by Barbara Linn Probst
I attended an online workshop this winter where I heard Cuban-American writer Ana Menéndez make the intriguing statement: "Endings, like hemlines and male facial hair, are subject to trends." Ana noted that, personally, she knows a story's ending before she begins, although she doesn't always know how she’ll get there.
Her reflections intrigued me, so I decided to ask other writers: “At what point do you know your story's ending?” I also asked: “What kind of endings do you like to write?” Thirty people responded to my question, often at length.
I posed a related question on a few reader groups I belong to about the kind of endings they liked to read— twist, happily-ever-after, unresolved/ambiguous, epiphany, redemption, bittersweet, a lesson learned, an ending that represents a new beginning. I’m always interested to see if writers and readers agree! More about that at the end of this piece.
The reflections of the thirty writers, in response to the first question, fell into three camps: I know before I start; I rarely know; and sometimes/sort of/it often changes. Here are some examples of what they told me.
I have to know before I start writing …
I always know the ending when I plot, and often work backwards from there.
I always know basically how I want a story to start and end. It will, of course, be fleshed out and massaged, but the kernel remains.
I always know the ending before I start writing, even if I don't know how to get there. It gives me motivation to finish the rest!
I usually know how the story ends and do a lot of figuring-out about how to get there.
I don't actually start writing until I have a pretty good handle on a couple of major twists and the ending.
I’ve known the ending on every project I’ve written before I start writing.
But the getting-there can be hard …
I usually know my endings, but on the path to get there, those endings often change.
Always know the last line. The challenge is getting there!
I know the rough ending, but not the setting for the final scene or how my characters actually get there.
I rarely know when I start out …
My stories seldom follow the path I think of when I start writing.
I'm never sure where my characters are going until they get there.
I seldom know where a story will end when I start writing and I change my mind at least six times per story while I'm drafting.
I might think I know, but it usually changes along the way …
I have an idea of where I'm going, but the end shifts and often surprises me. The girls in the basement have me on a very limited "need to know" program.
The characters tend to take me in detours I didn’t expect.
I know “an” ending when I begin. I need that bracket, but it morphs during the process.
Although I have an idea of how I want it all to work out, I’m willing to let the characters lead me and help me find the story (and the ending).
I always have an ending in mind before I begin, though I may change my original plans.
I typically have the whole story in my head, including the ending, before I begin plotting. However, the darn characters often have different ideas, and the ending surprises me. If after finishing that last line and I lean back in my chair and say “WOW,” I figure it’s the right ending for the story.
I usually know the ending somewhere around the middle, although I suspect I always knew it and didn’t tell myself earlier
Readers, of course, have no idea about any of this! What they see is the final product. Of the fifty-two readers who responded to my question about the kind of endings they liked, many noted that it depended on their mood and the kind of book they were reading, since the ending needed to “feel right” for the plot and style of the book.
Tastes vary, so there was no consensus on the “best” kind of ending. Two elements seemed to stand out the most, though: everything-tied-up versus open-ended, and surprise versus inevitability.
“Everything resolved” or open-ended?
For every person who liked a book that ties up all the loose ends, there was another who disliked stories with everything neatly tied-up, because that’s not how life works.
No loose ends please.
I definitely do not like a vague, open ending, as though the author had no clue how to end his/her book!
I don't like a book with a tied-up ending. It seems too predictable to me. Vague endings give me more to think about.
I prefer an ending that doesn't tie everything up too neatly. I like when an ending makes me think, and makes me imagine what happens to the characters after the last page.
To twist or not to twist?
Many loved a twist ending, something they didn’t see coming, though others didn’t.
"Twists" are okay, provided they aren't way out of line with the characters and their actions as portrayed earlier in the storyline.
I love the feeling of: "Wow, I so didn't see that coming!"
I like an ending that feels like the inevitable conclusion to the story, yet is surprising, which I know is hard to pull off! An ambiguous ending can be wonderful, if skillfully handled. I don’t care much for twist endings—they always feel like a cheap trick, unless done just masterfully. I haven’t read many twists that were.
Give me something completely "out of the blue" and unexpected!
It depends upon how much "sense" the ending makes. But don't just throw in a totally unexpected ending—it doesn't work for me.
So what do we make of all this?
Two tentative conclusions:
First, most of us writers seem to have an idea where we’re headed with a story, but it can’t be rigid. Even the most devoted plotters leave room for the unforeseen. There’s no simple answer to my original question—Who’s in charge, author or characters?
Second, your story’s ending will, inevitably, please some readers but not others. What seems to matter most is that the ending has to suit the story.
What about you?
At what point do you know how your story will end? Are you sometimes surprised? Do you like to read the same kind of endings that you like to write?
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BARBARA LINN PROBST is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) is the powerful story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. QUEEN OF THE OWLS was selected as one of the twenty most anticipated books of the year by Working Mother, a debut novel “too good to ignore” by Bustle, was featured in places like Pop Sugar, Entertainment Weekly, Parade Magazine, and Ms. Magazine. It also won the bronze medal for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, placed first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award, and was short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Barbara’s second book, THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES, launched April 2021.