I’ve spent a lot longer on this matter of the satisfying ending than any other point on the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist. That’s because it’s so critical. A bad ending can ruin an otherwise great book. But I’m nearly done with endings, and next time we’ll move on to Structure.
Don’t rush the ending
The pacing of a novel should increase as we approach the ending. Within reason.
But there’s a fine balance between speeding up the pace and rushing through to the end. Every once in a while, I come across a book that so focuses on that race to the finish that it goes by too quickly. The climax should be a sprint, not a Sunday stroll. But not a bullet train, either.
A well-paced ending runs the reader through the climax, while still taking enough time to make sure each setting, prop, and character gets enough description and action to accurately convey to the reader what’s going on. You know how in action movies they sometimes go into slow-motion for parts of the big fight scenes? You can do that in your novel, too, in small doses, just by taking time to let your viewpoint character observe the situation.
Once the main action is resolved, move into the denouement where they get a breather and settle into the storyworld’s new normal. The problem with the too-swift ending is that it rockets the reader through those events so quickly, they don’t entirely know what happened.
Avoid the nonending
There was a time when open, ambiguous endings were sort of artsy and experimental. Now, as I once heard Dan Walsh put it, it’s just a cop out. Readers expect and deserve some resolution. You don’t need a long epilogue like Jane Austen used to write, outlining the arrangements of the new household and what sort of carriage they drove. But you do need closure.
Find the point of resolution, at which the main story question is answered. Continue the denouement for long enough after that to let the reader feel their newfound friends will enjoy their new life, like Sam returning to Shire in The Return of the King. If you want to, you can spin forward with a little foreshadowing of what their new life might be like.
Even if your story is a tragedy, there should be resolution for the remaining characters as they move on. Hamlet is about the biggest tragedy ever, but even after the bodies pile up, Horatio honors Hamlet by revealing the sad tale to Fortinbras and assuring him of Hamlet’s support of his succession. So there is resolution there, though not a happy ending.
Tie your story up with a bow, because your book is a gift to your readers.