Before "The End": How to Write a Stunning Conclusion
Hey guys! So today I thought I'd kind of write an ironic post, since I'm talking about endings before I've even mentioned a post about beginnings. But I think this is so, SO critical to writing a great book, and it's something I learned during my revision of WHAT LIES ABOVE. First, before we get started, I have a disclaimer - this is really directed towards book series. Trilogies, two-book sets, long collections, etc. Some things can apply for stand-alones, and I'll mention where it differs, so keep reading even if you're writing a story contained in one nice little novel. Okay, let's begin!
When I was going through WHAT LIES ABOVE during its R&R, I was looking to do two main things - (1) fix the intro, and (2) fix the show-don't-tell issues I mentioned in my last post. What I didn't plan on doing was changing the ending. I thought it was great... It ended on a cliffhanger (and I mean, the very last sentence was the book's biggest plot twist reveal). I could just see readers perched on the edge of their seat, dying to get book 2. Or, at least, that's what I hoped for. And that's what I thought the reaction would be. However, the more I read the ending, the less gripping and fantastic it seemed. After the initial shock of the plot twist wore off, I started asking what was left? There was a sort of unsaid purpose, but no explicit drive for Eva (my protagonist). And this was like a thorn in the novel's side. Finally, I decided to change it, and now that I have, and now that the novel's off again into literary space, I feel like the manuscript is much better for it. Even if this agent ultimately turns the book down after the revision, I think it was a good move for the story.
So, what was the change? What is it that a great ending needs that mine lacked before? Vision. Some other words for it would be purpose. Determination. Resolve. Sometimes we as authors want to catch our readers off guard with a plot twist, and then just write "the end" and pray that readers are so bewildered they have to read the next book. This tactic works sometimes, but more often than not, the most stunning, I-have-to-get-the-next-one-NOW! endings don't end with the last sentence being a plot twist. Think of your favorite books, and then go look at their endings. What are they like? How do they end? What made you want to read the sequel?
Now - yes, of course, there are some exceptions to this. Hunger Games Book 2: Catching Fire ends on a cliffhanger. The very last sentence is a bombshell, and it's fantastic (I LOVE Hunger Games, by the way!). But this is a necessary thing in that particular book's case I think, because it is the icing on the cake of absolute horrific bombshell plot twists Katniss has endured. SO, it works. But novice writers (or even seasoned ones) can sometimes do it improperly, and it doesn't give the novel the ending it deserves. This is your darling - the result of hundreds of hours of hard work, sweat, and tears. And the ending is the last thing the reader has to hold on to. It's the last thing they'll read, and the final thought in their mind. What will they walk away like? Scrambling for the next one? Or confused and ultimately let down? Yes! We are aiming for scrambling! You don't want to end a beautifully paced novel by rushing or cutting the ending short. I know the feeling (believe me). We are so eager to write the words "the end" and send it out into the world. But such a huge piece of work deserves the same attention at the end as in the beginning and middle.
So, back to purpose. When I say purpose, I mean that the main character has some sort of goal in mind for their future. In a series, this means the second book. In a stand-alone, it's a little different, because you need to wrap the plot up and tie loose ends. The novel needs to feel complete, while still leaving room to imagine the characters' futures. So there is still purpose, but it is a finite one - one that doesn't stretch to any companion books/sequels. With a series, it's a whole different thing. Your story hasn't ended, but it's hanging for the moment. The characters are perched on the edge of a new chapter in their journeys, and there are lots of loose ends left and lots and lots of the unknown ahead. It's a difficult balance. Ugh, it's hard. But when you get it just right, it's like a fireworks moment. It's great.
Think about where your characters have come from, and where they are going. What is their goal? What do they want? Have they lost something or someone? How will they react to it? Where will they go now? What do they have to face? All these questions help establish purpose. Once you answer them, you can get a clear picture of where the ending will be. Even if the last paragraph or so ends in a cliffhanger (mine still does), keep going a little. Add that last ounce that gives purpose. Here's an example, for those of you who have read Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard. There is an enormous plot twist at the end, and she could have ended it there. But instead, she keeps going, and there are several chapters after that. The last sentence is then a statement of purpose - of what the main character wants, and what she vows to do in the rest of the series. I realized when revising WHAT LIES ABOVE that I needed that extra step - that purpose my cliffhanger stole away. So I wrote an extra paragraph - it was short, but powerful - and I did three things:
(1) I established Eva's determination. She makes a promise - a vow - that will be fulfilled (or, at least, so she hopes) in the rest of the series.
(2) I relate back to the first scene in the book. This is not required. I just felt it was the right move for my novel. I tied back to where Eva began, because I think it really illustrated her character arc and the change in her goals/desires throughout the novel. She wants something totally different now than she did at the beginning of her story.
(3) A step further than #2, I showed the novel's main "theme" - freedom. Eva wants freedom - and that incorporates a lot of different things for her. By ending the book this way, I came full circle.
I hope that illustration helped! :-) Not every case is like mine. Every novel is different. Every story is different, and that's ultimately where the ending will lie. What does YOUR character want? What will book 2 hold for them? For stand-alones, you can ask the same question, but it will be different. Tie up all the loose ends started in your novel, but hint at what could be. If it's a romance, illustrate how the couple's life together will be. Action? What does your protagonist have now? Memoir? What did you learn, and how did it affect you? How will that impact your future? Your character's novel might end, but their story doesn't. "The End" is not really the end. Readers can go on to imagine what might come next, even though you have stopped telling them. The best characters feel real, and they live on, long after your reader has turned that last page and closed the cover.
Alright, that's all for today! Hope this helps! Remember, I'm not saying ending with a last-sentence-cliff-hanger is off-limits. Just remember there's a time and place for everything. Make sure, even if you go the cliff-hanger route, your reader knows what the character wants, and what they can look forward to in book 2. If it's the ending of the series/stand-alone, tie the ends and give the reader a finish that makes them sigh when they close your book. To go back to Hunger Games (since I already used that example), the ending of both the last chapter and the epilogue in Mockingjay are among the top few on my "favorite endings of all time" list. The line "but there are much worse games to play" is so satisfying because it comes full circle. It is the whole main focus of the novel - the Hunger Games - so by alluding to them in this way, it is the perfect closure, while still remaining a little haunting. YOU can do the same, in whatever way is right for your story. Come full circle, and end with something that just seems to pull all those little threads together and give your work - and your characters - the ending they've been fighting for.
What have you learned about endings? Have you had trouble with this tricky but vital part of your story? I'd love to hear... Share in the comments below!