Captivating Endings

A post at Jerry Jenkin’s blog: How to End a Story: 3 Secrets to Writing a Captivating Ending.

This caught my eye because I’ve been posting recently about books with great ending. Three secrets. Well, I’m sure they’re not “secrets,” but perhaps tips. What does Jenkins have in mind? He says: You must know how to end a story worthy of the time and loyalty readers have invested in you. Your ending should be memorable and emotionally satisfying, tying up all loose ends.

Well, ALL the loose ends may be a bit of an overstatement. Most of the really crucial loose ends, sure, but hooks for a sequel are both typical and generally fine. But I certainly agree that a great ending should be both emotionally satisfying and memorable. That’s certainly ideal.

All right, what are these secrets (or tips)? Here they are:

  1. Keep the end in sight the whole way
  2. Nothing can follow the end
  3. Don’t forget your hero

That’s a bit funny! I’m thinking of the first point. Jenkins writes: Don’t play the wishing game, hoping it will simply work itself out when the time comes, but the fact is, I’ve written a good many books without knowing what the ending was going to be until I was practically on top of it. That’s perfectly ordinary for me. It’s unusual for me to know what’s going to happen at the end — the fundamental ending to TASMAKAT was crystal clear to me long before I started writing it, but that’s rare. Even then, certain important details about the climax and the denouement came to me as I got there, not beforehand.

Then Jenkins adds: think about your ending every day, and again, I’m pausing here. If you’re stuck in the middle and trying to beat your way through that section, then maybe you should be thinking about that part? Although I guess if you have an ending in mind, that can help guide your steps as you hack your way through the middle. But it doesn’t always do so in practice, in my experience.

To me, that looks like a tip for the outliner, not like a tip for everyone.

But I do like this part:

  • Be generous with your readers. They have invested in you and your work the entire way. Give them a proper payoff. Don’t allow it to look rushed by not allowing it to be rushed.
  • Make it unpredictable but fair. You want readers to feel they should have seen it coming — because you planted enough hints — but not feel hoodwinked.
  • Never settle. If you’re not happy with every word, scuttle it until you are.

I think all that is true. I did heavily revise the very last chapter of TASMAKAT twice because I was following the rule “never settle.” It’s best never to settle for something you know is not quite right, but absolutely crucial not to do so at the end.

Now, what does this second point mean, that nothing can follow the end? It can’t mean “nothing can follow the climax” because of course there’s almost always a denouement, which is often one of my favorite parts both as a reader and a writer. Also, what about epilogues? TANO includes my first epilogue, and I think it works well, and first readers agree about that. Don’t epilogues by their very nature follow the end? Let me see what Jenkins says about that, if anything:

Oh, he doesn’t mean “nothing comes after the end.” He means “the end must offer a sense of resolution.” [T]he reader knows what happened, questions are answered, things are resolved, puzzles are solved. Yes, in that case, by all means. I vividly remember that one reason (ONE) that I hated Tana French’s book In the Woods was that the initial mystery (what happened to those kids and how did the shoes get filled with blood?) was never answered. That wasn’t what most enraged me about that novel, but it sure didn’t help.

Yes, the novel ought to offer resolution and closure. If one book ends on a cliffhanger, that’s not the end; the story itself should end with resolution and closure, whether that’s at the end of the first book or the second or third or wherever.

But I’m surprised Jenkins phrased it this way: Nothing comes after the end, and doesn’t say a word about epilogues. I’m trying to think now about epilogues I particularly enjoyed. I’ll have to consider that and maybe write another post.

But how about the third tip: Don’t forget your hero? What does that even mean? Are there novels where the author wanders away from the protagonist and doesn’t come back? That seems unlikely. I think most authors understand that if you open with one character, then unless that character dies, the last chapter needs to come back to that character. Does Jenkins think that authors need a reminder that they should come back to their protagonist at the end? If not, what does he have in mind? Let’s see … yes, that’s part of what he’s saying:

Your lead character should be center stage at the end. Everything he learned throughout all the complications that arose from his trying to fix the terrible trouble you plunged him into should by now have made him the person who rises to the occasion. Maybe to this point he has been flawed, weak, defeated. But his character arc is about to resolve and become complete. The action must happen on stage, not just be about or remembered or simply narrated. It can’t be resolved by a miracle or because he realizes something. He must act.

