Writing Your Novel’s Ending

Some readers love sweet story endings. Others want more
realistic or nuanced finishes. Either way, readers will demand that your novel
have a satisfying ending.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are some little reminders for
nailing that novel ending:

Short and Sweet

Your novel’s ending begins just after your climax scene. If
you proceed to write too much more of what happened “ever after,” readers will
be confused. They may wonder: Did I miss the point of the story? Why is the
author telling me all this extra stuff?

Take a look at three of your favorite published novels. Find the climax scene, toward the end. My guess is that these books will only have around 30 pages after that climax. Why? Effective storytellers understand that after the central goal is either met or unmet, readers only want the trajectory of the protagonist’s life after that.

By that, I mean that even in genre romance books, we usually
only follow the story to the altar, but rarely past that point. If the story
question is “Will the heroine get the guy,” it’s not relevant to read that the
happy couple divorced a year later. Save that juicy tidbit for the sequel.

The upshot is that once your character has either won or
lost the Main Goal, get out of the story as fast as possible.

Rounded Up

The adage that novelists should “round up the horses” is
another factor in a satisfying ending. Throughout your story, you’ve no doubt
added subplots. Subplots enrich the story and give insights into the characters’
motivations and interests.

Common subplot additions are a love interest (for non-genre novels), a secondary “echo” story that deepens the main story (perhaps about the protag’s past or an auxiliary problem on a larger or smaller scale), a mystery or anything that helps readers understand the story in a different or deeper way. Most first-time novelists should add only a couple of these subplots, but after the climax, they still need their own resolutions or outcomes.

For instance, if the Protagonist’s grandmother learns she
has cancer in the story, readers will demand to know if Grandma survives. This
is a horse  that needs to be rounded up
and put to bed before the story ends.

Most readers will prefer that these subplot resolutions are staggered—that is, we don’t tie everything up neatly all at once. It takes skill to weave in these rounded-up subplot resolutions. I suggest you refer again to those three novels you loved for tips on how to round up the horses smoothly and logically.

True to Tone

Above all else, readers need novel endings to satisfy. The
reader must think, “It couldn’t have turned out any other way.” Or, “The ending
surprises me, but I’m OK with it.” Since there are only five possible endings
to any story (listed at the end of this post), the writer should pay special
attention to the type of story and the tone.

Some readers want a happy ending. If that’s your target
audience, it’s risky to have your character get hit by car and die before the “ever
after.” If you are writing more literary or gritty fiction, a happy ending will
come off as contrived unless it’s done with great skill.

Be sure your imagined ending agrees with your target audience’s expectations. That’s the definition of a satisfying novel ending.

Possible Outcomes for Stories and Novels:

Protagonist gets what she wants and is:

Happy about it

Unhappy about it (perhaps has learned or changed to embrace
a different goal)

Protagonist DOESN’T achieve the goal and is:
Unhappy (the agony of defeat)

Happy (has wisdom not present at outset or has changed)

Protagonist doesn’t care either way. (Not recommended—you don’t want to foster a sense of ennui in your reader)

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.

3 comments on “Writing Your Novel’s Ending

  1. Hi Linda: I so enjoy your articles. I find them educational, so in this regard you are helping me in many ways.

    I do have a question. I am currently working on a novel where the ending remains a mystery for me because of moral/ethical conflicts. If I save the person at risk, she gets away with a crime. If I kill her, the heroes of the story really didn’t accomplish everything. What to do? What to do?
    Do you ever struggle with such an issue?

  2. Hi Patrick,
    I think that readers want justice, but they also crave redemption. What if you don’t kill her off but make her face herself or acknowledge/pay for her crimes in some less than lethal way? When I face that sort of dilemma, I turn to the masters and see how they effect an ending both satisfying and real.
    Hope this helps.
    Keep Writing,

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