Quick Writing Fix: Improving Story Endings

This can't be the end!

This can’t be the end!

I’ve read bestselling novels where the story felt as though it should end but instead the novel went on for many more pages. Although a lot of attention is paid to that all-important opening, let’s talk about the elements of good story endings.

Writing Tip for Today: What are some things to consider when your story draws to a close?


Where’s the Climax?

Before you can consider your novel’s ending, you must know where the climax scene is located. In a traditional three-act structure, the climax is generally JUST BEFORE ACT III, or in other words at the tail end of ACT II. The climax should be a singular event, with more tension, action and more at stake than any scene previous. In most novels, this climax scene occurs when the MAIN STORY QUESTION is decided by ACTIONS your protagonist takes. No more talking about what she’ll do or not do. She must ACT. And your protagonist must solve her own problems–no cavalry riding in to save the day. Take a look at any paper & ink book and you’ll find that this climax scene generally comes within 30-50 pages of the end of the book. Make sure you save the biggest scene of the novel for this climax.

Round Up the Horses

The scenes which follow your novel’s climax or do or die scene are often called “Rounding up the horses.” Generally speaking, this means you must bring to a conclusion not only the main story goal/problem, but also any subplots in the story.  If you introduce Grandma who has cancer at the beginning of a novel, but then never tell whether she’s cured, dies or is still undergoing treatment, readers won’t like it. The formula for Romance-genre applies to every subplot: either the protagonist is happy, unhappy or happy for now about a subplot’s outcome. Rounding up the horses will also apply to your antagonist’s fate. Readers will want to know what happens to the main antagonist. In mainstream/literary fiction, it’s okay (in my opinion) to hint at a direction the character seems to be going rather than supplying a pat or neat answer. I guess that’s like rounding up the horses but leaving the gate slightly open.


Satisfy the Reader

All this positioning is vital to satisfying readers. If the climax scene is too early in the story, the rest will seem anti-climatic. The idea of a story is to increase tension/conflict/worry by degrees all the way to that climax. Anything which happens after the climax is meant to satisfy curiosity and to reassure the reader that all her anxiety was worth it. The denouement (resolution) has to be as satisfying as the genre dictates. In other words, a romance needs at least Happy For Now if there’s no Happy Ever After. A literary or dissonant mainstream story might be able to end with either a bittersweet or even a tragic end. It’s important to know who your readers are likely to be and to keep them in mind. If you hand Happy Ever After readers a tragedy, you’ll need to prepare them sufficiently for the outcome or else reader satisfaction is likely to be minimal. Another thing to consider is readers’ reactions to your ending. Will readers agree that your ending is the only possible outcome of the story? Think about this as you craft the best ending possible.

Your Turn: How can you tell when your story is over?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

2 comments on “Quick Writing Fix: Improving Story Endings

  1. This subject arose for my husband recently. He was reading “The Hornets Nest” by Patricia Cornwell. The MO of the murders was to spray paint an hour glass on the private parts of the male victims. But the end never explained why the killer did this. We could speculate why, but without ever knowing if the author had this in mind left us both feeling a bit ripped off.

    • Sue,
      Exactly what I had in mind. Another (famous) book which went too long IMHO, was The Poisonwood Bible by Kingsolver. After the dad died, I lost interest.
      Keep Writing,

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