I apologize for the lateness of this post. Despite not having work at my part-time due to a knee injury yesterday, this post ended up so long (my longest yet) that it wasn’t done in time to post.
Man, it feels like I’ve been writing about endings a lot lately, at least to me personally. Maybe that’s just because that topic sticks in my mind fairly vividly. Or maybe I’ve been covering endings too much lately and you’d all rather here me talk about something else. In which case, let me know in the comments! After all, there is Topic List X coming (currently I’m on IX)!
Right, no beating around the bush today. I want to dive right in. Let’s talk ending types.
Okay, some of you might be scratching your heads at this one. After all, an ending is an ending, right? I’ve talked about endings before. What more could I have to say?
Well, as it turns out, a bit. Because as I’ve said before in another post, endings are a bit like a keystone: Everything moves toward them. Every story has to have one. Or, again as I’ve said before, the whole thing falls apart.
But there is something I’ve not talked about with regards to these endings yet: What type of ending you want to have. Or, to put it another way, the various ways you can close your story based on what you expect to make of it at a later date.
Yes, today we will be talking about sequels. And lack of sequels, though neither of those is the total topic. No, we’re still going to be talking endings. Just the different kinds of endings your story can have to make those work or not work.
Or perhaps “endings” isn’t the best way to put it. After all, many people tend to use terms like “the ending scene” or the like to talk about a climatic battle, rather than the actual ending. So perhaps I should say “conclusion,” or maybe “resolution,” and frame our discussion in terms of that. Or maybe even “approach.”
Why? Because again, as I’ve said before, everything in your story points toward the ending. The conclusion. So the type of conclusion you want your story to have? Well, it’s better if you know going in so that you can adjust the rest of your story to fit. Know which one you’re going to want to pull out of your writer’s toolbox to frame the rest of the story. Just like keystones can be in varying shapes and sizes, so can endings.
A minor note here: What I’ll be talking about today is somewhat flexible. More than one story has been written with one type of conclusion in mind only to deliver another, and while yes, this does affect how the story is received … it’s not the end of the world. It’s a bit like having … oh, a keystone that isn’t cut quite right but still does its job when slotted into place. It might not fit perfectly, and the top might be a little uneven … but it still does its job. However, much like a paving stone that is raised or lowered slightly above or below that of its fellows, it still may feel odd to the pedestrian, and the discrepancy will likely be noted. If you’d like an example of this, think of any movie or book that in the last moments made a sudden sweep into sequel territory. Makes you stumble a bit, doesn’t it? Even if it doesn’t necessarily not make the rest of the story worth it.
Point being, today’s topic is very much a question of making everything line up right. If you happen to swap ending “types” at the last minute, well, your story isn’t going to come apart. Not in this context, anyway. But if you know beforehand what you want, you can lay the groundwork of the story much more carefully so that everything lines up nice and neat at the end.
Got it? We’re talking about types of conclusions you can make your story work toward. Types of endings, in other words, you’ll see in various media, and when and how to make them work, or what you’d need to do to pull that off.
So, preamble done, let’s start with the most basic type of ending.
The Complete Ending – No Direct Sequel
Alright, when endings come to mind, this is, for lack of a better term, the most basic conclusion you can get. Why? Because it’s a complete conclusion. As in, you wrap everything up relative to the story.
It’s could just my field of interest speaking, but this is the kind of ending to me smacks a lot more as something old-time stories used to embrace. Back when the goal wasn’t to create a franchise or a world, but just to create a single, solid story. The story was written, questions and concepts came up … and then the ending resolved as much as it could. Everything was taken care of, everything was tied up. All the characters git their say, the reader knew what happened to each of them—or at least the direction they went, etc, etc. Nothing was left ambiguous.
There is nothing wrong with this type of ending. Unless you want to write a sequel. But that’s pretty much the only point where this type of ending becomes problematic. Other than that, this is a solid ending. It’s sturdy, it’s reliable, and it’s capable. All you need to do to make this kind of ending work is wrap everything up. All those questions you raised in your plot? Like, for example, who ends up with who, or what happened to the ruby necklace? You answer those. You tie it all up with a neat bow, and walk away. The story is done.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that it’s easy to pull an ending like this off. Though, it’s easier … But picking this type of ending out of your toolbox does come with a few requirements. The most notable is how you tie it up. While there are bits and pieces that will be best saved for the very end of the book, that will be tied up in the climax or during the closing, just because this is an ending that ties everything up doesn’t mean that you should do it all right at the end. That leads to an improperly shaped keystone, one that infodumps a lot of exposition on the reader right at the close.
