Have you ever picked up a book excited by the beginning of the story but your excitement fades, yet you kept reading because you liked the characters? Then, at the end of the book, when you’re ready for the payoff—it fizzles. The author got you to the very last page, but failed to deliver.
Two common mistakes authors make lead to disappointed readers: the primary character didn’t earn the ending or didn’t even show up for the ending. You can make both mistakes regardless of whether you outline or you discovery write. Both mistakes leave the reader reluctant to pick up another book by that author.
In order to craft a perfect ending, you must write or edit the story with the ending in mind. Every scene. You must also understand the key components of the ending of a story: the crisis, the climax, and the resolution.
Many writers will protest that if they know the end of the story, they lose interest in writing it. Rest assured. You can write the story without knowing the ending. But unless your story structure instincts are powerful, be prepared. You will need a lot of revision to make the story reward the reader.
The reason you want to start with the end in mind is because your story needs to have progressive complications. These complications build a Will-she-Won’t she get what she wants tension in your reader. If you don’t know what the end will be, you can’t build effective progressive complications. However, you don’t have to know your ending so well that you can write the last scene first.
How much of the end do you need to know when you start? It depends on your story, the genre of your story, and your writing strengths and weaknesses. Certain genres require certain endings. For example, romances usually require a happily ever after or happy-for-now ending. Mysteries require the revelation of who-done-it or how it was done. Series require an ending of one plot line but an open ending of at least one plot line until the last of the series. So the first decision about how your story ends, you’ve probably already made based on the genre.
Most likely, you also know what your protagonist wants. What she wants and how she gets, or doesn’t get, what she wants is the story you want to tell.
But there are more questions you need to answer about the ending to your story. First, decide what type of ending this story will have.
There are as many ways to label story endings as there are stories. Here are six common ending types.
These types of endings include the Happily Ever-After and Happy-for-Now common in romances. It also includes The Reveal in who-dun-it and how-dun-it mysteries. A resolved ending has all the subplots and plot threads completed at the end of the story.
This type of ending includes cliffhangers. But it also includes books like Oliver Twist—we don’t know what happens to him after the book ends, but the plot and primary character arc are complete. Or a story with an open-ended ending can end show the character taking an action but we don’t get to see the what’s next. Or it can end with the character anticipating what will happen, an event we don’t see in this book (maybe never).
There are readers who love the cryptic or vague endings of stories. They love to speculate what the author meant, what choice the character made next, and the future of the character and plot.
The twist is a popular ending but can be difficult to pull-off. The twist must have enough hints throughout the story that the reader doesn’t feel cheated. But too many hints and you may give away the twist. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christy has a satisfying but surprise ending. The twist ending of the movie, The Sixth Sense, starring Bruce Willis, was a sensation until the secret got out.
When the ending circles back to the beginning only with more content or context, it is called a closed-circle ending. Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz have circular endings in that they start and end in the “real” world. So does Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.
This ending is fairly obvious. Sometimes the epilogue is simply another paragraph or another chapter. If it gives readers a glimpse into what happened after the story ended, then it’s an epilogue.
Once you know the type of ending you want, you need to understand what progressive complications are.
Remember, the inciting incident of your story upsets your character’s normal life, her comfort zone. After that inciting incident, she tries to return to her comfort zone. But something or someone blocks her way. She pivots and tries again, only to be blocked again. This happens over and over until she finally figures out the way to beat this obstacle. The wins and losses help her learn what she must in order to face the ultimate battle. That final battle against the obstacle (be it a person, place, or thing) is the ending which we’ll talk about in a moment.
Give your character the agency to make choices that change how the story unfolds. Show the reader that the protagonist makes decisions and takes actions that hurt her chances of success.
Your antagonist must have a reason for (unless the antagonist is nature) and a way to stop the protagonist. The fight is unbalanced, favoring the antagonist or it’s apparently too balanced to have an easy win. You need at least one scene where your protagonist faces her antagonist (real or assumed) and loses. Each time she faces an antagonist-generated obstacle, the struggle must challenge her and cost her something. The cost can be emotional, physical, financial, mental, or spiritual. The cost forces her to make adjustments in her way of thinking and/or her way of doing things. And that makes the complications progressive.
Avoid having her take action off stage or between scenes. Keeping the conflict off stage, you rob the reader of the power of that moment and of the feeling that your character has earned her story’s ending.
Understanding the structure, or the key components, of the ending is equally critical for creating an ending that rewards your reader. Note, understanding is critical. Developing a detailed outline of the ending of your story isn’t always necessary. It is okay to hammer out the details of the ending after you’ve written the first draft during the editing and revision phase.
The crisis is THE pivotal moment of your story. Each of your protagonist’s previous choices and actions have led her to this point. The crisis usually happens in the last quarter to the last fifth of your story.
