This post was originally written and posted August 27th, 2013, and is being reposted here for archival purposes.
Endings are tricky things. A lot of young writers don’t think about them. They don’t want to. After all the story is moving, why worry about something that’ll only happen when it stops?
But here’s the truth: Even if they don’t want it to, all stories must eventually stop. The characters, the tales, they might go on. But at some point, the story must reach its end. Because in truth your ending is as important as your beginning, and if you don’t plan for it and work towards it with just as much focus and determination as you put forward for the beginning, the rest of your work might as well be meaningless. In fact, if you neglect your ending, your work will be.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you’ll need to have every little detail of your ending worked out in advance, although some authors do. In fact, some authors (such as Lawrence Watt-Evans in a few cases) go a step further and actually write out the last few chapters of their works first, and then go back and write from the beginning to ensure that everything they write leads properly toward the ending they want. But even if you don’t take such drastic action, you should know the rough details of how your story will end before you ever start. Not only will this make the process of writing easier, but it will help prevent your work from feeling forced or disjointed as you try to piece together a plot that won’t line up to an ending. Picture your story like a puzzle. If you start with the final scene, and disassemble the puzzle in reverse order, you can be assured that when the puzzle is reassembled by the reader, the story will be complete. If you start with one piece and try to paint the picture as you go, you run the risk of creating a puzzle wherein the picture is smudged or incomplete and the edges don’t fit.
Okay, so this is all well and good, but most of you more experienced writers out there already know this, or at least have learned for yourselves. So lets talk about something a bit more specific. Let’s talk about a few of the various puzzle pieces that you’ll need in order to make a good ending. Because in truth, an ending is nothing more than the sum of the story brought to its natural conclusion. How do you go about making sure that those pieces are going to give your ending the punch it needs?
The first puzzle piece to discuss is, without a doubt, one of the most important. You can call it foreshadowing. You can call it groundwork. You can call it a foundation. But in the end, it all boils down to one simple rule: your ending must be the result of and tie into elements that were presented earlier in your story. Your ending must relate to the plot. You must bring up over the course of the story elements of plot and scene that have left the reader thinking, or at least been hinted at, when you reach the ending. If your villain is going to seize upon a characters fear of heights in the climactic battle, then you’d better darn well have shown that characters fear of heights in an earlier scene. The more your ending’s pivotal moments relate to elements earlier in the story, the more immersive it will be for the reader.
For example, let’s look at one of my old works hosted elsewhere online: The Dusk Guard: Rise. Early on in the beginning of the story, I have one of the characters meet with an old friend on the train to Canterlot. They talk about old times, swap stories, and in general it’s a chance for the reader to learn a little bit about the character the chapter follows and what he’s like. However, it also comes up as a plot point later. As the story moves along, the reader and the character learn that their friend is in the employ of the story’s villain, which introduces an obvious conflict between the two characters. For the reader, this results in a rising bit of tension over the course of the story. When they finally reach the beginning of the end and the difference between the two friends comes to a head, the reader is already emotionally involved as they have had a whole book to contemplate the upcoming conflict. Even without the two being friends this is a plot scenario that must be resolved in the end, as the reader has been building towards it.
Now before I move on, I have one more thing to say about this. Unfortunately, I have seen some amateur “writers” claiming that the act of foreshadowing, laying groundwork, is weak writing. They hold that giving readers such detail before it is relevant is “boring” and that the “proper” method is to simply wait until the scene in which it would be relevant and then introduce the detail via flashback. This is NOT true. In fact, it is the opposite of what you should be striving for. Good plots (and good endings) do not arise from simply spoon-feeding the info on a need-to-know basis, especially through such a clunky and horribly misused concept as a flashback. Those who routinely suggest this are, no matter what they may claim, not good writers. Giving of details on a spur-of-the-moment basis does nothing but A) break the flow and pull the reader out of the narrative B) lessen the impact of the moment (as it gives the reader far less time to digest the idea behind it) C) cheat the reader out of attempting to understand plot elements on their own and D) unbalance the plot and pacing of any story. Flashbacks are to be used sparingly and with care. You want them to support a narrative, not break it. Any time a story begins to resort to sudden, inexplicable flashbacks near the end of its narrative, you can be assured that the writer has very little idea what they are doing … and that the ending is, in all likelihood, only going to be relevant to the events of the last few pages.
