Are you ready to type “The End”? For many writers, endings are intimidating, because they value a good ending and don’t want to botch it. However, this mindset doesn’t make endings any easier to write.
Endings are one of my favorite topics, and below I’m going to share nine lessons I’ve learned on how to craft a solid ending for any story.
1. Plan the End from the Beginning
Take a cue from God. Isaiah 46:10 (NET) says that He “announces the end from the beginning and reveals beforehand what has not yet occurred.” I understand that some of you are pantsers, but if you plot any part of your novel, focus on the ending. It defines what your story is about. Once you outline your ending, the rest of your story will fall into place. Also, since the ending is perhaps the most crucial aspect of your story, knowing at the outset that you have a strong ending can boost your confidence.
2. Go All Out on Happy Endings
Happy, bittersweet, and tragic are the three types of endings, and each requires different techniques to resonate with readers. Yet, one core principle applies to all three: readers should leave your book with a feeling of homesickness for your characters, story world, and, most importantly, ultimate rest. (For more on seeking the infinite, see my article, “The Sheer Awfulness of Christianity.”)
Though I believe the law of homesickness necessitates that all endings contain at least a speck of sorrow or incompleteness, a jubilant ending can be wonderfully satisfying. A happy ending isn’t just a joyful moment; it shows that the circumstances are auspicious in general. Yes, the hero wins the battle, but he also reunites with his friends, shares memories about old times, ties up any subplots, probably marries, demonstrates he has learned the story’s lesson, and finally paints a picture of a shining future. The best happy endings also don’t shy away from nobility and virtue. A protagonist may forgive his enemies, restore what is broken, or set out to perform an honorable deed he’s needed to do for a long time. The goal of happy endings is to provide a glimpse of paradise.
3. Write Bittersweet Endings by Mixing Tragedy with Hope
I have a strong personal fondness for bittersweet endings. What better way to end your book than to stir readers’ emotions? Which leads me to my first point. The goal of bittersweet endings is to bring readers to tears.
For the Christian writer, a bittersweet ending will be sad materially but triumphant spiritually. An excellent example is Crime and Punishment, where the protagonist ends in a Siberian prison camp, but he finds peace in acknowledging that Christ is greater than him. A bittersweet ending should generally imply that troubles may occur in the future, but the light of truth will continue to prevail over darkness.
4. Temper Tragic Endings with a Tinge of Hope or a Powerful Truth
Though nobody truly likes tragic endings, they can be impactful and deeply gratifying in an intellectual sense. Tragedies should be bleak, but that doesn’t mean they must be dark. For instance, in Lord of the Flies, virtually everything goes wrong and the characters end in a dismal moral state, but Golding doesn’t conclude his story with a nihilistic tone. Instead, he is fairly agnostic and highlights humankind’s fallen nature without indicating whether man is redeemable or not. From a purely physical standpoint, the story’s ending is hopeful, with the characters being rescued off their island.
Tragic endings should punch readers in the gut, but they shouldn’t be despondent or dark. End with hope for a side character—or at least for readers so they can prevent disaster from happening in their own lives by avoiding the protagonist’s misguided choices.
5. Pace Your Ending to Achieve the Effect You Want
Writers should look to music for inspiration on how to handle endings. A song’s tempo often changes as it nears the finish. A bittersweet piece of music will likely slow down as the war between hope and despair settles down and contentment rises to the forefront.
This technique also works for novels. Imagine your novel as a piece of music and ask yourself what type of ending the tune would have. Whether it’s sudden and wrenching or slow and triumphant, reflect that in your novel.
6. Concentrate on Wrapping up Your Theme and Characters
Deciding what to include in your ending can be tough when space is limited. In my opinion, your story’s theme is the most vital element of your ending. Students of Theme Mastery: Writing Christian Literature that Captivates will know that a novel can have multiple themes. Some will take the limelight while others will be less central to the story. You need to wrap up your main theme and all your other major themes in your ending, because they are the heart of your story.
Compare your character’s new normal world with how he lived and operated in your story’s opening scene. For example, in Animal Farm, the animals start out under capitalist oppression and end under even worse socialist oppression. In the beginning of The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond is innocent and looking forward to the future, but by the end he’s learned a hard lesson and uses it to guide him as he anticipates the new stage of life ahead.
Also, make sure your message is clearly laid out in the last chapter. By clear, I don’t mean blatantly stated. You shouldn’t wave it on a sign in big, bold letters, but it does need to be discernible to average readers. If readers can’t distinguish your message, what’s the point of having one?
As for characters, the ones who are still prominent in the story should have a place in your ending. If your hero defeats (but doesn’t kill) the villain in an epic battle right before the story ends, not mentioning the villain after that would be cheating readers. If you can’t fit a major character into your ending, consider granting him his own mini-ending beforehand.
Plot is more flexible than characters and theme. As long as the main conflict is resolved, you don’t have to tie up all the loose ends, and it’s often best not to. Unanswered questions will help readers remember your story.
7. Create Sentimentality with These Tools
A great ending pulls on readers’ heartstrings. Although your characters don’t have to be buckets of tears or go around shouting exuberantly (which could distance readers because the characters have already done all the emotional exertion), you need to make readers feel sorry to finish your novel. Here are a few tips to accomplish this:
- Symbols are one of a novelist’s most powerful tools, so they definitely belong in an ending. If your character is a knight who forsakes his bloody past, marries, and becomes a farmer, his sword could be wielded as an effective symbol. As he’s organizing his new house, perhaps he picks up his sword and is overcome by disturbing memories, then he quickly stashes the sword at the bottom of a chest.
- In a recent novel I wrote, I changed from past to present tense for the last chapter, which created a dreamy and philosophical effect. This technique won’t work for all novels and shouldn’t be overused, but it is worth considering. I haven’t tried writing a novel in present tense with the last chapter changed to past tense, but I can see the potential.
- Setting is vital to every scene in your novel, but especially your last scene. Although ending with a sunset is cliché, it’s still a decent example. Does your last scene happen at a spot of old memories? If you desire a dramatic feel, use a storm. If you want a romantic feel, sunshine and swaying grass would be the obvious choice. Work with your environment to evoke the right parting emotion.
- Dialogue between characters is one of the best methods to incorporate sentimentality.
8. Don’t Skimp on the Last Line
Like your first line, the last line is a pivotal sentence in your novel. Don’t mess it up! (That’s me being encouraging.)
You could take many routes to writing a last line: dialogue, a philosophical statement, a description, etc. I’m not here to tell you that any of these are better than the others. But I will share three principles that will aid you no matter what ending type you use.
- Each ending type has a corresponding emotion that you should reinforce with your last line. For happy endings, convey warm satisfaction. For bittersweet endings, blend anguish with a shred of hope. For tragic endings, break readers’ hearts, but avoid being nihilistic.
- Give your story a sense of closure. The options are numerous, and how you resolve the story’s events is up to you. Just do it.
- However, don’t write your last line with too much finality, because this could dampen the homesickness you want readers to feel. For instance, in Brandon Sanderson’s Hero of Ages, the story ends with this line: “No, I’m not troubled. In fact, I actually think everything is going to be all right. Finally.” With all due respect to Mr. Sanderson and his genius, that last word leaves me feeling fully satisfied, so I no longer ache for something more—something infinite.
And everyone who read this article loved it to death and lived happily ever after.