The great Mickey Spillane once said, “Nobody reads a book to get to the middle.” Well, duh. But really, think about that. Isn’t the ending what you inevitably carry away with you more than any other part of the book, whether good or bad?
Many times over, I see writers asking others what they find harder to write, the beginning or the end. For me, I’d have to say it’s finding that perfect spot in the story to begin. But then, I really only struggled with that once so far. I’ve never had an issue wrapping up the story or knowing where to end it, although I have to admit to asking myself on more than one occasion after I’ve written “the end” if I’ve done so too soon or too late and was it satisfying and done just right? Because if not the latter, I could very well have just ruined the entire book. And for some of us, writing that satisfying ending or finding that sweet spot can be a frustrating challenge.
Think back to the last book you read, where after finishing that last line, you said to yourself, “Well, that ending sucked.”
If this has ever happened to you, more than likely, it ruined the entire experience. What you paid for the book (which could be nothing) doesn’t factor into the equation in the least because you went away regretting every minute you devoted to each page.
Ask yourself, How willing would you be to recommend that book to another reader? And how eager would you be to give that same author another read with their next book?
I’m willing to bet this is not how you want your book to be remembered, especially after writing such a compelling beginning that you pulled your readers in with success and held them in thrall all the way to the end. Both are awesome accomplishments. So don’t throw all that away by allowing your story to crap out at the end.
Of course, your genre, theme, motif, etc., will dictate much of the way you write your story and how it will end, but still, there are several factors that can wreck any ending. So, let’s break those down a bit and discuss what mistakes to avoid.
1 Where’s the Resolution?
One surefire way to leave your readers dissatisfied with your ending is by failing to wrap up all those loose ends or leaving things too open to interpretation.
I made this mistake with the first book I ever wrote (not published, by the way), where at the end of the story, the romance was wrapped up in a comfy blanket of happily-ever-after, but the villain who had been haunting the heroine from page one until just a chapter before was simply not mentioned at all. In his last scene, the antagonist was stopped, but then the scene was cut off, leaving the reader to wonder, Was he killed? Arrested? Will he be back to haunt her again someday? I was so caught up in wrapping up the romance that I forgot about the dirtbag. And I’ll tell you, my critique partners were sure to loudly voice their dissatisfaction with that crapfest of an ending.
By making such a huge mistake as failing to resolve all of your main character’s primary struggles and issues, you leave your readers walking away with two thoughts. One, that perhaps you weren’t sure yourself how to end the story, or two, you just didn’t think that plot point was important enough to wrap up. And that tells the reader you weren’t as invested in your own storyline as you should have been.
Either one of those scenarios is a major letdown for your readers and guaranteed to leave them frustrated with not just your characters but also you as the author.
Making sure your story structure is solid, meaning every plot point has a beginning, middle, and end, is imperative. So don’t leave your readers saying, “Hey, wait. What about…?”
2 What’s the Rush?
Have you ever read a story that started out so good just to leave you at the end saying, “Wait! No, really, hold up a minute!”? The author pulled you inside page by page, got you invested in the characters and their story from the very start, and kept you trotting along beside them at the perfect pace until less than ten pages from the end when suddenly, BOOM! It’s over.
Still a good book, perhaps, but what a disappointment.
I’ll refer to your story structure here and warn you against skipping or skimming any of those crucial final aspects. Wrap-up – Resolution – Outcome
Likewise, avoid squeezing them together into the same scene. After all, your readers have invested their time, energy, and emotions into your characters and story, and they’ve anticipated that final outcome with patience and devotion. So don’t reach the final conclusion so abruptly that you give them whiplash.
Imagine standing in line for a highly talked-about amusement park ride. You’ve known you were going to this park for days, weeks, maybe even months, and anticipated experiencing this particular ride the most. You stood in line for over an hour, and now, finally, you climb in and strap up. Your heart is already pounding with excitement as the ride starts, and in less than thirty seconds... It’s over.
I’d be walking off that ride saying, “I stood in line all that time for that? Never again.”
