How to Write Effective Endings

Photo credit: Olivander on Flickr
Throughout the course of writing several manuscripts, my methods, skills and tools have changed pretty dramatically. But there’s one thing that has remained constant in my first drafting process, regardless of the genre, word count, method or experience: the ending always intimidates me.

When I played around with pantsing, the reason for this intimidation was pretty obvious: I was writing a book and I had no idea how it was going to end. It terrified me to think that I was eventually going to reach what I knew had to be the conclusion, and I would sit and wonder how I could possibly conclude this book.

Outlining, however, didn’t solve my ending anxiety. Sure, it helped that I actually knew what would happen (it helped a lot, actually), but the thought of it still terrified me. What if it’s not epic enough? What if I end too soon (a common problem of mine)? What if there are too many questions at the end? What if my readers are disappointed? What if what if what if?

I am the master of book-ending angst.

Thankfully, after writing several pretty terrible endings (and a couple good ones, I hope), and reading an abundance of endings that have completely blown me away, I’ve learned a couple important elements necessary in every good ending.

  • Address the main problem/antagonist. When I first wrote this bullet, I said “solve the main problem,” but that’s not entirely true. You see, your protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to win every time, but you must address the problem one way or the other. If your character defeats the antagonist and saves the world, great, you can check off this bullet. But maybe your character doesn’t win, at least not entirely, and the antagonist is wounded but gets away. That’s acceptable, too—the key is that the main problem is addressed in some way, usually with a big victory, or a major loss on your protagonist’s part. At the end of the day, your protagonist should have tried his or her darndest to fix the main problem that’s been comprising the plot of your novel, and whether they win or lose is up to you. 

  • Tie up loose ends and provide closure. It’s important to note, that even if you’re writing the first book of a series, you still must tie up loose ends. Naturally, you can still leave some series-wide questions open and hint at possibilities of future plots and problems. But as for the main plot itself, the big problem must be addressed and your readers should not be left still wondering about several subplots or questions by the end of the book. For a series, the endings are about balance: leaving enough questions that the reader will want to move on to the next book, but still answering enough that it stands alone and creates a complete arc.

    As for standalone novels, or the last book of a series, all loose ends must be tied up and accounted for. You readers should have a sense of closure and all subplots and mystery questions should be answered.

  • Complete the character arcs. This is an element that I’ve often struggled with because character arcs, at least for me, often happen organically. Unless your protagonist is a static character, he or she will likely be changed by whatever they experience throughout the course of your book—and your ending should reflect that change, whether it’s maturity, a new outlook or worldview, etc. 

  • Bonus: echo the beginning. This isn’t a requirement, but some of my favorite endings echo images or lines from the beginning of the book. It really gives the book a full-circle feel and helps to create closure. I go into detail about this wonderful effect in my great final sentences post so I won’t go into it again, but if you can manage it, I definitely recommend it. 

What tips do you have for writing effective endings? 

Twitter-sized bites:
Having trouble with your WIP's ending? Here are some tips to writing effective endings. (Click to tweet)  
Does writing "the end" intimidate you? Writer @Ava_Jae shares some tips for effective endings. (Click to tweet


Robin Red said...

As someone who just finished writing a book and is now editing, I can say that the ending is so satisfying and terrifying at the same time, and finding where to really end is tough. I had to tell myself "This is the last line" to avoid an eternal conclusion and rambling conversations.

Ava Jae said...

Did you mention to me that you finished your book? I don't remember. Maybe I already congratulated you, but just in case...CONGRATS! :)

Anyway! Sounds like you have the opposite problem I do. I fight a tendency of ending too early, but of course I also (usually) write rather lean drafts and have to add in a lot later on. Everyone works differently.

But I agree it is satisfying, even if a tad bit terrifying.

Shay Dee said...

Hah, I almost thought you weren't posting today...

I have to agree, endings make me anxious too, mostly because no matter how much you plan, the ending is always furthest away. Unless you tend to write your story in parts and not in chronological order (some people write endings first, one day I'll try this) the ending, I think, is the thing that changes the most before you even write a word of it.

For me, I stall mid-draft on a regular basis, usually after 8 chapters before starting again, then adding on another eight until I reach the end and probably 10th draft! So my beginning and middle always get re written, which in turn changes the ending and then finally, on my umpteenth draft, I get down to writing the last chapters. And I'm sitting there thinking "this is it, ten drafts got you here. You can do this."

And if I told you I sometimes screw that up and start all over again...well, I'd be telling the truth.

Ava Jae said...

Did the post show up on your reader late? That's was scheduled at the normal time...oh well.

I think you're definitely right that the ending stands to change the most, depending on how your process works. It's because of that that I actually find it difficult to write in a non-linear fashion, but I know that process works very well for some people, who actually find it easier to write the ending or other parts first. I imagine that would probably take some anxiety out of it, if you work that way.

As for messing up a draft...that's what revision is for! :)

Elyana Noreme said...

Just finished a first draft. Right now I feel good about the ending! That never happens but I can't wait to go back to it.

Great post! :)

Ava Jae said...

Thank you! And that's wonderful! Congratulations on completing your first draft—always an exciting stage. :)

Sarah M Blood said...

I enjoyed this post. These are my rules for endings:
1. Surprising
2. Follows from elements introduced earlier in the book (No Deus Ex Machina)

I admire how the writers of Breaking Bad have followed these rules.

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Sarah! You know, I haven't watched Breaking Bad yet, but I've seen a lot of people rave about how good it is, so I'm going to have to check it out.

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