So yesterday I talked about writing a good beginning, leading with peril. Today I’m going to look at the trickier question of what makes a good ending. You see, where there’s a fairly straightforward formula for a beginning, endings aren’t quite that easy. A lot of it is based on the dictates of the story itself, not to mention trying to put an original spin on something that’s been done before – and just hope you’re aware that it’s been done before, because if you don’t know and a reader who has seen this before reads it…well, who knows what they may think after getting so far through the story, to this point, and getting hit with a cliche ending. This underscores how important it is to read what is done in your genre and what you could consider a common trope.
I’ve also read that subplots are typically influenced by the word count of a story, so you want to look at where you want to bring the thread of the subplot into your main plot. Do you want it resolved in the climax, or do you want a mini-climax for the subplot that leads into that? In that case, you’re writing almost two endings.
Another thing that I’ve read and observed is that it’s important for a climax not to be too far from the very end of the story but also not too close to the end of the story, because you want some falling action but also not too much because then your story starts to feel anticlimactic. The reader might not realize that the climax has come and gone because there’s so much story still left.
It’s a tricky thing. From so much of what I’ve seen and read and experienced, it’s not easy to teach. It’s something that you kind of learn by doing. My personal inclination was always to put the climax very close to the end, which may have left the ending a bit abrupt, but I’d rather have an abrupt ending than something that keeps going on and on. Look at the movie version of Return of the King. That was a movie where the climax(es) happened a little too early and there was way too much falling action afterwards. It felt like the ending was never going to come.
I can think of a few tropes that I’ve seen. Sometimes I like to see the main character really showing how they’ve changed through the events of the story. You could almost present a scene that is a mirror image to something that happened earlier in the story, showing how your character reacts differently. For instance the character Matty in Corridors of the Dead is pretty misanthropic when the novel opens. As the book goes on, she learns to value and cherish human life. So while this is not necessarily what the last scene, it could be fitting to show a scene where she has an opportunity to turn her back on someone in need but ends up helping them instead, where we’ve seen her turn her back on people before. You know, showing her embracing this new facet of herself. To me, that’s almost always the best ending to a story.
You could also show how the environment has changed. If you’re talking about the end of the world, show the after-effects. Make that the last thing that you linger on – maybe how those effects impact a person.
I do think it’s very important that an ending relate to the climax in some way. I don’t just mean as a consequence, but presenting an echo of it at the end.
For example, let’s say that the climax of a given story is a knife fight between two characters (and this is totally pulled out of my ass) but the protagonist, who once would have been eager for the fight, is reluctant to act and is only pulled into it by the antagonist. So the protagonist fights the antagonist and ends up stabbing them and killing them. You have your falling action wherein the protagonist discovers that the old self is not that different from the antagonist that he just killed – essentially, the enemy is (or was) himself, and he faces, for example, the friends of the antagonist and owning the responsibility of what he’s done.
It’s not the best example, but I would need all of the threads of that story to pull together and show this. This is where you get into the problem of why it’s so hard to teach this stuff, and why writing an ending is so difficult. It’s very hard to just come up with an example off the cuff, whereas you can easily rattle off three examples.
But you see what I’m saying: it’s key to match the emotional tone of the ending to the emotional tone directly preceding the climax. You get some echoes, at least.
This is definitely a topic that I plan to revisit once I get some more experience and read and study more. I’d love to hear what anybody else has to say about what they think makes an effective ending.