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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
* * * * * *
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.
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I usually know where my characters will be at story's end, but am often in "The characters tend to take me in detours I didn’t expect." camp.
Characters become insistent and off we go.
I'm am eclectic reader and like a variety of endings. What I really need in a story is balance. Too much negativity makes me feel off-kilter.
What's been so interesting to me about each of my novels, including the WIP, is that I know from the start how it will end (my destination) BUT there is always an extra "something" about the ending that I never could have predicted, comes to me when I'm nearly there or have completed a first or second draft, AND makes the ending so much better!!
Thank you for all this research and the insight that comes with it.
I always know the spirit of the ending, but not necessarily the details, though that varies from story to story. Whenever I've tried to stubbornly cling to the exact details of my initial vision I've ended up changing it when I revised. In fact, the ending that occurs after one revision is typically the one that endures. It's in the reading of the story much later that it becomes a map, the patterns pointing me towards the ending that fits. I've learned to trust that.
I don't write endings that are too neat, nor are they 100% happy. I'd more call them positive endings where threads are tied, but the knots vary, some tighter than others, some suggesting they could unravel. That's what I, Christina Hawthorne, enjoy as a reader. Life experiences have molded me that way. As a writer, I can admire and appreciate most endings, and are glad to praise the novel, but if the writer leaves me in a melancholy state (or worse) I'll avoid reading their work thereafter.
Yes, we have much the same approach! Personally, I like endings that show an internal change but leave its external consequences a bit open. For example, if the character finds a new sense of self (as my protagonists tend to), I like to leave them "on the threshold," as it were, about to step into a new life whose details we don't yet know ... and that (to me) is very positive and hopeful, but leaves room for the unknown 🙂
Yes, hope, and a reason to hope, are powerful and uplifting when paired with a positive arc!
I'm with you, Christina. I like an HEA, so I'm often working toward that, but most of the time it is the goals that tear me up, and doing the right backstory without any data dumping. I usually know a lot of the reasons for the conflict, but as i figure out the goals and motivation, the ending will change.
For the WIP, knowing the ending AND the beginning made the work possible - I had to figure out how to get to the end given the unpromising place I have to start.
I'm an extreme plotter, and know all the marks that have to be hit, solidly, or the whole thing won't work. That comes with a lot of detail about the 5 Ws (who, why, what, when, and where), but the writing has been fascinating because I had no clue about HOW, and still don't when I start a new scene.
Each scene (I write only in finished scenes) comes with a lot of baggage that somehow has to be dealt with, included, connected, added to... and a specific goal. Each has a main purpose (why is this scene here) and a whole host of potentials.
And then I write it, and feel like I'm doing archaeology, and that now I know the details of how when I finish, but they were there all along, somehow implied in the whole. As each scene is forged, I find how it belongs to the hoped-for completed story.
The process has been discovery, not creation. As if I had designed a necklace - books are linear, in that they are normally read one word at a time in sequence - and I'm polishing each gemstone as I get to it, but the story's balance and symmetry and asymmetries won't be evident until the last stone is in place. Or a tapestry, woven from a cast-on beginning to a chosen end, which won't show all the colors and the balance until the last thread is tied off.
So beautifully put! From what you write, it's in the HOW that the discovery happens ...I remember when I used to teach research and always began the course with the comparison between a miner and a traveler. I miner knows what he's looking for, though not exactly where he will find t; while a traveler knows where he's gong, but not what he might find along the way!
I think you end up being a bit of each - but your personal writing style decides which you use first, and how you bring in the second. It's not JUST about what you will find when you get there, but also about what you will find getting there.
I have literally set out on my journey with a roadmap (that's what I call the file that has the marks to hit). But I look out the window all the way.
I love a twist ending, but I agree that they must be done "masterfully," as in The Sixth Sense. I also love books where everything is tied up--the main and the loose ends, the MCs get their most important wishes. That preference comes from my love of category romance. No one was more surprised than me when I I came to the end of my fantasy romance WIP and I just could not give my MC what she wanted. Oh, she got the love of her life, but did not achieve the goal she strived for throughout the book. This still bothers me, but I believe it's the right ending.
It depends on the genre. A mystery with a who-done-it may unfold differently as one writes, but a romance must, by definition, have an HEA for the ending. It's the journey of the romance which propels it, and there will be twists and a black moment or two, but inherently, the HEA of the main characters will be the end of the story.
This is quite fun but all you have really said is that it depends upon the writer and it depends upon the reader. All the comments echo this. I was going to write something but I suppose it all has been said, some writers write some things and some readers like or dislike them. I think that we all knew that. Sorry for being negative. apologies.