On the Business of Endings
So, you want to know how to write a good ending? First you must know its territory so you can catch one… Wait. No. That’s how to train your dragon. In all seriousness, figuring out a good ending can be a lot like trying to train a dragon. An ending is arguably the most important part of a story. The ending wraps up the current story in a satisfying way, and sells the next story. Remember, the ending is the final impression a reader has of your work. Are you stressing out yet? Let me help. I ask myself several questions as I think about an ending to a story.
Know Your Audience
The first question to ask yourself before you write an ending is: who is your target audience? Your answer will get you going in the right direction. One rule I keep in mind is the older the audience, the more unanswered questions I can leave in the story. It is important to make sure the major conflicts and questions are resolved or the reader is left frustrated. The other rule I keep in mind with my target audience is the older the audience, the more I can leave the ending less than happy. This does not mean an adult audience must have an unhappy ending, or kids must have a happy ending. Kids developmentally will tend to struggle more to understand an ending that is not happy, and adults may not buy into a perfect happy ending because it is too unrealistic.
Build your climax
The next question is: where is the climax of the story? Everyone knows the end comes after the final conflict. Make sure you give a clear peak to the story and it is in the right place within the story structure. Doing so sets the stage for the ending. It needs to give the reader a chance to breathe, see the results of the last epic confrontation, and what the characters were fighting for. However, it also cannot go on for too long. That risks boredom or confusion. Diagram out how scenes fit together. The visual picture helps you see if the ending is too abrupt, drags on, or hits a well-balanced sweet spot.
Make your ending fit
Finally, ask yourself if your ending fits your story. Your instinct may be to say “Of course it does!”. Take a hard look. Does it? To me, some of the current horror movies are guilty of creating endings that don’t fit the story, at least not well. It’s as if writers come up with this cool story and then throw in a blood and guts scene that does not fit just because it’s a horror movie. Good endings flow naturally from the rest of the story. If your story does not lend itself to a particular element, trying to force it will lead to an ending that feels contrived or disjointed. The same holds true for elements of other genres as well. Make sure your ending is a natural progression of what has happened, not a forced scene.
Once you get through this, have someone else read through your story to evaluate the ending. They are not as familiar with the story so they will be more likely to spot problems in the ending. Plus, they are more likely to see the story from your audience’s point of view. Their feedback will help you make the smart business decisions about that ending.
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Endings can be hard. I get it. They’re even more challenging when writing a series, though these tools apply there, too. Add in the fact that the ending of your story, be it a short story or a novel, is a significant business tool, the stress goes way up. I hope these questions help you train those dragons and give you a strong ending that inspires your readers to come back for more.