Some people say the ending is the most important part of a story. I’m inclined to agree. Mess up the ending, and your reader will feel cheated. Like they’ve wasted their time. The greatest premise in the world won’t mean squat if you can’t stick the landing. That’s why we’re talking about how to end a story!
How you end your story is really, really important. But, I didn’t have to tell you that, did I? Because we’ve all experienced stories with bad endings *cough* Game of Thrones, and we know that a bad ending can sour a reader’s entire experience of a story.
That’s why you need to start your writing process with a story ending in mind. Can the way you end your story change and evolve during the writing process- Sure! But, writing a story and expetecting the perfect ending to pop out of your imagination at just the right time is a mistake.
And before you say it, I know a lot of famous and successful writers are also panters. But, we’re not famous and successful are we? We’re learning the craft. You need to know what makes a good story ending before you can intuitively write one without thinking. But, I’m getting to my first point which is-
Start with the End in Mind
There are two kinds of writers: Plotters and Pantsers. Pantsers write stories “by the seat of their pants” without plotting or outlining. And plotters write stories with good endings… Okay, that’s not quite fair. There are some very successful pantsers out there like Stephen King and Margaret Atwood.
But, I’m sure as hell not as talented as they are, so I have to plot.
There’s an inherit benefit to plotting. Having an ending in mind will keep your writing focused.
The ending and plot points may change along the way, and that’s fine. But a good outline is like a roadmap. You might not need it, but it’s sure nice to have when you’re lost!
At the end of your story does your hero out-ski his rival, win the girl and live happily ever after? Or worse, does he wake up and realize that it was all a dream? Then you’ve got a problem, my friend. But, don’t worry! The problem isn’t that you’re an unimaginative dolt. You just need some inspiration.
Cliched writing usually means you haven’t done enough research. But how do you research for a fictional story? Start by reading non-fiction. After all, the best stories are rooted in reality.
Writing a police procedural? A perfect ending could be in the pages of your local police blotter. Working on a story about time travel? Then it’s time to read up on black holes, quantum physics, and maybe a little history.
Or delve into your own life experience to find your stories perfect ending. How have the major conflicts of your life resolved? Maybe you’re thinking- poorly. And, that’s okay. Conflict isn’t always resolved positively in reality, and the same can be true for your story.
Not every ending is required to be happy.
Go Back to the Beginning
Matthew McConaughey once said that “life is a flat circle.” Well, so are the best stories. Good endings will often take the reader back to where the story began. They tie everything up with a nice bow.
Take Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Our adventure begins in The Shire. Over the next three movies, we travel across Middle Earth, defeat Sauron, and destroy the One Ring. But in the end, we’re right back at The Shire where we started.
(To all my Tolkien fans out there- I apologize for referencing Jackson’s movies over the actual novels, but the truth is I’ve never read the novels. I probably never will. High Fantasy- while great- is just not my bag, baby.)
Or how about Citizen Kane, one of the greatest films of all time. Also a great example of a nonlinear narrative. We start with the cryptic whisper of a dying man- “Rosebud.” We don’t discover the meaning of “Rosebud,” until the movie’s final frame- a huge emotional payoff. Connecting your story’s ending to it’s beginning will give your reader a satisfying sense of closure.
Keep it Tight
The final act of your story is not the place to introduce new characters, plot threads, or story arcs. The final act is about ending your story, so wrap up those plots, and kill those characters.
Okay, you don’t have to kill all your characters. But remember final acts are like group therapy. They’re about one thing- resolving the conflict. A lot of new information will get in the way of that sweet, sweet resolution.
And another thing!
If your planning a startling revelation as a kind of stinger to end your novel on then you better damn-sure foreshadow that revelation early on in the book. Your character shouldn’t, out of nowhere, be really good at karate because that’s the only way you can imagine them defeating the Big Bad.
Let the Hero Take the Wheel
The final act of the story is about your protagonist finally taking charge of her situation. She may have been lost in the first act. Her friends may have saved her butt in the second act, but by the time of the climax, she needs to be kicking ass and taking names (but make it too easy for her). Point is, she should be the one doing the saving!
Your hero should take the lead in the final act. Which brings me to my final tip…
Throughout a story, protagonists should transform into new, better versions of themselves. It’s not enough that they conquer the Big Bad. They should also prove that they’ve earned their victory. So while they’re vanquishing that diabolical villain they should also defeat their inner demons as well! That’s how you make a dynamic character!
Okay, there are a few tips to help you write a perfect ending. Remember, the ending is the most important part of your story. Don’t screw it up. Otherwise, you’ve wasted everyone’s time. Don’t do that!
So, uh… That’s pretty much it.
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Story Engineeing by Larry Brooks – This is one of my go-to books when it comes to all things plot related. Larry Brooks gives you practical, actionable advice on how to structure your story. I can’t recomend it enough. Full transperancy- I get a little commission if you use that link.
The Payoff- KM Allan