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So you’ve got your novel mapped out from beginning to end, and you’re feeling pretty good about it. But then you get to the end, and you can’t help but wonder if it’s all coming together as seamlessly as it seems in your head. Don’t worry — a great ending is always in reach, no matter how many times you’ve rewritten it to no avail. All it takes is a few simple techniques to make sure that your ending is as satisfying as it can be. With these steps, you can be sure that your ending will be just as great as the rest of your book.
Draft a literary plot structure
Formalizing the various elements that come together to make a story can help you keep track of everything, and it can help you figure out where you’ll need to pay special attention. Though fictional narratives don’t always align perfectly with this structure, it can give you a stronger sense of what you should be aiming for — and where you might be getting off-target. Also, if you know where your story is going to end, you can identify those parts of the story that might need additional emphasis or clarification. You might need to either trim or lengthen sections, or you might need to develop sub-plots to add weight to otherwise undeveloped areas of the story.
All elements of plot should be present in a story’s ending, which can help you juggle the myriad of plot threads in your manuscript to make them all more convincing. Start at the solution and work your way back to the source. Where do you want your ending to leave your reader emotionally? What happens in the climax? What occurs in the rising arc of events leading from the prologue through the regular plot to the Finale? What is introduced in your Rising Conflict — both the specific events that lead to it and the ugliness of the disagreement itself? What can you cut to increase narrative focus? Asking these questions and more will help you make sure the scene endings in your story are building to a cohesive caesura and resolving satisfactorily.
Have the right conflict at the right moment
One of the most satisfying aspects of reading a novel is seeing how everything comes together at the end, as all the threaded plots and characters converge. That’s also the trickiest aspect of plotting a great ending. One moment of emotional intensity isn’t enough. You can’t raise the stakes and save the village, only to let the bad guy get away. It’s the equivalent of rounding up your friends to catch a zombie about to get out of the church and then realizing there wasn’t one. In order for your readers to think the adventure was worth their time, you have to make their time worthwhile.
This means that all the smaller conflicts in the book have to build towards the climax in a structured way. If you have time to spare, you can also use it for your subplots and character arcs to develop, and show how they all dovetail together. The climax and the actual ending are two separate things—remember, the first is in the middle of your book, while the second is what brings the story full circle. When thinking of how to write a great ending, think of it as the last movement in a symphony, where everything you’ve been preparing comes together in a final crescendo.
Foreshadowing is about creating a sense of anticipation in your readers. It’s a widely-accepted writing technique, because it builds suspense, which is a pleasure everyone enjoys. Foreshadowing is also pretty easy to do in fiction, and this is thanks to the time-honored stories and myths that we all appreciate. When implemented into your prose, foreshadowing makes readers think about what’s to come. Foreshadowing occurs organically in literature because the setting and characters have already been established in the story. They don’t occur as frequently in non-fiction or press releases, but it’s possible to use indirect references like historical events to create the same feeling. The best foreshadowing gives readers the feeling that they already know what’s going to happen, almost as though the author’s like a weaver and the words are his or her tools.
The concept may seem simple, but there’s always lots of room for the foreshadowing to be enticing and captivating. Use of simile and metaphor can help you create rich, simple images in readers’ minds, where they can imagine what’s going to occur after you’ve written the entire novel. In other words, foreshadowing is where imagination meets the expectations that arise from the context of the tale. For all it does to make the story immersive, foreshadowing can also help make your writing more subtle. It highlights your foreshadowing, giving you bragging rights on your narrative instincts. To get the most from your foreshadowing skills, try to subtly imply the same event through the characters or plot multiple times. This form of foreshadowing will make your story more polished and delicate.
