Why is writing endings so difficult?

Endings are tough on writers and readers alike. For authors of course it’s hard to know if we’ve nailed an ending; and for readers, we can all name at least a few endings that left us a little cold. (I can name one right now that I think I shouted, “WHAT?!” and then shook my head for the last page or two. No, I will not name it here. Ask me at Ace or Phoenix ComiCon.)

On the other hand, we’ve all read endings that really soared too; that left us weeping sadly (not me!!!) or weeping joyfully (also not me!!!). But as an author, how do you take a reader there?

I’ll go into more detail on this in a new project I’m working on, but for today, let’s stick with the following:

1. The protagonist needs to change. This is all but an absolute requirement, and I’d say it’s pretty much a requirement of all genre fiction. It needn’t be the basis of the novel, but do give us some sense that the hero is not who she was at the beginning.

2. The ending needs to be in context of the storyworld. I talk a bit about this in my new book How To Write Your Novel By Watching Movies First, which you should totally get right now, but the short of it is this: If you’ve presented us with a novel set in the real world, then there better not be any aliens showing up at the end (unless that was the inevitable thing we knew about at the start). You opened your book with several promises: this is the genre, this/these are the hero/es, here’s the story problem. Deviating from any of these at the end is not going to endear you to readers.

This brings us to twists and surprise endings, but we’ll come back to those another time. Right now, just know that you’ve established a premise in the novel’s opening pages; the ending should be the payoff.

3. Word choice and cadence or rhythm matter. Remember how Morgan Freeman said, “I hope,” at the end of The Shawshank Redemption movie? It’s the same last words of the novella. Now imagine him saying, “I have hope.”

Ehhh . . . it lacks somehow, doesn’t it? I think it’s because “I hope” is active; it has momentum and breathes on its one. “I have hope,” while not a bad sentence and is still true in the context of the story, sounds like something possessed; something inanimate like a pencil or a phone. “I hope” has a different cadence than “I have hope,” and is by far the stronger choice. So sound out those last few sentences, and make sure you’re writing and punctuating them the way you hear them out loud.

4. What have you liked about other novels? Think of the top three or more books that left you a little breathless or somehow emotional, and study how that author did it. You can’t (usually) rip off an exact ending of course, but ask yourself why a particular ending had the impact on you that it did. Then go back and compare those notes to your novel. You might discover something.

Good luck sticking the landing on those endings! It can be challenge, but it’s a good feeling when you know you’ve got something. Keep writing!

(And if you liked this post, please share it; if you want to learn more, drop me a line!)


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