I’ve been thinking a lot about story endings, probably because I’m getting close to one in the book I’m working on. But also we watched 2 Guns the other day and it has a fabulous mirror from the beginning to ending—that mirror technique where the last scene echoes the opening scene, but everything is now different, is a great technique. And to pull it off I think you really have to know where you’re going—it’s all about structure.
In 2 Guns, we open with the heroes coming into a diner opposite a bank. They seem to be planning a bank robbery. But nothing is as it seems—these guys are playing each other and aren’t really who you think they are. I won’t offer up spoilers (rent the movie—it’s a good one and Denzel Washington and Mark Walberg make it all work). But the end scene is our heroes going into a diner opposite a bank. They’re planning a bank robbery—but everything is different due to what you (the viewer) now know and due to what our good guys have gone through.
To make this work, the movie has to do a small jump back in time at the opening. But it does work. And so I’ve been thinking how any story works best when you can mirror the ending to the opening. But this means you need to know where you’re going (or you have to go back to the opening once you get to the ending to see how you make the story come full circle).
But this also leads me to thinking about what you really want in a great ending.
1. Great endings always feel inevitable.
There’s a sense that the story HAS to come to this. This takes some work and thinking on the writer’s part because you have to build up to this point. Now, there is such a thing as writer’s instinct and some writers know how to structure without being able to tell you they do this. I’m not one of those writers. I have to work it out and think it over and revise—but I know I want this feeling of the story building to an inevitable point. This means I either need to know up front the scene that I want at the end or when I get to the end I want to look back and make sure I’ve set up this inevitable ending.
2. Great endings always surprise.
What I’ve learned is that surprise is not shock. I learned this early on when I had what I thought a great twist in a story—a real game changer. I took it to my readers and got back disappointment. I found out that a twist is just that—but if you make it into too tight a twist or turn, readers aren’t going to be happy. Shock comes from something too unexpected—it suddenly feels as if the writer is cheating the reader. And that’s not fun for the reader. So I’ve learned I don’t want to be too clever. I want a surprise at the end that seems inevitable—so one that gives the reader plenty of hints about what’s coming. Again, this comes from looking at the ending to make sure I foreshadow events.
I had this happen with both Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire—both books are Urban Fantasy, and when I got to the end, I had one character make a major change and another one show up unexpectedly. The changes to the end scene were good ones—they added to the conflict and tension. But I couldn’t leave them hanging there. I had to go back to the earlier parts of the book and structure in enough scenes so that I could lead the reader up to the ending and make it a surprise, not a shock that comes from left field.
3. Great endings bring emotions full circle.
I think this is as important as the mirroring—in fact, it’s part of that mirroring. When any story opens, the main character’s life is out of balance and the main character is pushed into action. In the ending, the main character has to be shown to have come to some resolution that relates back to the opening—things have changed. The main character has changed. (Even in 2 Guns, a buddy film, you can easily see that Denzel Washington’s character is the main character—he’s at the emotional core of the film.)
What I’ve found is that books with an emotional resonance at the end provide a lot more satisfaction to the reader—these are the books that resonate. When an ending seems a little flat or just not right, I look to the emotion. What am I setting up as the main character’s arc? Does the main character go on an emotional journey? What does the main character learn in the dark moment? What does the main character demonstrate as being learned in the end of the book? Those are key questions for me to answer to make sure the book comes full circle.
4. Great endings give the reader enough but not too much.
There’s a story that Fred Astaire said he always got a dance routine perfect and then cut ten minutes. The idea is the old Vaudeville adage to leave ‘em wanting more. This is always a fine balancing act. If you end a story too abruptly the reader is left unhappy and the ending seems unsatisfying. If you linger too long the story can drift into being boring—meaning the reader is left wondering why this story is going on and on.
What I’ve learned is that you want enough end-story to balance what the character has emotionally endured. In other words, a very intense, emotional story needs a little bit of time to wind down and bring the reader some closer from all that emotion. That’s where an epilogue can be really useful to balance the story. Also, if a character makes a huge change, the reader needs to see the character has really changed—this needs to be demonstrated in a scene. This is why so many stories with bad-boy heroes have epilogues to show that he really has reformed. And this is a place where early readers can really help you to say if you’re lingering too long with your characters, or if you need a little bit more closure.
I had this with Proper Conduct. I ended the story where I thought it should end, but it really needed a touch more closure on the story. So I added a little bit more to make the ending more satisfying to the reader.
5. Great endings tie up all loose ends.
This is also a tough one. I’m sure we’ve all been swept away by a movie or a book, and then we’ve realized later that the story never did sort out what happened to character X. The worst ones for me are the ones that pull in a dog or a horse—and you never know what happened to that dog or horse. That, to me, is just careless laziness. If you put in a character and give that character a subplot arc, make sure you hit the end beat. And, in general, you want to do this before you wrap up the main story. For me, this means I need to know all my subplots so I can make sure I’ve given them twists and an ending.
Imagine if, in Casa Blanca, you didn’t find out what happened to Claude Rains’ character, Captain Renault. That would have left the movie a little annoying—you might not have known why you walked out unhappy, but you would be less than satisfied. The fact that the movie ties up all the subplots in a terrific ending is one of the things that makes that movie great. That’s what we want to make sure we do with our stories, too.
Look at all your characters. Did you give everyone a little “star turn” moment in the story? Does everyone have a resolution? If not, go back and put it in somewhere. Remember to check every character’s arc. I do this with an edit that just looks at each character—it really helps the entire story become more satisfying.
Now, if you’re writing a series you often have to set up stuff for the next book. That’s fine. The question to ask then is, did you resolve enough to leave the reader satisfied? I’ve actually bailed on some series books just because the book was a great setup—but didn’t satisfy. That meant I didn’t trust the writer not to give me a good read in the next book, and the next after that. Remember that a story is something of a promise between you and readers—you are taking some of their time in exchange for a good read. If you deliver on this, you’ll have readers coming back for more.
6. Great endings sell your next book.
This is a saying that’s been around forever, and there’s more than a little truth in it. The sale comes because the reader does want more. If you give the reader a terrific read, with a satisfying ending that has an inevitable ending and just enough twist to keep the reader surprised but not shocked, you’ll have a reader who wants your next book, too. This means you don’t have to resort to tricks of cliff-hanging a book, or using obvious manipulation. In fact, you don’t want to use tricks at all—look to craft strong characters that have strong goals, clear reasons for those goals and put it all together with an end that mirrors your opening.
Don’t be satisfied when you finish a book—your work is just starting there. Go back and check every character arc. Look to see if you really mirror the opening and ending. Look to see if your character really did face a terrible dilemma at the dark moment—yes, even a comedy needs that.
Once you finish a story, that’s the time you can go back and make sure you have all the pieces in place to really give readers a great read. And use a few early readers to get their feedback. They’ll help you know if you really did pull off the feat of a story that hooks the reader and keeps them hooked from page one until the very end.
So what do you think? Have you ever used these techniques to craft a satisfying ending? Any other tips for us?
Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the "Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer" contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA's Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: "simply superb"..."wonderfully uplifting"....and "beautifully written." She is also the author of the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series, Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire. She is currently working on her next Regency romance, Lady Chance.
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