So, if you’re going to write this type of story, be sure that through the whole work, you’re moving towards wrapping up all the things that will need to be wrapped up through the course of the story. So you can have a side-story romantic subplot tie things up two-thirds of the way through, rather than at the end. Or a question that’s been dogging the audience at the four-fifths mark, before the big climax. Or half-and-half, tying something up most of the way before the climax, and then the last little bits of it in the resolution.
The key point to take away here is that with a complete ending being your guide, you want to tie up all the ends, and it’s advisable that you not do this all at once during the resolution. So you’ll want to look ahead—even if you’re discovery-writing the story—to make sure that you tie some things up over time, rather than all at once at the end, so that the reader isn’t overwhelmed.
Okay, so that’s clear enough. Now let’s talk some pros and cons. You definitely shouldn’t use this ending if you already expect to write a sequel. This is the kind of ending that, to most readers, says “no sequel.”
Why? Because it ties everything up. As in, plot-lines complete. There’s nowhere for a sequel to go unless you skip really far ahead or perform a sort of “in-universe reset” on the characters to set up a new experience. If either of those sound familiar, it’s likely because you’ve run into stories that have tried this. Crud, IIRC, there was a “sequel” to Pride and Prejudice written a few years ago that was poorly received because one of the things it did was undo a number of the original story’s conclusions just so it could have something to build off of.
So, the pros of using this ending? You get the ending. A definitive, conclusion that needs no follow up—and even if people wanted one, wouldn’t really be open to it. This ending ends things. That’s how it goes. But that’s actually a pretty solid prospect, as every reader is going to reach that same sense of finality and closure. Complete endings are solid, satisfying endings.
On the other hand, you can’t go back, and that can be a drawback. Want to revisit that story? You’re going to need to start by knocking out some of the supports you built into the original, which has the result of making said original feel less fulfilling to the readers of the new work … which in turn makes the new work shaky, since it’s built atop that old one.
Bottom line: You use this ending, it’d be in your best interest to not count on a sequel. Ever. Part of writing a complete ending is closing that off. Wrap it all up. Close off all loose plot threads. The story is done. The reader (and you), can rest.
Is that it, though? Is having no sequel really so straightforward? Of course not. Let’s check out another type of ending, shall we?
The Complete-but-unanswered Ending – No Direct Sequel
I had to throw this one out here, because in collecting my thoughts about types of endings, this one reared its head rather early and challenged my opinions on “sequel/no-sequel.” It’s not a “complete” ending, but it’s still one that limits a creator’s ability to create a direct sequel (again, you could go far off in-universe or “reset” everything), because the lack of completion is part of the ending.
Confused? Okay, let me clear this up with a comparison. Ever seen the film Inception? If not, and you’d really like to see it, stop reading here, because I’m about to spoil an aspect of the ending. If you have seen it, or don’t care to have the ending spoiled, continue.
So Inception is a unique ending in that it doesn’t explain everything or tie everything up, yet still is a complete ending. Throughout the film, you see, there’s the question raised by the main characters of knowing what’s reality and what isn’t (the whole story revolves around entering dreams, going certain levels in … all very cool). A central part of the story revolves around an important axiom: One can use a “token” to determine whether or not they’re in the real world. Like, say, spinning a coin. The protagonist uses a top. This rule then combines with the rest of the film in questioning whether or not the title character is actually ever in the real world … or if the entire film takes place in a dream.
So at the end, once he’s back in the “real world,” what does he do? He spins his token up, watches it for a second, then walks out of the picture. The audience is left seeing the top spin … it wobbles slightly … and then the screen cuts to black. Roll credits.
