Writing a Good Ending

Image Credit: http://jasonfischer.com.au/i-finished-my-damn-novel/

Image Credit: http://jasonfischer.com.au/i-finished-my-damn-novel/

So you’re finally at the end. All ready to wrap up these 50,000 words. Feels great, right? You just need to write the ending…which can be tricky. My ghostwriting friend once said, “I actually hate the ending to most books. A lot of them have great last lines, but I’m always underwhelmed.”

When it comes to endings, novels and short stories again can have completely different natures. It’s all right to write your ending first—some of the better stories I’ve written started with the last line. It’s just another matter of getting the characters from the climactic fallout to the last line. It’s also important to know exactly where to start or stop the resolutions. A short story can be an interlude; it can lead right up to a huge battle or a nervous confession, and then end. The momentary crisis has been resolved. Leave the character to confront bigger issues by himself. There will always be people who wish that a story would extend longer than it did—that’s fine. But in a novel, which is all about life changes, there needs to be some indication that life has changed. Resolution is key.

At the same time, “resolution” and “open-ended” aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Open endings are great, and often more realistic. It’s rare to find people who’ve completely closed off parts of their lives. (For example, people always complain that the “real” world is just like high school, and it’s true: people tend to get stuck on high school resentments, and, no matter what, they’ll always keep tabs on a few classmates and laugh when someone ends up getting fat.) Bret Easton Ellis never indicates whether any of the events in American Psycho or Rules of Attraction actually happened; the truth is left ambiguous, the mad characters’ fates hanging uncertainly after the fallout. Of course, that’s the entire point that Ellis is trying to make in his novels, so it works.

Whether you choose to end ambiguously or more resolutely, consider your novel’s themes again. How does your ending cap off the larger questions in your conflicts? Is total, unabated personal freedom worth the societal breakdowns that might happen? Is it right in theory, only just for certain people (and more on the nose, maybe it’s not right for the character you killed off fifty pages earlier)? Does the vapid, soul-sucking glamour of the famous and rich inevitably destroy morality and meaning in life?

On the opposite side of the spectrum, there’s also the danger of overwriting your ending. To draw on a movie, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King essentially has three endings: Frodo waking up in Rivendell and reuniting with the Fellowship, Aragorn’s coronation and wedding in Gondor, and the elves’ (and Frodo’s and Gimli’s) final departure from Middle Earth. This isn’t to say that these resolutions aren’t necessary. It’s just that the end of Frodo’s mission, Aragorn’s reinstatement as an honorable king of Men, and the conclusion to the elves’ saga in Middle Earth are all treated separately (and all three end on those long fade-to-white shots that clearly should fade into credits). Consolidate your resolutions, but do it thoroughly.

Sidebar: The greatest advice I’ve ever gotten is from Susanna Moore, who once said of my short story ending, “It’s a little too squishy. Too much.” She uses “squishy” in her criticism, which can stand for triteness, overly sentimental passages, sentences that sound nice but don’t indicate anything…and endings are especially vulnerable to squishiness. Novel endings are not huge dramatic banners. Don’t overshadow your climax.

By Robin Yang


Robin Yang was one of the Campus Clipper’s publishing interns, who wrote an e-book on how to write a novel. If you like Robin’s writing, follow our blog for more chapters from this e-book. We have the most talented interns ever and we’re so proud of them! For over 20 years, the Campus Clipper has been offering awesome student discounts in NYC,  from the East Side to Greenwich Village. Along with inspiration, the company offers students a special coupon booklet and the Official Student Guide, which encourage them to discover new places in the city and save money on food, clothing and services.  

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