This post was originally written and posted March 31st, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.
All things end.
Well, alright, that’s not exactly true. Let’s expand this a little bit.
All things come to an end.
Still not quite true. Time for the third shot.
All things have an ending.
Aha! That’s more like it!
So, today we’ll be talking about that most nerve-racking of writing moments: The ending! This, like some of my other posts for the last few weeks, has actually been a fairly requested topic, as a lot of young writers really do want to know: how do you write an ending?
It’s a valid question. Your average high-school English class will be lucky to even acknowledge that a story did end, much less discuss what actually went into it that made the ending anything more than the page a book stopped on. Which is almost curious, as almost anyone (even your English teachers) can likely remember an ending to a book or a movie that they absolutely despised. But rarely does an English class or even a class on writing discuss what makes a good ending.
Even I had to think about it for a little bit before sitting down and putting together this post. My first reaction was simply “An ending? Well, it’s the end. You wrap everything up. It’s an ending!” But truth be told, that response is a bit more of that second attempt up above, where all things come to an end. An ending isn’t just the moment where the story stops. That’s an end. An ending on the other hand, is just as much of a work as the rest of the story put together, even if it doesn’t seem like it.
Acknowledge Your Ending
So where to begin? Simple. Before anything else, recognize that your story will have an ending. I know this sounds basic, but it’s a key part of the writing process. Have you ever read a book or seen a TV show where things don’t seem to be going anywhere? Where the plot and characters seem to aimlessly wander for a while before finally settling on an ending (assuming they don’t just stop dead)? This is result of someone writing without acknowledging an ending.
Look, we know you love your characters. And you probably want to keep writing about them or working with them for as long as you can. But the truth is, despite what we want to believe, all things have an ending. The Dusk Guard Saga? It has an ending. No joke. Even before I started writing Rise, I knew how the entire series would end. I have the final scenes planned out. Not meticulously, but there is an ending point to work towards. Every story has its end. When you write, keep this in mind. Know that you’re working towards it. Acknowledge it. Your writing will be tighter. Things will flow better. And you won’t run the risk of making things aimlessly plot around while you try to figure out where your story is going.
Build the Story Towards the Ending
Now, once you’ve acknowledged that your story is going to have an ending, you need to figure out how you’re going to get to that ending. A good ending is going to involve all the elements of the story that you’ve been weaving together: Theme, characters, chekov’s guns, events, various plot threads … The idea isn’t that the ending is something that happens to your work, but rather something that everything in the story builds to. Picture how you want your story to end, and then make sure that what you’re writing builds towards that ending. If you want to have an epic battle between your hero and your villain be the climax of your story, you’re going to need to establish well beforehand that your hero is a capable fighter as well as the villain. Show the hero training, have them experience and learn the skills they will use during the climax so that the reader both knows what to expect … and knows how the characters got there. If there is going to be an emotional moment between the hero and another character near the end, or a resolve that comes from something taken care of just before the ending then make sure that the tools are in place to have the event.
Once you actually have these pieces, you’ll find you can take your ending a surprising number of ways. You might end up subverting a belief commonly held through the story at the last moment to make the final scene more climactic, or stage a reveal that shocks the audience but in hindsight makes sense (“I am your father,” anyone?). You may have your characters make a valuable sacrifice or give up something important to them to succeed (which, for it to hit the audience, needs to be something the audience understands the value of).
But all of these things, to make the ending more meaningful, must have been built beforehand. Know your ending and build the story towards it. If I hand you a five-dollar bill only to snatch it back in less than two seconds, you won’t be as disappointed as you would be if I handed it to you, let you put in your wallet, keep it for a couple of days and then try to snatch it back. Let the reader know and understand what’s at stake and what’s going into your ending.
The Climax and the Resolution
With this, keep in mind that the ending should contain the moments of highest tension and the most relief of your entire story. Last week’s post on pacing is a good refresher of this. Anyway, when building towards your ending, don’t forget that you’ll want to be building up as well as towards. Regardless of the source of the tension in your story, the ending should contain both the moment where everything is at its most intense … and then most relaxed. Even if everything built towards your ending, nothing will take the wind from its sails faster than the ending not being as intense as another, earlier scene. Don’t let the ending be overshadowed. If you feel that it is, then go back and rework things until it isn’t. This should be the moment where the reader is on the edge of their seat with apprehension, the moment where everything is at its highest pitch.
Likewise, the resolution to the ending should be the exact opposite. Once the climax has ended, the resolution should wind everything down to at least the level of tension that the beginning of your story had, although in most cases it will be even more relaxed, as you will have resolved many of the things that brought tension in the first place. For example, in the opening chapter of Rise one thing that the reader realizes is that the main character’s life is actually fairly empty. It’s not a bad life, but even he grudgingly acknowledges that it’s only a basic life … almost a holding pattern. He comes back from a morning run, does his usual pattern, etc. This theme is explored in his character arc over the course of the story as he acknowledges and confronts it. Then, in the final chapter, the reader sees the results of his path over the course of the story: It ends with him leaving on a run around the mountain, but this time with two other characters that have become close friends of his over the course of the work. It’s of a similar level of tension to the opening chapters, but even then, there is the additional relief for the reader of seeing the resolution of the events raised over the story. It’s the moment to let out a breath as everything closes.*
*And as far as stingers go, that’s a topic for another time.
Earning the Ending
Now, with what I’ve said before, there’s one other thing that will make your endings really shine: let the characters earn their ending.
As you build towards the end and make use of the elements I’ve covered above, don’t lose track of who the story is about (separate from what it is about). Your characters are the ones undergoing the adventure. How are they going to earn the ending that you’ve carefully set up? What are they doing over the course of the story that gives them the skills they need to succeed? What have they learned? How have they grown? What have they lost?
Ever seen the movie How to Train Your Dragon? If not, you should see it ASAP, it’s an exceptionally well done story. But one thing that surprised the creators was the reaction to the ending (spoilers are coming, just in case). In the climax of the film the protagonist, Hiccup, successfully puts to use all the skills and knowledge he’s learned over the course of his adventure in a variety of clever ways. However, even then things don’t quite go as planned, and when he wakes up in the finale, we find that he’s lost his left leg from the knee down. His price for his success.
Initially, the creators of the film were very hesitant of him losing his leg, and were prepared to dump the scene entirely to a more “happy” ending. To their surprise however, they found that focus groups preferred the ending where Hiccup lost his leg because it made the story more meaningful and carry greater impact. In the end they got to see what Hiccup had achieved … but also what he had sacrificed in order to get there, and it was a tangible sacrifice that would always be with him.
If you want an ending to really hit home, let the characters earn it. Have them go through hardships. Face difficulties. That happy ending? They need to work for it. This isn’t to say that you should make their life terrible or come down on your characters for the sake of “making them earn it” although you certainly could. Just recognize that your character’s journey to the end shouldn’t be a walk in the park.
Once you put all these elements together, the ending for your story really will “work itself out.” Yes, it will still be work, and it won’t be the easiest thing you’ve ever done, but not only will you have an ending, you’ll have one with all the proper elements to be memorable in a readers mind.
So, a quick recap:
-Acknowledge Your Ending: recognize that all stories have a destination.
-Build the Story Towards the Ending: take steps to move towards that destination from the start and throughout the work.
-The Climax and the Resolution: the ending is both the highest peak and the most relaxing relief of the entire story.
-Earning the Ending: make your characters work hard and make sacrifices to get to their ending.
Good luck and get writing!