on water.
It’s tempting to go into a lot of exposition at the end of a story. Don’t. Leave things up in the air for a reader to decide. A little ambiguity leaves room for the reader to continue the story on their own. It keeps interest going long after the story is finished.
Brainstorm a knockout
I had the ending of Mantrap figured out for months before the story was done. I knew it was a bit weak, but the book was really written for my friends and I wanted things to end nicely. After reading Plot and Structure, I started wondering if I needed a knockout ending.
One night I simply brainstormed ideas, and no idea was too strange. I wrote down two pages worth of endings as bullet points. On the last one, my pen stopped and I smiled. The knockout I had just written down left things ambiguous, and also had ramifications back through the story. From that knockout, I was able to go back and add an entire sub-plot to the book. Had it not been for that brainstorming session, a major plot point in my story would have never been told.
Now, nearly everyone who I know that has read Mantrap asks me the same question about the ending. It’s the one thing about the book that really stands out to them.
The end of a story is the one thing people will remember from it. Put the effort into a solid ending and it will leave a real impact on your reader.