Be true to character
In order to write the best ending to your novel, you need to start by being true to your characters. Make a list of your major characters, and then think about how they would respond to the final challenge of the book, as well as to the final fate that will befall them. What course of action would be in character for each character? What action would be in character but unexpected—because it was hidden by the characters’ true nature, or because it stemmed from a secret skill or knowledge they had and chose not to use in the story? You probably have at least one character who acts differently than you’d expect. That opens up the doors to finding potentially great endings that don’t involve having that character be the hero, but instead have her influence the protagonist the entire story.
Next, think about how your major plotlines are resolved. Have you based them all on the setup and conflict of one single major event or choice that the protagonist has to make? Or are there some major plotlines that are resolved without climax? There should be at least one major plotline that ends in a satisfying way, be it an incident that consolidates the main conflict of the story, or a victory that shows off the main thematic concern of your novel. Ideally, you’ll have other plotlines resolved in a more subtle way. If not, then you’ll need to be sure that resolution is happening nonlinearly, somewhere between your other plotlines.
Tie the knot
Whether your ending is tragic or heartwarming, everything that has come before will come together in the last pages of your story. But this doesn’t mean that the reader should necessarily figure out how it’s going to come to a close. Use foreshadowing wisely. Sometimes, a character will say something with an ominous tone or someone else will read a clue in a letter. These throwaway moments aren’t necessary to the story, but they help a reader feel like she’s figuring things out along with the protagonist. As the story draws to a close, remember to focus on resolution. Think of the endings of Harry Potter or Friends, where the reader isn’t told what happens later, but is sure that everything is alright. Talking about resolution and finality helps give depth and poignancy to a story, especially a long one.
But whatever tricks you use to hide the ending’s happy or sad conclusion, your most important job is to make sure that all the characters are firmly tied off. That might mean that a particular character has learned a valuable moral, or feels satiated after vengeance is finally had. It could mean that the protagonist and antagonist exchange pleasantries, thanks, and even threats. You’re telling a story, but these are still the little moments of closure that you want your readers to have.
Pay off subplots
It’s a big mistake to think that you should start your novel focused on your protagonist — and then somehow, the second you slide into your climactic scene, you suddenly think about all these other characters that have been hanging around for the entire story, and you finally give them something to do with their lives. It’s confusing, it breaks up your story, it takes away from the impact of your protagonist’s struggle, and it makes readers feel like your story is running off the rails — even if they were secondary characters in the first place. Instead, you should pay off the stories of your secondary characters by introducing them early on, so that they can eventually become important to the primary action.
Indiana Jones’s beloved love interest is introduced throughout The Last Crusade, giving the film a natural foundation for his relationship with her. In Die Hard with a Vengeance, Detective John McClane’s irritable relationship with Zeus the police dog comes back to indicate how frustrated McClane is at being stuck in the middle of his complex double duty, and Zeus gets so agitated at crime that he bites the bad actor. In The Hunger Games, the villain mockingment of the Games enables the world to be fleshed out as a cynical contemporary of post-nuclear wars, and eventually criticize contemporary capitalism by presenting how ruthless it can be. In Harry Potter, certain characters are only ever raised to fight Voldemort in the end, having been lurking as seeds of importance since the beginning. The lesson here is that you can’t just hope for your readers’ patience when they realize you’ve ignored some of your characters for hundreds of pages only to drop in a few minutes of airtime for them at the last minute.
Make sure the ending achieved your goals
The easiest trap to fall into is the cliffhanger ending. No, we don’t mean you should cut everybody off a cliff — although that might work for you, depending on the genre — what we mean is, have you answered all the questions your book poses? A cliffhanger ending often leaves questions unanswered, not intentionally, but because the author missed an opportunity to insert new material which answers the question earlier in the novel. Psycho leaves a void, yes, because nobody went to that shower curtain to see what was making that noise. That was the shower and Hitchcock has just told you that. Remember, readers are smarter than your book makes you think. Clapper is still a bird, it’s just flying under the radar.
