Craft a satisfying ending

Writing books seem to give less attention to endings than they do to other elements of fiction. Yet a satisfying ending is a necessity. An unsatisfying ending will produce negative reviews, eliminate word-of-mouth referrals, and ruin your chances of getting repeat readers.

Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If it’s a letdown, they won’t buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.—Mickey Spillane

Spillane’s observation is true of all books, not only mysteries. Hence this Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist item:

The ending is satisfying, with all major story questions resolved.

As we noted last week, this is possibly the most overlooked element. Too many authors and editors these days are just letting stories stop without resolution. And readers are getting tired of it.

In literary fiction, you can sometimes get away with an ambiguous ending. But in all other genres, readers expect an end that leaves them satisfied.

reading book surprise suspense plot twist
Photo by Piotr Bizior

Note this doesn’t mean the ending has to be happy. The ending can be as much a downer as The Elephant Man, as long as it’s realistic and based on the characters’ motivations and actions—not on random stuff you threw in at the end to have things turn out the way you wanted. This goes back to plant and payoff. Any payoff in the ending must be planted early enough to be reasonable.

Answer all the major story questions you’ve raised. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling wraps up all the threads from that story, but since Voldemort escapes to fight another day—well, years, actually—she suitably lays the groundwork for six more books. But the ending of Sorcerer’s Stone is satisfying because the major issue of that installment—keeping the stone away from Voldemort—is accomplished.

So it’s OK to leave minor questions open for a sequel. If major questions remain open, you’re kind of pulling a Lord of the Rings—writing one story across multiple volumes—so you better be able to pull it off. Having a satisfying finish to each volume will keep readers coming back for the next. But if you just break off with no resolution, you’ll only annoy people.

If you’re not planning a sequel, you really need to close up those questions. If there’s too much ambiguity or lack of resolution in a stand-alone novel, readers will not recommend it to their friends. “It was good, up until the end, where everything is just left hanging” is not what you want readers telling their friends.

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