This has happened to every reader. You find a book, the blurb looks amazing, the opening completely hooks you in and the writing is absolutely delightful. You’re glued to the page, completely invested in the characters and their troubles. You’re tearing through the pages, either that or lingering over them as though they were a great feast. This is easily a five star read, and you can’t wait to recommend it to your friends.
But then you get to the end.
It’s rushed, it’s flat, and your reaction is “Huh?” Not that you didn’t understand the ending (that’s been known to happen, sure), but I’m referring to endings where the author has “phoned it in”. It could be that the author reached a max word count and had to wrap up their story quick, or that the author was too eager to slap on “The End” and move on. Maybe they just didn’t know how to finish it and thought this was as good a place as any to end it. Regardless of how we got here, a rushed ending is a complete disappointment.
A good friend and very talented short-story writer, Sharon Overend, once told me that you buy a book for the opening, but you buy the author’s next book based on the ending. Absolutely true. Most writers and writing guides focus on the importance of hooking your reader, but equally important is hooking your next reader, and you can best do that by delivering a satisfactory ending. A satisfactory ending makes people want to read the story again, makes them mull on what they’ve read and connect the various threads. This is what it takes for an author to become an “auto buy”.
Let me give you a famous example of a poor ending and one that I’m still bitter about. Game of Thrones. I can see you all nodding. That had to have been the worst ending in the history of endings and completely ruined what was an excellent series. I’m still enraged about it. I will not, cannot, watch any of the episodes again because of that ending. Pretty dramatic? Yes, that’s what a outstandingly poor ending can do – incinerate all that wonderful work that went before it.
We can use Game of Thrones as a master class on how NOT to write an ending. So what went wrong? The ending was (a) rushed–they had a shortened schedule to wrap everything up and it was obvious to everyone; (b) gave us a shocking ending without having earned it; and the ultimate sin, (c) destroyed key character arcs.
The failed character arcs were the heart of the debacle. There wasn’t one character arc that survived that ending. Daenerys who sacrificed for justice and freedom was turned into a despot. Jaime who had one of the best redemption arcs ever, slunk back to his sister (for no good reason), destroying all the progress he made over the course of the series. Arya who had curated a kill list (with Cersei riding high on the top of that list), abandoned the one thing that drove her through the entire series and did it with a shrug. Not today, apparently. And in the very end, the least developed character won the grand prize. Like the entire ending, it was thoroughly unearned. I could go on, but we’d be here all day.
How do you deliver a satisfying ending? Alchemy and whispered incantations? Sure, if your Muse will oblige, but there are more prosaic ways to deliver the right ending for your story. Game of Throne’s failing can be boiled down to one thing: an incomplete or completely destroyed character arc. Therefore, to deliver a satisfying ending, complete the character arc.
What does that look like?
Consider what the main character needs, not what they want. The bigger the gap between the two, the more delicious the ending! Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller and brilliant at endings, beginnings and everything in between. His story Neverwhere perfectly illustrates this concept. By being at the wrong place at the right time, the hero Richard Mayhew is pulled out of his normal life and drawn into the magical and dangerous London Below. In order for Richard to get his life back, which he is desperate to do, he has to help the mysterious and magical Door in her quest. Richard fights his way through a labyrinth, even risks his life to help Door, because he wants to go home. But when he succeeds in this impossible quest and is restored to his life, we can’t help but feel disappointed. After everything he’s been through, we’re actually disappointed. Why? Because although Richard wants to return to his life and his job and the fiancé who doesn’t really appreciate him, deep down we know that’s not what Richard needs. Richard doesn’t need to return to the life he used to have. What he needs is to matter. Richard has no idea that his wants and needs are miles apart. We may not realize it ourselves until the end. But it’s only when Richard realizes what he needs, a return to London Below, that the book is satisfyingly complete. Gaiman delivers a surprising but inevitable ending.
Delivering a surprise ending that is also satisfying is a tricky thing to manage and take skills. As a writer, you want to keep your reader guessing. How sweet is it to be told, “I totally did not see that coming!” But withholding key information to deliver a surprise ending will not give a satisfying conclusion to the story. If it feels like the author has cheated, they have. They are holding all the cards, but have kept one or two up their sleeve only to pull it out at the last minute for an unearned surprise (think of Game of Thrones).
Another example of how to do this comes from Neil Gaiman (again). In American Gods, the author shows us the trick of the ending right in the beginning. We first meet Shadow when he is in prison, playing card games and showing us his sleight of hand. All the elements of the end are right there at the beginning. Through the story, Gaiman practically tell us how it’s going to end and how he will get us there and yet, it still surprises us. How? He distracts us with a sleight of hand. Look here, he says, directing the reader away from the card in his hand. By carefully laying out the order of the information that he feeds to us, he leads us down the path he wants us to take. Along the way, he distracts us with a few shiny objects, but he withholds nothing.
So the trick is not to trick. A good writer will get into their readers’ heads, will understand what their expectations are and then take a sharp turn when they least expect it. Easy? Not. Everything must lead to the ending, every scene starting from the beginning. There are many writers I know who start by writing the ending first. It’s a beacon for them to aim for. While I don’t actually write the ending, I must have a clear idea of what the ending will look like. Often, it’s something aspirational, like where do I see the character when the main story ends. Knowing the ending will allow the writer to sprinkle the breadcrumbs from the beginning. If you know the ending, you can be sure that every scene (especially the scenes in the mushy middle) get us to that ending. It keeps the pacing tight and delivers an earned ending.
And in conclusion, a good rule of thumb is to give the ending as much of your time as you would normally give to crafting the beginning. It isn’t a rush to the end. It should be a natural and inevitable progression to the right end.
What is your favourite ending – literary or on the silver screen. What made it memorable? Drop a comment and share!