“The first page sells this book. The last page sells your next book.” This simple yet helpful saying encapsulates the most significant characteristic of endings: they determine the final state you leave readers in. What state do you want that to be? If it’s a stand-alone story or the conclusion of your series, you likely have contentment in mind. After all, satisfied readers buy more books. But is it possible to pull off a positive finale without readers rolling their eyes and dismissing your story as another generic and unrealistic happy ending?
Let’s look at how to subvert your audience’s expectations of traditional happy endings while still meeting their need for fulfillment.
1. Don’t Let Your Protagonist Achieve All His Goals.
Nearly all stories feature protagonists who attain their goals and needs. Most authors, contrary to popular belief, do have a heart. We can’t help rooting for the characters we’ve created and tailoring the story’s events to lead to their eventual success. We want the case to be solved, to see an empire overthrown, and for love to break through a frosty attitude of indifference. But when too many goals are accomplished at once, your audience will probably yawn at the unrealistic perfect ending.
The obvious option is to offset the victories with a number of failures. Your protagonist accomplishes A and B, losing C and D in the process. However, a more effective method of combatting your audience’s presuppositions exists: have the main character fail at his goal, but succeed in alleviating his deeper need. Pixar writers are especially genius at wielding this method. McQueen doesn’t win the Piston cup, Mike and Sulley get kicked out of the university, and Joy doesn’t keep Riley permanently happy. But all these characters ultimately fulfilled a deeper need. In the last example, Joy had to relinquish her monopoly on Riley’s feelings to allow her to mature and expand her emotional complexity.
Triumph of some sort must be present in any decent ending, but always strive to portray winning in a way that readers won’t anticipate.
2. Show that Justice Isn’t Always Served.
In this fallen world, where evil runs unchecked and “good” people suffer, few things are more satisfying than seeing sacrifice rewarded and villains receiving their comeuppance. The more terrible the crime, the worse the villain’s fate ought to be.
The key word here is “ought.” In the real world, murderers get away scot-free and incredible sacrifices go unappreciated or even unacknowledged. Surprise your audience and give your writing a dose of realism by leaving your protagonist’s parents unavenged or the enemy army undefeated. Not all wrongs need righted; instead, characters can grapple with issues such as forgiveness and trusting a God who allows catastrophes to occur.
This doesn’t mean justice can never be dealt; just don’t do it predictably. Even after saving Middle-Earth, Frodo doesn’t live on in the Shire as mayor of Hobbiton or in honor in Minas Tirith, but instead finds true peace in the Undying Lands. A similar sort of unexpected justice could befall a criminal mastermind in the form of a debilitating brain disease.
Rather than immediately rewarding your heroes with the wealth and fame you think they deserve, reconsider the message you’re conveying. Watching your protagonist walk away from it all may impress readers more than the victory achieved.
3. Avoid Confirming the Romantic Relationship.
This trope can be difficult to resist, because (unfortunately for all the romance despisers) a marriage/engagement is one of the most satisfying elements of a good ending. Maybe the desire to love and be loved is the one relatable aspect amidst all the drama and violence, but the result is that everyone hopes the guy (if he be worthy) gets the girl. Romance can be botched in multiple ways, and this list of ten clichés only scratches the surface of our culture’s warped view of love.
Shunning romance entirely would be a mistake though. More than half of American adults will experience marriage, and depicting godly relationships for our romance-hungry culture to emulate can be a powerful tactic to debunk misconceptions.
Rather than settling for the cheap fairy-tale ending of true love’s kiss and imparting the false idea of perpetual happiness, you can choose to exemplify a more difficult, Christlike love. Rather than merely completing a new romantic conquest, your character could rejuvenate his failing marriage or abandon the love interest to be with someone else (think Erik from The Phantom of the Opera).
Adding romance that serves no purpose to the plot or attempting to write it at too young an age are both mistakes to avoid. But God himself used the symbolic imagery of a bride and groom when describing the end of death’s reign, and a well-written love story pays homage to his design.
4. Don’t Transform the World into a Perfect Place.
A common addition to the heroine accomplishing her personal goal is the town/kingdom/galaxy improving by the story’s end.
The concept behind this is that mankind is an optimistic race (why else would we choose to live directly in the path of hurricanes and volcanoes?). We continue to labor under the naïve belief that once we eliminate the Great Evil, whether it’s inequality or terrorism or the Death Star, we’ll live in peace and harmony. Since most books end right after a battle in which the Great Evil is dealt a death blow, the protagonists never discover that rebuilding a kingdom can be harder than freeing it.
Your audience, on the contrary, is aware that winning the Civil War didn’t eradicate racism. When you forge your own path and show the war’s aftermath (the same way you might show love’s tough side after marriage as explained in point #3), you add a layer of realism to your story that readers won’t expect. The struggles of writing a new constitution or governing a defeated-yet-resentful enemy people are rarely addressed in fiction, which provides you with fresh territory to explore.
The Ultimate Satisfying Ending
In the climax of the Binding of the Blade series, not only did the protagonist achieve his goal and get the girl, but the villain was vanquished forever, all evil was destroyed, and the faithful lived on in eternal bliss with their Maker. And instead of being cheap or unrealistic, it was beautiful to the point of tears.
But a million-page epic that spanned from the creation of the story world to its redemption eons later is a special case. For most stories, your challenge will be to find the balance between the victory your audience craves and the limitations of their own cynicism.
Following one or two of the tips outlined here will equip you to craft an unexpectedly satisfying ending, and perhaps even sell your next book.