How to Write an Ending that Feels Complete
This essay was originally posted to the writing community Get Your Words out on May 27, 2019. Small edits have been made.
It's been quite a week for them, hasn't it? To be honest, I halfway want to just point you all to "Endings Are Not Stoppings" by Chuck Wendig and call it a day.
But I do have some thoughts about endings, so here's my attempt to make them make sense.
I've tried to be vague about the endings of specific pieces of fiction, but if you're spoiler-sensitive the most recent work I mention is the BBC series Fleabag. Everything else is anywhere from two years to several centuries old.
1. Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night
From a plot structure standpoint, the ending of a story are your last two points: the climax and the denouement, the peak of the hill and the gentle downslope. In genre fiction, in a broad sense the author knows what the climax will be as soon as the story has begun: the detective solves the murder, the couple commits to their future together, the spy recovers the stolen plans, and so on. It's how the author gets there that makes an ending satisfying or not.
In literary fiction, finding the ending can be tougher. The hero may not always triumph. Other people may get the success the hero deserves. There may be a question of what was real and what only happened in an unreliable narrator's mind.
No matter how abstract, though, a story needs to come to a conclusion, big or small. Candide works on his garden. Dante sees the Trinity in the uppermost tier of Heaven. The old world is destroyed, the new world dawns... (Watership Down, The Hunger Games series...)
2. "That's it???"
When "Guardians of the Galaxy 2" came out, I saw it with my then-six-year-old nephew. He hadn't seen a lot of movies at that point, and when the climax ended and the scene faded to black, my nephew said, "That's it???" in a tone of utter disbelief.
"Just wait," I said. "There will be more."
"How do you know?"
"Because I know how stories work," I told him.
If the movie had ended there, the sacrifice of the hero's father-figure would have felt cheap and manipulative. Instead, we have a scene where the characters are allowed to grieve and the father-figure is honored. It's an amazing moment (and prompted my nephew to ask, "Aunt Jenna, why are you crying?")
Even when the story is over, technically, just ending with the climax can leave a reader unsatisfied. Like walking for a few minutes after running a marathon, the reader needs to wind down, which is where the denouement comes in. This can be anything from epilogue showing the characters dealing with the aftermath of the plot to a scene of the world returning to its pre-crisis state. ("Things were humdrum once more," is how T.E. Lawrence puts it in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.)
The denouement can be helpful to the author, too. You've lived with these characters a long time. You love them, or love to hate them, depending. Giving them a little something to say, "They're going to be all right," is as much for you as it is for your readers.
3. Right in the feels!
Whether an ending is comic, tragic, or bittersweet, a successful ending for character-driven fiction should be emotionally satisfying, even if the characters don't get what they want. The main character could show a new maturity and growth, a new understanding of a loved one or themselves, or some other indication of the effect their experience has had on them.
For example, Fleabag. In the first episode of season 2, the character called Fleabag tells the audience this is a love story -- and it is, a beautiful one, through which the couple try to be friends and to fight their attraction, until they don't. And then in the end, Our Heroine ends up alone, but she's a better person for having loved this man and been loved by him. She knows what true love feels like, both to give and to receive. Holy cow, it's amazing, even though it's not a Happily Ever After ending, nor even (in Romancelandia vernacular) a Happy For Now ending. It works because it's the right ending.
(Speaking of Romancelandia, HEA/HFN endings are required in order for your story to be considered a romance novel. Romance readers are very protective of their HEA. Every year or so a new writer thinks they're going to shake up the genre by killing off half of their couple, and they get schooled fast on what a bad idea that is. Many publishers, big and small, specify a story must have a HEA/HFN ending in order to be considered for publication. The promise of hope in the end is a driving force in the popularity of the genre.)
Think of your favorite book. When you read the last page, do you sigh with happiness, shed a tear, hug the book to you for how well it did its job? A huge part of the power of a good book is how the ending leaves the reader -- like the hero, you're probably a little different from this experience.
4. The two masks
In traditional literary terms, a story is a comedy if the hero ends up at a higher position than where he began (for example, Dante's Divine Comedy) and is a tragedy if he is a lower position than where he began (for example, "Romeo & Juliet," "Hamlet," "Oedipus Rex"...) Both these endings must be earned to feel right. You don't want to write a story about a serving boy who is clever and resourceful who gets executed because of a misunderstanding at the end, for instance. A serving boy who makes assumptions, trusts the wrong people, or whose driving characteristic is arrogance would make a better tragic hero. Our clever serving boy could end a prince in disguise, the husband of a princess because he beat out other suitors in a contest, or even with a plump wife and a nice house for his story to be a comedy. (Just off the top of my head.)
5. Tone, pitch, and harmony
Like an ending fitting the genre, the ending should also suit the tone of the entire story. Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie is a witty story with an inciting incident of a misunderstanding, and its ending is like a French farce, lots of slamming doors, more misunderstandings coming to light, and most of the cast in the same room while the main couple try to explain everything. This ending suits this story because it's energetic, unexpected, and funny. Solving all the problems of the main characters with death and drama would be out of place, and would leave the reader unsatisfied regarding the promises made by every scene before.
6. The living happily ever after
When you've got your climax settled, then it's time to figure out the denouement. You need a scene or two (or more) to wrap up everything that's gone before. In Bet Me, it's a "where are they now" kind of epilogue. It can be a character walking away from the setting ("Shane! Shane! Come back, Shane!", the end of "Mad Max: Fury Road") or the character settling in to their new role, be it lover/beloved, a newly-crowned ruler, or a gardener raising his cabbages. The important thing is that it makes sense for this character and this tale.
The ironic thing is, I don't know how to end this essay, so here's where I'll ask you all to recommend a book, movie, opera, musical, TV show, etc., with a really great ending. I recommend The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman for the last sentence. It's perfect.