by Ellen Buikema
You’re reading a whirlwind story full of great story arcs and intriguing characters. The plot is speeding towards its climax, and you’re consuming the pages into the wee hours of the morning. Then bam! The book comes to a halt due to a natural disaster, last minute marriage to the wrong character, discover that it was all a dream, or another disappointing end.
Consider Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. At the end of the story Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy marry. It appears as though their marriage will be a good one, and that the rest of Mr. Bennet’s daughters have settled down. There are no unanswered questions.
A resolved ending isn’t always a happy ending. In Shakespeare’s tragedies major characters often end up dead by one means or another. What matters most for a resolved ending is that all issues have been clearly resolved.
Sometimes, the end is not truly the end. The unresolved ending leaves the reader with more questions than answers. Cliffhangers can be frustrating, but can also be satisfying if the story promises more.
Unresolved endings are good choices for a series, because it leads the reader to the next book. For example, Stephen King's The Dark Tower series. Some books in this series were published many years apart.
This ending expands the story beyond the events of the tale, jumps forward in time, and sometimes changes perspective. Margaret Atwood's novel, The Handmaid's Tale is an example.
Like an unexpected ending, expanded endings can change the readers paradigm.
The epilogue allows the writer to answer questions that might not be possible to answer in the space of the story, like how things turned out years after the main events of the story.
The unexpected twist can be earth-shattering, or subtle. The trick to pulling off the big surprise is that in hindsight you knew it would have to happen. This should not come out of this air.
A good ending avoids the heavy-handedness that abruptly resolves all the story’s problems in an unnatural way. So, no previously unknown rich relative appearing from nowhere to give the poor hardworking main character a vast fortune. Good plot twists require clues left along the way. Have a look at The Perfect Wife by JP Delaney.
An ambiguous ending allows readers to come to different conclusions. Of all the endings, the ambiguous one requires the most involvement from the reader.
Take a look at the ending to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. In the last lines, main character Pip takes the hand of the widow Estrella and says he sees “no shadow of another parting from her.” Is his prediction correct? The ending leaves the reader with more than one possibility.
Sometimes referred to as a tied ending or a full circle ending, a circular ending brings the story “full circle” back around to where it began, with subtle differences showing how your characters have grown. The Hero’s Journey has this type of plot structure.
There are many options to repeat your main theme in the story’s end, people, actions, details.
James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake ends on a sentence fragment that finishes the first sentence of his novel.
People are curious beings. Readers appreciate being surprised. Then give them something they don’t expect, but still makes sense for your story.
Maybe the thief turns out to be the narrator’s own husband or even the narrator herself. Maybe the girl doesn’t pick between her two suitors, but instead marries their uncle. Or their plumber.
Agatha Christie, a master of surprise, shows us how it’s done in And Then There Were None. Ten visitors are trapped on a small island and murdered one by one. With no one else on the island, which of them is the murderer?
Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho begins with describing a graffiti using the text “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”
The novel’s ending is perfectly circular.
“this is, uh, how life presents itself in a bar or in a club in New York, maybe anywhere, at the end of the century and how people, you know, me, behave, and this is what being Patrick means to me, I guess, so, well, yup, uh…” Above one of the doors covered by red velvet drapes in Harry’s is a sign with letters that match the drapes’ color that read “THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.”
Milan Kundera uses mood in his The Unbearable Lightness of Being:
Kundera’s story fades like a piece of music, diminuendo. The ending’s all about mood.
“Up out of the lampshade, startled by the overhead light, flew a large nocturnal butterfly that began circling the room. The strains of the piano and violin rose up weakly from below.”
Try to make your reader feel the moment, something ordinary but significant for the tale. Falling rain at the end of a long drought.
This kind of ending can be tricky and sometimes unsatisfying because the reader bought your book so you can show what happened. But if you’ve delivered an action-packed story and if the question is rather vague, it could work.
Consider Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. It ends with Scarlett O’Hara’s desire to be with Rhett Butler again.
“I’ll think of it all tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”
For your reading pleasure, here’s a post on 100 Ways to End a Story.
How do you prefer to end your stories? What is your favorite book ending?
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Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA paranormal fantasy.
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