Now that that’s been said, let us move on to another puzzle piece: character development. Every writer prizes three-dimensional characters. But even the most real characters will not save your ending if you fail to let them be changed by it. Sure you can get away with it, but if you want to have a meaningful ending, your characters must change in some manner. Do they overcome a flaw in a critical moment? How does the character who has been afraid of heights their entire life react when faced with heights at the end? Are they still the same? Have they grown?
Character development is something that should naturally exist through the entirety of your story, but for your ending to have real punch your character must make use of it—show it—during your ending. Whether this is during the final battle or the moments after, if your characters have grown over the course of the story, the ending becomes more meaningful.
Take for example, the ending of the film Super 8. In the beginning of the film we see that the main character has reacted to the death of his mother by keeping her locket with him at all times. As the film moves along, we see him using the locket as a means to quiet his own fears, and he even goes back for it on a few occasions despite danger. Near the film’s climax however, as the alien grabs him he looks to his locket and then explains his own epiphany of character to the creature—that it’s okay to be scared or angry, but we can’t always hold onto those feelings. We have to let them go. At the finale of the film as the alien’s ship is sucking up metal all across the city the locket leaves his pocket, flying into the air. He catches the chain, takes one last look at the photo of his mother and with a moment of recognition … lets it go. It’s a beautiful moment of character growth that was carefully built through the entire film, and even if most people didn’t consciously recognize it, it made the ending all that more meaningful.
If you want your ending to resonate with your reader, give your characters growth. Let them ponder and question themselves over the course of the story and then at the end, give them the epiphany that they need to change. Not in a sudden burst, but in a gradual, foreshadowed way that the reader can follow. In turn, you may just inspire your reader to think more on the character in relation to their own life after they finish, making the ending that much more meaningful and quite possibly emotional.
There’s another oft-forgotten element to an end that can be used with characters and scenes alike in a variety of ways: bookending. Now, I don’t mean that the book must end. Bookending is the idea that you can tie the beginning to end in some way to make the ending feel similar to the beginning to remind the reader of where everything started. Almost as a comparison to the end.
For a rare case of the example, take the Halo trilogy. The trilogy opens and introduces us to the main character, Master Chief, by bringing him out of a cryotube while various characters give background details that form the basis of the plot. At the series end? We have the same character climbing into a cryotube as another character says “But you did it … It’s finished.” The hero ends the series just as he began it, climbing back into a cryotube to await another long sleep, leaving the final line “Wake me. When you need me.” The ending is pretty good all on its own, but for those who have followed the series as a whole? The ending carries new meaning, even if they don’t recall why, by referring back to the beginning.
Bookending can come in many forms. Sometimes it’s in something a character says. Sometimes it’s in something they do. Or a particular setting or place. But if you want to make an ending more meaningful, make it bookend. It can also drive home how the character changes. They started the journey in a bar, boasting about their “accomplishments?” End with them in a bar calmly and humbly watching some other younger fool boast away. You don’t have to bookend, but doing so can add some extra “oomph” for the reader.
These aren’t all the elements that can be worked into an ending. Endings are as I said, a sum of their parts. Everything that you put into your story will build towards the end. From the characters to the dialogue to the pacing, every word that you put down on paper will be a brick that leads to the end of your character’s journey, and you must accept that fact.
But once you do, and you start with the destination in mind, working every bit of your narrative towards the end, then you can start to see your ending having an impact. There may be a few false starts (for instance, I’m already planning to rework the end of my latest book, it’s far too weak as is), but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to make endings that leave your readers remembering, not just reading. Give them a culmination of the characters, a culmination of the plot that they can think about through its course, a twist on a familiar setting …
And you’ll have the ending that your readers remember you for.