This is what I mean by “Complete-but-unanswered.” The story wraps up all the questions except a few that are central to the theme of the story itself … and then never answers them, because answering them would actually defeat the point. The story leaves the question unanswered specifically so that the audience can think on it, and thereby, the themes of the story can sink in.
Note that in all other aspects, this is still a complete story. It ties everything else up quite well, but will leave one or perhaps two question unanswered in order to more firmly drive the point of the story home. For example, a story in which a set of characters handle a box that may or may not contain a great treasure may end with none of them (or the reader) ever finding out if there was, in fact, treasure, because the treasure is ultimately irrelevant to the characters themselves outside of forcing them to make decisions and grow. But everything else will be wrapped up. In fact, like Inception, saying whether or not there was a treasure may damage the story’s focus.
Which is also why you can’t do much with a direct-sequel for this kind of work: If you do a sequel, and it’s directly related … you’re going to have to answer that question. Which destabilizes everything that’s come before much like undoing things in the prior type would. Hence why I doubt we’d ever see a direct sequel to Inception. One way or another, it would have to answer that question, and that would undo everything the first movie set up.
So again, with this type of ending, everything is tied up just like with the complete ending save for one or two unanswered questions, of which answering would defeat the point of the story or weaken the focus. No sequel for these.
So what if we do want a sequel? Or what if we just want to leave things open for a sequel, but aren’t certain if we want to have one?
The Mostly-Complete “Hedge” Ending – Maybe There’s a Sequel, Maybe Not
So, this ending? This one is the one you bring out of your toolbox if you’re hedging your bets, because it can go either way. It’s not as tidy an ending as the complete ending, but it’s not an ending that will leave anyone feeling like there’d better be another story to explain things or else either. No, this one is firmly rooted in the middle.
Which is why it’s one of the more common ending seen everywhere these days. In fact, I’d venture that most of the endings people encounter these days are these “hedged” endings.
Why? Because it’s the most low-risk, high-reward ending. It’s an ending that wraps up most of the story, but leaves enough left unresolved that should the story become a decent hit, the creator can make a second one, thereby attracting the audience from the first back to the sequel. But because they can’t count on that eventuality being enough to create a story that promises a sequel outright, they go into this type of ending. A little bit of everything.
Actually, a little bit of everything describes this type of conclusion fairly well. It’s a mix. There are parts of the story that are definitely concluded—usually the important bits related to the immediate plot of the book. These are answered just as they would be in any other story. However, there are some questions raised that—and this is important—aren’t key to the immediate plot, but either hint at future story arcs, or are important questions to a possible overarching plotline. And these questions, while acknowledged, don’t get answered in the story. In fact, they may be acknowledged as unanswered directly in the conclusion … though a writer has to be careful with this. See, you don’t want to be too overt. A character saying “I wonder if X was important” in an ending is an acknowledgement, as well as a reminder to the reader, that the topic was left unanswered. Something a bit more direct, such as the character saying “Well, we still need to find out if X was important” is a bit more blatant in telling the reader that they need to know the answer to this question.
This isn’t the only thing that can make an ending like this tricky to pull off. Just as where with a complete ending, you don’t want to tie everything up at the last second, so it is with a story that is leaving itself open for a possible sequel. Don’t open up a dozen unanswerable questions at the last second. Weave them into the story, instead, making them something that comes up from time to time so that it doesn’t feel out of place. Also, they can’t be questions that are too important. Ideally, you want them to be small questions that, if followed could lead into another adventure, but could just as well go unresolved or turn out to be dead ends. This way, if you never do get into writing a sequel, those who wanted one won’t feel like the story was unsatisfactory without ever answering those questions because while they were questions … they weren’t ones that needed to be answered, and the answers could have been fairly benign.
As I said, this is a tricky balance to pull off. A lot of stories, actually, have gone too far one way or the other, either delivering stories that don’t have enough unanswered for a sequel, or leave too much unanswered while still pretending to be indifferent. The result is a story that’s lopsided … and we can all probably think of a few examples.
Again, though, this is a very safe ending if you’re not certain whether or not you’re going to ever write anything after the story … but would like to leave it open just in case you do. Pull it out of your toolbox there, but again, take care, as it’s hard to hit that sweet spot between “not much need for a sequel” and “needs a sequel.”