In his book, Story, Robert McKee calls the crisis, “the story’s Obligatory Scene. From the Inciting incident on, the audience has been anticipating with growing vividness the scene in which the protagonist will be face-to-face with the most focused, powerful forces of antagonism in his existence.”
At this point in the story, the antagonistic force must appear to be overwhelming. The protagonist, and the reader, must fear (with good reason) the antagonist will win.
In order for the crisis to work, the choice your protagonist faces must be of utmost importance to her at that moment. You must box your protagonist into a corner where she has only two specific and concrete, life-changing actions she can take. And she must make a choice.
“At the point of crisis, the protagonist is forced to make a choice whether or not she wants to attempt to restore the balance that was disturbed by the inciting incident.” The Fiction Writer’s Toolkit, Bob Mayer
The strongest crisis is a genuine dilemma. A choice between two irreconcilable goods, or the lesser of two evils, or the two choices that put the protagonist at the maximum pressure of her life. She must decide if she will make the ultimate sacrifice (whatever she thinks that may be) in order to achieve the object of her desire.
In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain suggests this choice should force the character to stick to a principle she has held dear up to this point. Or act against it. He says “to make a choice between self-interest and principle is difficult for any of us, in any situation, at any time.”
All the choices your protagonist has made up to this point have built increasing tension in your reader. The climax delivers the goods in a big, explosive scene at about the 90% point in your story. It is the point at which the protagonist, having made her choice, reaches her goal, realizes she wants something else, or fails to reach her goal. In his book, Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass says, “Climaxes are both inner and outer, both plot specific and emotionally charged. The payoff needs to fully plumb the depths in both ways if it is to satisfy.”
The best climax pulls together subplots and the main plot into a final deciding action. “In adherence to or abandonment of principle, your focal character proves ultimately and beyond all doubt what he deserves.” Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain.
The climax is a big, explosive scene. But the most important explosion this scene has is the explosion of tension. The tension in the reader has been growing with every page, waiting for this moment. This battle of words, or emotions, or weapons causes an explosive release of the reader’s tension. This release is what the reader has been anticipating, so make certain the scene is long enough and big enough to satisfy. How do you know? You may have to ask your beta readers to tell you.
While the climax releases the reader’s tension, if the story ends with the climax, the reader feels the ending is too abrupt. He struggles to guess the meaning of the ending. He has no sense of closure. You, the author, must provide closure with the third component of the ending, the Resolution.
The resolution explains that the crisis is over and the effect of the final decision and action has upon the main characters. It gives a sense of closure by highlighting the emotional impact of the climax. You can accomplish this through the viewpoint of your protagonist or a narrator. In the best stories, the reader has an aha moment when she realizes that this is the ending the protagonist had been working toward since the beginning. However, if the resolution details every character’s emotional reaction, the ending of your story will drag. It will lack the impact it needs. Keep it short. Give it resonance through a powerful phrase, gesture, or setting that the reader remembers from the beginning. The resolution is the reader’s payoff for reading the story.
Some authors create powerful last lines that deliver that payoff with a punch.
“For never was a story of more woe, Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
“We each owe a death, there are no exceptions, I know that, but sometimes, oh God, the Green Mile is so long.”The Green Mile, Stephen King,
“After all, tomorrow is another day.”Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell.
“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White.
Starting a story with the end in mind allows you to create a story that builds tension in the reader. You can write your first draft as free-spirited as you like, but if you want to craft a story readers find satisfying you will keep the end in mind during revisions. The ultimate earned ending uses all the story threads—theme, character arc, complications, crisis, climax, and resolution—to build and release the reader’s tension in a most satisfying way.
Writing an earned ending is complicated. The protagonist has to have earned the right to stand face-to-face with the antagonist. The antagonist has to have an equal or better chance of winning the last battle. And however the story ends, the reader must feel that release of tension, that sense of satisfaction that the protagonist earned what happened. That is the reward you’ve given your reader. It’s a reward readers will return for over and over again.
How much of the end of your story do you know when you begin writing?
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Lynette M. Burrows is an author, blogger, creativity advocate, and Yorkie wrangler. She survived moving seventeen times between kindergarten and her high school graduation. This alone makes her uniquely qualified to write an adventure or two.
Her Fellowship series takes place in 1961 Fellowship America where autogyros fly and following the rules isn’t optional. It’s a “chillingly realistic” alternate history. Books one and two, My Soul to Keep, and If I Should Die, are available everywhere books are sold online. Book three, And When I Wake, is scheduled to be published in 2024.
Lynette lives in the land of OZ. She is a certifiable chocoholic and coffee lover. When she’s not blogging or writing or researching her next book, she avoids housework and plays with her two Yorkshire terriers. You can find Lynette online on Facebook, or on Mastodon @LynetteMBurrows@wandering.shop or on her website.
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