This is more than just “You should focus on your protagonist at the end.” This advice is more, “Your protagonist has to drive the climax.”

I started to repeat that really, I don’t know that this advice is necessary. But I can think of one book I quite liked that violated this rule, and I did think the ending let the story down substantially. That book was Sinner by Greg Stolze, and I want to repeat that I did like this book, which is clever, fun, with neat revelations and good writing. But the extended ending, I’m not sure whether it was called an epilogue, was all remembered and narrated, not experienced. I thought: What gives? Did the author get bored and decide not to finish the book? And of course I don’t know, but I do know that the ending did not work well and this was because the action did not happen on stage.

Jenkins goes on to identify six types of story endings:

  1. Resolved
  2. Open
  3. Ambiguous
  4. Twist
  5. Closed circle
  6. Epilogue! There’s where he’s putting the epilogue!

I’m puzzled about why he seems to speak of open and ambiguous endings and epilogues favorably in this section when earlier he said Nothing After The Ending. But he absolutely does say here that cliffhanger endings are dandy for driving the reader toward your next book. He also mentions bittersweet endings and bitter endings and says End your novel well, but don’t feel like you have to end it perfectly. That seems to contradict his earlier advice that the ending needs to be emotionally satisfying and tie up all the loose threads and so on. I guess some readers find bitter endings satisfying, somehow, but still. This is a puzzle. It’s a bit like he wrote two different posts about endings with different advice and then jammed them together.

This post made me curious about what other advice might be out there about writing the ending, so here’s a different post about endings from a blog called The Write Life: How to End a Story.

[W]hat if your story finishes on a weak note?

Because it’s the final experience readers have before putting your book down, it leaves a lasting impression. Most people don’t finish books the books they start to read. Those who do are the most invested readers out of everyone who chose your book. It makes sense that they would be strongly let down by an unsatisfying conclusion.

Very true! This post then offers six suggestions for how to end a novel, and at once I’m wondering whether these will echo the six types of endings Jenkins listed, shown above. Let me list these very briefly and let’s compare:

  1. Neat and tidy, eg resolved
  2. Cliffhanger
  3. Twist
  4. Ambiguous
  5. Epilogue
  6. Cyclical

That last one is different! I was thinking these lists were going to be identical, but not quite! A cyclical ending isn’t the same thing as simply ending things as they started. Even though the story might begin and end in the same place, the readers should have been on a journey alongside the characters who have developed or learned something along the way.

I rather like the idea of the cyclical ending — of coming home.

The Lord of the Rings is of course like this, and that works very well. Stopping with a celebration in Gondor after the victory would have been VERY different from returning to the shire, and I will add here that I was thinking of The Scouring of the Shire as kind of an epilogue and very much an example of the sort of ending that turns out to be maybe my favorite part of the whole story. I love that part, and I wonder if part of the reason is the sense of closure, of the characters coming home after having grown into themselves and putting things at home back in order — a return of a different sort, a re-creation of a home that had been seriously damaged.

Okay! My final comment:

A cliffhanger is not the ending, or if it is, then that means the author has failed in a very serious way. (Pegasus, I’m thinking of you.) This does not belong on a list of “types of endings” because it’s not an ending; it’s a dramatic pause before the story continues.

When the first or second book of a series ends on a cliffhanger, that doesn’t count as the ending AT ALL. The final ending of the whole story is the actual ending. I’m tempted to go back up to those lists and strikethrough “cliffhanger” on both lists because that is just not right.

Also, in my opinion — unlike the above, I’m willing to change my mind about this — an epilogue is a specific technique, but it’s not a specific type of ending. The epilogue is used to tie up threads and settle all the important characters in place and therefore this is a special case of the “resolved” or “neat and tidy” ending.

Your choices when ending a story therefore fall into four categories, not six:

  1. Resolved, including possibly in an epilogue
  2. Ambiguous
  3. Twist
  4. Cyclical

I will finish this post by adding: I’m trying hard not to say too much, or anything really, about the ending of TASKMAKAT in the context of this post.

I just mention this so you will all sympathize with how difficult it is for me not to tell you many things about it. Seriously. It’s just painful.

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1 thought on “Captivating Endings”

  1. Depends on WHY you are stuck in the middle.

    Because you don’t know how to make the necromancer show off her power to the main character in an attempt to draw him in is one thing.

    Because you have no clue where you’re going after is another. Stories can just peter out.

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