The Incomplete Ending – Sequel Required
Okay, with that out of the way, now we’re moving into the territory of creating a story with a sequel in mind from the get go. Which is going to be a different beast, because the first thing that you’re going to need to do is change how the ending plays out from the more “traditional” complete ending. Because the story can’t end, otherwise there wouldn’t be a sequel. And yet, at the same time, there still has to be an ending, a conclusion, for the story to reach. Tricky …
Actually, this isn’t really as hard as it sounds. Okay, well, it is hard, but not if we look at it from a different perspective. So say that you know, from the get go, that you’re going to want to write more than one story with these characters, and we want the story we’ve started to take more than just one adventure. We want there to be a sequel. So, how do we go about setting that up without making our conclusion for the first story feel weak?
Well, there are actually two general “methods” I can think of, which I’ll tackle independently, because each has different way of going about things.
So, the first I want to talk about is what I’ll call the lead-in method. This is where you write the story like you would any other self-contained, lone work for the first half or three-quarters of the story, but then, as things near that finale, you start dropping more and more hints that they may be a bigger adventure in store for the characters after they deal with the story they’re currently a part of.
That “after the story they’re currently a part of” bit is really important. You see, the main story is still the main story—the lead-in may be connected tangentially to it, but it’s not part of the story of this book. Or they may not be connected at all. For example, your story could be a sword and sorcery adventure wherein a young heroine sets out to save her home and ends up saving the kingdom. Pretty standard stuff. Then, along the way, she falls for the prince, isn’t sure whether or not she wants that kind of life, and hears hints of another threat in the neighboring kingdom. So a lead-in ending would be one that would finish the adventure she’s on, and lead into the next. Say, she saves her home, saves the kingdom … but then in the resolution, decides not to marry the prince because that’s not her style, and ends the book kicking off to go see what this threat is in the neighboring kingdom, and if they’ll pay her expenses to deal with it.
See, that’s a lead-in. It wraps up the story the protagonist was involved in (for the most part), and then ends on a note of “And now we’re going to go do this.” Sound familiar? It should, since a lot episodic TV shows, especially those with the characters undertaking journeys, will have this kind of conclusion. You wrap the current story up … but you also weave it in the direction of a new one.
Now, a fair warning, this can be done poorly, especially if you decide to do it at the last minute. A very memorable example in my mind actually ended so poorly that I didn’t end up buying the next book in line, and rather just never went past book one. What happened was that the entire story was taken care of in its entirety with only one loose end that wasn’t that vital … sort of like a hedge ending. Then, out of nowhere, as final chapter finished and the characters were all riding off without a real destination in mind … disaster struck. They were ambushed, soundly beaten in the space of a paragraph with several of them shot, potentially fatally, and then a new character that had never been introduced before held a blade up to the main character’s neck and told him that she was going to kill him.
I was unsatisfied with this ending. It was a poor attempt at doing a lead-in (combined with a cliffhanger, which we’ll get to later), mostly because of how it was handled. This all took place on the last page of the book. There had been no real hints nor attempts to establish this event happening prior, nor had there been any sense that what had happened was coming. Worse, it was an instant defeat—as I said, the characters all lost in the space of a paragraph. From victory, to up and “wandering around without a goal” to “most of them are probably dead, and the main character is about to be” in just a page.
That’s a bad lead-in, mostly because it came completely out of left field and ended on a tone that didn’t mesh with the book. Characters dead, hero beaten and facing death, and then there’s a “to be continued” in the corner? It just didn’t sit right against the rest of the story. It would be akin to having the original Guardians of the Galaxy movie end with the characters starting to fly off … only for their ship to be shot down by a massive battlecruiser from nowhere, half the group almost killed, and a new villain—never before seen—breaking into the cockpit and leveling their weapon at Star Lord, the film cutting to credits just before the trigger was pulled.
Yeah, who’d want to see that sequel? Not many, and Guardians was a vastly better piece of storytelling than this book was. Even today, when I stumble across that story in my collection, I can’t help but feel a twinge of dislike for the entire thing, solely based on that horrid attempt at a lead-in. Granted, it had other problems too, but that was the one that took it from “okay” to “poor.”
