There are few things worse than being in the middle of a great book or movie and having someone spoil the ending for you, right? All the fun of the building tension, the suspense as to who’s going to live or die, the question of which guy the protagonist will choose– I personally feel that you’re totally justified in punching anyone who ruins the ending of a great book for you. Now, imagine someone is reading your book and some jerk decides to spoil the ending for them– and instead of being furious, the reader’s reaction is, “So… that’s it?” The best endings, the ones that readers can feel the strongest emotional connection to and find the most satisfying, aren’t just a checklist of “resolved the conflict, established the immediate future, wrapped up subplots.” While these elements might meet the “requirements” of an ending, your readers are looking for something more than just mathematical resolution at the end of a story. Our favorite endings are surprising, or complex, or poetic, or even aggravating or sad or cynical, but they’re rarely just “fine.”
The best endings are those that it is impossible for the reader to be ambivalent about. They should love it, or hate it, or be deeply conflicted about it, or be left with lingering questions about it (in a good way, not in a the-author-dropped-four-plot-threads-and-so-the-reader-has-no-clue-what’s-going-on kind of way). Think about some of your favorite books, specifically their endings– if asked to talk about how one of these books ends, you’d probably say things like, “It’s so beautiful!,” or “It’s SO sad,” or “It’s really happy!” Your reaction to the ending of a book isn’t specific to a certain kind of ending– happy, sad, poetic– but to your connection to it– whether you stayed sufficiently emotionally engaged with the characters and the storytelling universe that you felt something at the end of the book other than a sense of technical resolution because all the right boxes were checked. “What I’d really love for my reader to feel at the end of my book is apathy and mild approval,” said no writer ever. So how can you ensure that the reader who has been perfectly willing to follow your characters through their story aren’t left lukewarm after the last page is turned? A few suggestions:
- Raise the stakes in your conflict. Often, the ending of a book feels bland because it doesn’t contrast sufficiently with the climax– one moment, the main characters are in a disagreement, the next they’ve worked it out in a long conversation over coffee and are happily planning their wedding. Yawn. The more the main conflict and climax disrupt the characters’ lives, the more the conflict affects the world surrounding the main characters, and the harder it is to resolve that conflict, the more deeply we feel for the characters when the do get their happy ending.
- Surprise the reader (fairly). The reason the ending of “The Sixth Sense” works so well is that, as the viewer is reeling from the shock of the final revelation, we’re frantically playing back certain scenes and relationships in light of that new knowledge and discovering that it actually DOES make sense that (spoiler alert) Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. It’s a twist that makes perfect sense in that story universe but that hooks the viewer anew right at the end, so they’re essentially glued to the screen right until the very end. Last-minute surprises and revelations and twists can certainly be gimmicky, but when the right groundwork has been laid, they stoke the reader’s interest in the story just at the moment when he was ready to skim over the happily-ever-after fluff and leave him energized and more fully connected to the story, which is exactly what you want– you want to end the book on your terms rather than give your reader a nice sleepy chapter in which to detach from the story universe as the last pieces fall neatly into place. These don’t have to be big surprises– you don’t have to end your cute romance with an evil twin showing up at the wedding (and probably shouldn’t)– just fun, clever, or sweet twists or inclusions that make the reader feel more deeply about a character or situation.
- Make strong choices. Now, I’m the last person to encourage you to kill a character or break up the main couple at the end just for shock value (I personally Hate unhappy, cynical endings), but the truth is, sometimes the stronger writing choice, the choice that stays true to the characters you’ve written or the world you’ve created, IS for the main character to have to make a major sacrifice or hard choice, or for the couple decide NOT to stay together (within the expectations of your genre, that is– no romance reader is going to want to read a book where the couple doesn’t end up together, and no romance editor is going to publish it). There still has to be resolution, and there should still be hope and a sense of justice having been done or potential for something good to come out of the events of the ending, but a strong choice generally makes a more memorable and more polarizing ending than a weak or easy one.
By making every effort to ensure your reader can’t remain neutral about the ending of your book, you guarantee that they’ll remember your book, think about it, have conversations about it, and will be more likely to seek out additional titles from you in the future.
Have you ever been left “lukewarm” by the ending of an otherwise enjoyable book? How could the author have salvaged it? How have you avoided lukewarm endings in your own writing? I love to hear about your experiences in the comments, and as always, thanks for reading!