So don’t disappoint your readers by wrapping it all up too quickly. Allow them a few pages (at least) to savor every bite before finishing one of the best meals they’ve ever eaten with no more than a single bite of that world-famous dessert you promised them.
And if those metaphors don’t resonate with you, I can drop a few more. 😊
3 Well, Isn't That a Drag?
On the opposite end of rushing your story, be sure you don’t drag it out to the point your readers lose interest. Go back to your story structure and be conscious of those story beats.
Have you given your readers the final climax and wrapped up all of your plot points nicely, followed by the final resolution and outcome? Well then, there you go. The end! Now leave all of that to simmer in your readers’ brains. Allow them to walk away, reliving every awesome scene rather than shaking their heads.
I’ve read a few stories myself where I was completely satisfied with the resolution and outcome, only to see there were several more pages yet. And honestly, on some of those occasions, I was tempted to just stop where I was.
I didn’t, of course. No, I read on to the very last word and then asked myself, “Why did the author bother? Why did I bother?”
Your risk here is losing everything you and your characters worked for to get there. And wouldn’t that be a pisser?
If you really want your readers to know what became of your characters, how their life turned out a year from then, for example, then write an epilogue that your readers can decide whether to read or not. At least that way, they clearly understand you’re giving them more if they want it. But even if that instance, I caution you to keep it short.
4 What the Bleep Just Happened?
They’ve read page after page with rapt attention. Your readers are more than simply invested in your characters and their story. They know these characters intimately and can see the path ahead, as well as the fork in the road coming up. They’re asking themselves, “Which way will this story go? How will it end? Which choice will the hero/heroine make?”
Then BLAM! Instead of choosing any of the prophesied routes, your main character(s) suddenly decides to leave the path they’ve just spent over a hundred pages paving and do something completely unexpected, and worse, altogether out of character.
What were you thinking?
Twist endings can work, sure. But not if this unexpected twist totally blindsides the reader.
What happened to the character(s) we’ve come to know and love (or hate)? The character(s) your readers have devoted so much time to would never do that.
What happened to the resolution your plot just spent page after page building to, one of the several possibilities that would have made total sense?
If your twist ending doesn’t fit the character(s) or the story, let’s face it, you’ve blown it.
So, if you made such a mess of the main plot that you believed you had to invent some miraculous saving grace just to reach that ending, then you’ve got some work to do.
My advice: Go back to the beginning, and this time, don’t betray your characters or your plot. Stay true to the story you’ve put so much time and effort into and give your readers a truly satisfying ending.
Trust me, you’ll be so glad you did.
5 Did You Just Go From Sizzle to Fizzle?
As an author, you know that to pull your readers inside your story, you’ve got to give them characters they believe in. Characters they connect to in some way, and characters who have the readers rooting for their success. The readers need to not just be willing to devote their time to the character’s story, but they should have a need to.
And what kind of story would it be if when your readers turn to that final page, your main character is in the same place they were on page one? Everything your character believed they wanted or wished for at the beginning is exactly the same, and the world as the character saw it hasn’t changed one bit. What I’m getting at here is that your main character didn’t grow in the least!
Well, if you wanted that sizzlingly exciting story you just wrote to fizzle out at the end like a dud during the fireworks finale on the Fourth of July, congratulations, because you just succeeded.
So, please, I beg you. Don’t forget the character arc when developing your story’s conflict and plot points. After all, the character arc should be your main focus. And I guarantee it will be at the forefront of your readers’ minds.
And there you have it, my fellow writers, five sure ways to lose potential fans by mangling the ending of your novel.
And one last note: Keep in mind that if you are writing a series, whether two books, twenty or anywhere in between, each book should have its own satisfying conclusion, while enough of an enticement (usually in the form of a cliff-hanger or additional unresolved major issue(s), depending on the genre) to pull the reader to the next book. In other words, make sure that while one or more of your main character’s problems have been resolved, there are additional struggles to overcome on the horizon.
Happy Writing, Everyone!