Right, so that’s doing a lead-in wrong. There was no warning, no set-up. It was just “Well, we did this, now let’s just aimlessly wander and OH NO WE’RE ALL UNDER ATTACK!” You want to do a lead-in? Do it right. Set your story up when you’re writing it so that the lead-in to the next story feels natural, not tacked on.
It’s a bit like that keystone analogy for endings. If you’re building a single arch, all is well. Build the single arch. But if you’re going to lead into a sequel, that means you’re going to build a second arch just down the path, one that shares stones with the first. If you build two arches, but didn’t plan to, it will show in the design of the first—you’ll end up with an awkward join between the pair. But if you plan ahead, certain aspects of your story will be ready to make that join, so that when you start work on the second arch, its side will line up with and connect to the first without any awkwardness.
But again, you have to plan ahead to do this. So, want to write a story with a lead-in? You’d better start thinking about it early, so that come halfway, or three-quarters of the way, or whatever, you can start taking the story in a direction that will give it both a good ending and have it on the path leading to your next adventure. This is actually pretty easy to do, you just have to remember to lay the groundwork.
Take the example I gave above, talking about the heroine who saves the kingdom, then takes off for the neighboring kingdom to see what they’ve got to offer for “fun.” You could start to lead into that around the halfway point, after she’s accepted that she’s in the heroine business, working to save her home and, consequently, the kingdom. You could have her question whether or not she wants to keep doing what she’s doing when the adventure is done. Question what she’ll do once it’s all over from time to time, maybe talk about it with another character. Have her seriously debate taking up a romance with the interested prince. Yada yada, all as an aside to the big adventure. That way, when the big adventure is over and everything saved, when she decides to take up the life of the wandering blade and skip town for the next kingdom, there’s already been the foundation of her decision, a scaffolding set up so that the story finishing on a lead-in to another adventure isn’t abrupt. It was already supported!
But again, mind, this type of conclusion is for something more … episodic. A story (or series of stories) where each plot is resolved at the end of the story. It just happens to also dovetail into the characters going off to do something else elsewhere that isn’t going to be closely associated with what came before. It’s still incomplete, because it doesn’t actually provide the next story, but it’s a lead-in.
So what if you want to do something like an epic, where rather than leading into an unrelated adventure you want to do a large, interconnected series? You know, like Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, Codex Alera, or Stormlight? You don’t want a lead-in then, because you want something a bit more connected. So how do you put in an ending, and yet have the story continue on for X number of books?
Actually, you do something pretty simple: You make a full-plot subplot out of it.
Remember that post I wrote on subplots? Well, this is where it’s about to become very relevant. See, you’re going to take that idea of weaving subplots into your story, and then expand outward. So essentially, each “book” of your series is a “subplot,” while taken all together you’re going to have the overarching plot.
This means that each’s books subplots are still going to be there. If it helps, you can think of the overarching plot of all the books as the “megaplot,” while each book has a plot and subplots inside that plot. But just as each subplot will interweave with the main plot of the book, so much each plot of each book interweave with the megaplot.
This is harder than it sounds, unfortunately, because it can’t quite be so simple. Generally a subplot, while existing, doesn’t take away from the overall plot. It adds to it. It’s easier to do this with, say, a character relationship, than with a massive battle that’s only part of a larger war. Also, the further things go on, the more and more the regular plot has to give way to the megaplot, just like subplots must give way for the ending of a normal plot.
How you handle this is up to you. But I’d reiterate that reminding yourself of where subplots go in a story would be important for looking where plots can exist with your megaplot. Eventually, the individual plots are going to get swept up in the megaplot. Plan for that point.
Okay guys, we’re 4700 words in today, but we’re almost done. There’s one last little type of conclusion to discuss.
The Partial-Ending – Sequel Required
Remember earlier when I mentioned cliffhangers? Well, now we’re going to talk about them.
So, I’m fairly certain you know what a cliffhanger is. It’s when you leave your character hanging from a cliff. And the story ends, with the promise that the next story will start there and resolve the dramatic situation that you’ve left them in.