Most of your reader base probably wants to know why they read your book, or they wouldn’t have spent the time to finish it. You have some explaining to do. As frustrating as it is, answer all the questions you might have raised — lead your readers through the mind maze you created for them. Then take five minutes to reread whatever notes you took while you were brainstorming and plotting the novels, and see if there have been any other questions raised by the events that have taken place between character A and B. Your job is to give context.
Make your themes clear
It’s always a good idea to keep the reader wondering what will happen in a book — when the pleasurable uncertainty is out of place, it’s jarring but when it radiates from a core uncertainty, your intrigue and engagement can build in wonderful ways. But there is a line between mystery and vagueness, and if you expect the audience to solve problems for you half-way through the story, you risk boring them into giving up. Give your manuscript a thorough read-through to make sure that everything, all its themes and message, fall together into a cohesive whole.
This works best if you have something solid to work with — for your core theme, start by asking yourself what you want your readers to understand about the world every book represents, and how they’re meant to face the problems and conflicts that appear in those stories. Then consider how those spheres of understanding should be altered by the climax of the story. Along those same lines, you’ll be coming back to your theme frequently, as part of a larger message that you want to communicate to your audience.
Don’t roll up your book with an exposition fest
Believe it or not, you have probably spent less time on your ending than any other part of your story. You’re already living it in your mind, imagining the perfect conclusion, and for that reason you’re not going to be critical about getting it right. Don’t push yourself too hard to make something great when it isn’t working, or if you know it just isn’t going to be good enough. Listen to your critical inner voice telling you the ending isn’t great enough, and move on. The feeling of being overworked drives most authors to their dissatisfaction with the end of their story, and can trick you into pushing yourself to keep trying when you really should just stop and move onto the next project.
The resolution is not simply there to tie together the loose ends remaining in your plot. It is also there for your readers to deliver a sense of closure — so that any and all frustrating or unfortunate circumstances for your characters can be calmed, and you can strengthen your readers’ connection with them even though the last page of your story has long been turned. Whatever your inner critic says about your story not fitting into the genre standard or even breaking the rules, service to your readers is one of the topmost priorities. How satisfied are your readers going to be with your story? Be honest with yourself — most likely, your readers will want it to have a positive resolution to any strings that have been left hanging. Unresolved strings can be frustrating and also feel like mistakes on the author’s part.
Leave a lasting impression
Your story has gone through a dramatic journey, after all! That should be reflected in the conclusion — otherwise, what was the point of reading all that? If a lackluster or disappointing ending doesn’t feel like a worthy reward for all readers’ time and effort, you run the risk of leaving them angry or frustrated with your writing. Furthermore, while a terrible ending is often memorable, for the wrong reasons, a great ending will undoubtedly be the first thing that sticks with your readers. Now, that doesn’t mean that it needs to tie up every single plot point with a neat little bow — your ending should tug at your reader’s heart strings, simply and easily, whether it ends on a cliffhanger, offers closure, or offers a mixture of both. You want to leave your reader with a sigh rather than a gasp. Not only will this give you a rating boost from readers and a buzz from the book community, it’ll cement your legacy and help you stand out from the crowd.
Creating a powerful, emotional ending will also show readers that you’re a talented writer. The emotion in an ending isn’t just about making your reader cry — it can be suspenseful, funny, exciting, or appalling. Either way, your ending must grab them in a way that makes them sit up and pay attention, and the best way to ensure you’ve accomplished that is by writing your ending as the climax of your novel. What this means is that you want to start with your novel’s emotional peak, and work your way down from there. That way, when you get to the ending, your reader will be invested in your novel and be eager to see what happens next — and anything less than a powerful conclusion will leave you disappointing your readers at the highest point.
Even if your first ending doesn’t make you swoon, it’s okay. That’s what revision loops are for. Get the rest of your book plotted out first, then reexamine the ending. Keep revising until you’re sure you’ve got exactly the perfect ending. It might take some time and you may not love every ending you come up with along the way, but when you find the last page, your readers will love the ending so much that they will want to start your novel all over again.
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