I lurve me a book with an ending that scratches every literary itch and leaves me spent. After all, endings are the literary caboose to your story. Your writing can be the stuff that bring nations to their knees and beg for a good spanking, but screw up the ending, and it’s, “Book, meet Wall.”
Your literary caboose can’t be taken lightly. Evah.
The good thing is that, like writing, there aren’t any real rules to endings. They can either knock you on your ass, or hint at the how the character’s conflict resolves itself, and they can be equally satisfying.
I look for endings that, first and foremost, are equally balanced to the story. If I read a thrilling adventure story, then I expect an equally thrilling ending. It’s a lot like my meatloaf dinner (about the only thing I cook well). I need to have an equal amount of mashed potatoes and meatloaf, so I can have a bite of each in one forkful. If it’s out of balance, I can go back and get more of whatever I ran out of. Unfortunately, the reader isn’t as fortunate, so they’ll simply say terrible things about you and throw your book to a couple of ravenous Rescue Beagles. Eeek.
To me, an ending that puts the jam in my jelly doughnut is proportional to the conflict. Conflict gets my attention – the bigger, the better because the protagonist has more to lose. So I keep turning the pages to see how it turns out…will the protag get what s/he wants? Given the enormity of the conflict, I’m expecting a good payoff.
An example of conflict is in Kate McLaughlin’s book MOMMY, I’M STILL IN HERE. Kate’s daughter was diagnosed with one of the most severe cases of bipolar disorder docs had ever seen. Her cycling could happen in a matter of hours instead of days, and her daughter’s behavior threatened hers and her family’s life in the most horrific ways – which kept my heart in my mouth as I flew through the pages.
Because so much was at risk, I expected a huge payday…and I wasn’t disappointed. At. All. In fact, I think it was the first time I finally blinked.
So ask yourself whether your literary caboose is in proportion to the conflict. One shouldn’t overpower the other.
Evokes An Emotional Response
I remember reading Melissa Haynes’ LEARNING TO PLAY WITH A LION’S TESTICLES. I blubbered and laughed my fool head off throughout the entire manuscript. The animals of S. Africa (including the one on two legs) taught her so much about life and coming to terms with her mother’s passing, and I was right there along for the ride. She had me so emotionally invested in her story, that her ending was like landing on a soft cloud. I couldn’t read another book for about a week because I wasn’t ready to leave the aura of her story and the impact it made on me.
Melissa knew exactly how to tap into a reader’s soul (even those of us who don’t posses one), and give it a gentle massage.
Is your book an emotional story? If so, does your ending give the reader an equally emotional response?
Main Character Takes Action
Since your story has a main character and something is happening to him/her, and they’re working toward some kind of outcome, it only goes to reason that the ending would include the main character taking action.
Rescue Beagle #1 tries to figure out if stealing the ham off the counter is worth the risk of Overworked and Underpaid Editor’s brain blowing up. She decides that not only is it worth it – because ham is oh-so yummy, but that it would be kinda fun to see OW&UP Editor’s brain blow up. So she decides to go for it, and has Rescue Beagle #2 hoist her up on the counter.
The part in red is the action. Without taking any action, the ending – the literary caboose – falls flat.
The Great Hint
That’s not to say that you always see the main character taking action “on screen.” Sometimes a story is equally powerful if the ending hints at the main character’s action – and leaves it up to the reader’s imagination.
A prime example of that (wee horn tooting here) is with my novel, DONOVAN’S PARADIGM. New surgeon Kim Donovan has gone from crisis after crisis with her new hospital and the lead surgeon (love/hate relationship), and her soul is weary, used up, spent, crapped out. She needs a change of scenery, but it scares the hell out of her because she’s worked so hard to get a new experimental healing program at her hospital, and she’s afraid to let go.
I don’t reveal what action she takes because it felt emotionally right to do so, and actually made for a more powerful ending. Instead, I leave it up to the reader to decide what she does. Hmm…slight spoiler alert, huh? I will say I thought it a great ending.
Is the Hint Ending a good choice for your book? Sometimes writers simply don’t know how to end a story because they don’t want to leave some mystery. This could be a good option to think about.
I lurve me a good showdown. You know, where the bad guy, who’s been kicking everyone else’s ass, finally gets his own come-uppance.
I have to think no further than Chris Baughman’s REDEMPTION – Book 2 of the OFF THE STREET series. Ho-lee-crap. This is one of the most amazing showdown endings I’ve ever read. I remember standing up on my couch and belting out a whoop and screeching, “Oh hell YES!”
The reason I was filled with such bloodlust is because Chris does such an exemplary job at making me hate, hate, hate the pimp in this case – which was actually a kid Chris had gone to high school with <shudder> – by showing the evil that drenches every cell of his pathetic being.
Throughout the whole story, I was itching for Chris to bust this guy’s ass into next year, yet Chris shows admirable, yet frustrating, restraint. But when it becomes absolutely necessary for Chris to take action, the showdown made my intestines explode. I was exhausted, yet exhilarated, when I got to the last page.
Is there a showdown in your book?
Other niggly things that I look for in a satisfying ending also include:
Climax: This is the part that leads to the ending, so it shouldn’t be rushed. Takes your time preparing your reader for the big kapow. Okay, I could get a bit X-rated here to refine the point, but you get the idea. Wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am doesn’t work anywhere.
The Big Kapow – keep it short and sweet: This is the actual ending, the big wrap up. It’s what happened to the main character as a result of the Climax. It’s the closure. And it’s short and sweet – a scene, max. If it dawdles on too long, it cancels out the climax, and the reader gets bored. “Yeah, yeah, I get it, they rode off into the sunset. No need to show that Mr. Cowboy Pants doesn’t know how to light a fire and asks the Western Beauty if she brought a lighter.” That’s for another book. End it and be done with it.
Deus Ex Machina: Oh, how I detest this element. Maybe someone can come up with an example where this was used effectively. But to me, this is what inexperienced writers do, and they’re so contrived that it makes me want to mainline cheap gin. Deus Ex Machina solves a seemingly unsolvable problem by introducing a new character, object, or event, and boOm…instant ending. Blah. I say rip the skin off that suckah. I usually refer to this as the Scooby Doo ending. Double blah.
Logical/Believable: A satisfying ending means that it makes sense. If your main character is a serious surgeon who’s wanted nothing more than to practice medicine and is passionate about incorporating alternative healing methods in her surgical practice, then it makes no sense for her to chuck it all to join the circus and ride elephants. The story HAS to lead the reader to that possibility. Readers are smart, and they have a good feel for what your character would and wouldn’t do. Your ending can have a surprise, but it has to be logical. Check to make sure readers will buy off on your ending.
If you’re stumped on your ending, try messing about with it, using some of the examples I put here. It could be that your literary caboose will have nations falling to their knees and begging for a good spanking.