Last week I wrote about beginnings, this week I want to talk about endings.
Endings are very specific to each person’s own story so I can’t give individualized advice, but the most important thing is that endings must feel satisfying to the reader. ‘Satisfying’ is a very subjective word and it will mean something different to each reader. But here’s a good description: An ending is where tension is relieved because a conflict has come to a peak and everything has changed. The world will look different to the main character and reader now.
Do I need a happy ending?
Not necessarily. One of the defining factor of literary fiction is that there is no happy ending, where as with commercial fiction you must have a happy ending. Literary fiction readers come to expect the ending won’t be a perfectly happy one it just needs to be suitable for the story you’ve set out to tell. One literary fiction ending that was unhappy but stuck with me for a long time was Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss–haunting and unforgettable and quite sad, but suited the story. (If anyone has read it, they’ll know what I’m talking about.) The book wasn’t a happy one so the ending wasn’t either.
However, with romance and other genres readers are expecting a happy ending. Know the tropes of the genre you’re writing in and sum it up with something the reader will enjoy. In a crime novel, we expect that the bad guy will get caught–don’t leave us hanging.
How do I know when the book is done?
Just like many writers don’t know how to start their novel, sometimes they write past their true ending. A great ending is done when all the loose ties are closed, but we’re left with a bit for the imagination. You don’t have to answer all the questions (like what happens to the heroine and hero after the ‘story’ is done) but you need to close off the conflict in a way that suits the story. It’s easy to fall in love with your characters and keep writing their story, but when it comes time to edit think about what sweeps everything in and when there’s a little left for the reader to think about–that’s the ending.
Do I need an epilogue?
Probably, not. Just like you rarely need a prologue. If you need an epilogue ask yourself if you told the story in the best way possible? Did you tie up loose ends before the book ended? If you want to write an epilogue that shows a ‘happily ever after’ or ‘where they are now’ I’d hold back. Leaving the reader with a hunger for more means you did your job.
How do I create a ‘satisfying’ ending?
In the famous words of Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: you have to get the octopus to bed. When you try to tuck one tentacle in another one ends up popping out. However, if you balance it all, it will go to sleep eventually. In other words, you have to make sure all the plot point and sub plot points are resolved. If you leave anything hanging the reader will know. A tight and somewhat conclusive ending makes you look like a pro and makes you look like you knew what you were doing all along.
Q: How do you write endings? How do you know when your book is done?