This is a very dangerous way to end a story. Done wrong, you can potentially turn away a large portion of your audience, making them otherwise unhappy with what was a serviceable, good story. Crud, even if done right, a cliffhanger can kill your audience simply by being too much for them if the break between entries is long enough. They ball up all that emotion in a tense situation, hold it for a long time … and eventually just say “forget it, it’s never getting resolved” and check out.
Yeah, we don’t want that. So if you want to deliver a cliffhanger, here are some bits of advice.
First, and foremost, do not make it a cliffhanger that demands they turn the page. In other words, don’t make it too tense. A cliffhanger such as a character being wounded, or a revelation about their opposition, or something like that, is all well and good. Any greater, however, into something that turns into “read the next chapter, the story isn’t over” as opposed to “read the next book.”
Take, for example, Halo 2 (I’ll name it, because it’s well known precisely for this particular cliffhanger). Halo 2 had a horrid ending … if only because the game wasn’t finished. Yeah, deadlines. What happened? Well, Halo 2 had two interwoven perspectives following the same story. One ended with a massive boss fight, a climax, and then an ominous clue about a major event in the series. Which would have been a good ending. Except … the story hadn’t concluded at all for the other character. So the camera jumped to that character, set up his situation, gave him what sounded like a kick-off to their final level and resolution for the game … and then roll credits.
People broke TVs over this ending, or so they claim. Because it really wasn’t an ending. It was a cliffhanger that cut off before the final level, because the team had literally run out of time and thought the cliffhanger would work. In essence, for a whole generation it was as if The Empire Strikes Back had ended when Luke had arrived to confront Darth Vader. They stride towards one another, talk, light their lightsabers and … Roll credits! Joy!
Yeah, that’s a bad cliffhanger. First rule of cliffhangers? They can’t leave your book lacking an ending. You’ve got to have something that resolves at least a chunk of, or ties up, your story. Not all of it—you’re gunning for a sequel, after all—but enough of it. But there has to be a resolution of sorts to the major elements of the story. That was part of the problem with the Halo 2 approach. Even though everyone knew there would be a Halo 3, they didn’t bother giving the one character a proper resolution. His events just funneled towards … nothing, while promising some sort of resolution.
So look, if you want to create a cliffhanger, don’t just stop. You can resolve a chunk of the story and give the character some resolution to what’s been going on without finishing off everything. So, first rule: Have an ending. Resolve something.
Second rule I’d suggest: The level of tenseness your cliffhanger is allowed to have is inversely proportional to the amount of time it will take to get your sequel out. Leaving everyone on the absolute edge of their seat? You’d best get that sequel out pronto. Given them a decent cliffhanger that doesn’t have a lot of “Holy crap I have to turn the page now!” to it? You can take a little more time.
Basically, a good cliffhanger is one that’s going to draw people back, but isn’t so immediate in the audience’s mind that they’ll be upset by not knowing.
And lastly (there is likely other advice for cliffhangers, but I’m not an expert on the subject), don’t deliver a “surprise cliffhanger.” Ever read a book that ends on a cliffhanger without warning? Yeah, audiences don’t like that. That’s why people sometimes flip to the end of a book in the final chapters just to see if the final line is a cliffhanger, they’re worried it might be.
That kind of worry? We don’t want that to pan out. We can still have a cliffhanger, but we can A) hint that it’s coming (setting up, just like everything else) and B) resolve the major parts that the audience wants to resolve.
Does this take practice? Yes. And I guarantee that no matter what, you’re still going to have people that are unhappy with the result. I did say that these things are dangerous, didn’t I? Even if you pull off a good one … you’re still bound to find people that don’t like it. Hence, we don’t see cliffhangers often.
Okay, there we have it. Holy smokes, this has been the longest post I’ve ever written for this site. So, let’s recap. You have two types of endings that do away with direct sequels and tie everything up: those that do so completely, and those that leave a question or two unanswered for thematic reasons. Then, you have the middle-of-the-road “hedge” ending that ties most things up, but leaves some hooks for later titles. Lastly, you have the sequel dedicated endings—either those that ask for a sequel by being incomplete/partial endings, or the risky cliffhanger endings that aren’t quite a full ending.
Choose wisely. I really can’t say much more on this. Choose wisely.
And good luck. Now get writing.