Endings are hard. Or at least, they carry the stigma of being hard to achieve, and I think this is to a large degree because people aren’t entirely sure what they want out of endings.
In this post, I will aim to explore what good endings to stories really do and why they feel conclusive, all the while being to some degree open to interpretation. It will hopefully include some practical tips for thinking about your own endings.
So what makes a good ending? I believe a great ending needs to:
Answering the Dramatic Question
The dramatic question is what drives the drama of your novel. You may have more than one, but more often than not it will centre round a dramatic question.
For crime/detective novels, this will often be some variation of “whodunnit?”.
For romance novels, some variation of “will they, won’t they?”
For epic fantasy and space opera, it might be some variation of “will they save the world and at what cost?”
Yours will hopefully be more specific and concrete than the above, but you should know what it is. If you don’t, go back to your manuscript and identify it. Write it down.
For examples, let’s think about some dramatic questions from famous books:
1984 - Will he manage to resist or even rebel against Big Brother?
The Lord of the Rings - Will Frodo destroy the ring and defeat Sauron?
Mistborn - Will they overthrow the Lord Ruler?
Of Mice and Men - Will they find peace on their farm and make it out of the drudgery?
As you can see, the answer to this question is not always ‘yes’ (i.e. 1984 and Of Mice and Men), but it is always answered. You need to resolve this question for your book to end, otherwise the reader will be left feeling cheated out of a resolution.
But endings are more complicated than this. For a full examination of great endings, I’m going to take lessons from my favourite ending of all time: the ending of Fight Club.
The ending I’m talking about is David Fincher’s movie ending, not Chuck’s book ending. Fight Club is actually one of the few movies I think is better than the book. On top of this, while the ending of the book might be truer to the thematic tone of the novel - darker, grimmer and more hopeless - the end to the film is much more satisfying narratively, and as such is a good example to explore why.
I’m going to presume that you’ve seen it and I’m going to presume that you can clearly picture the final scene: Ed Norton’s character (Tyler or not Tyler?) and Marla Singer standing in front of the collapsing, exploding high-rises, holding hands, while the Pixies plays in the background. It is beautiful and iconic.
It is one of the best endings ever written. But why?
1. Failure before Resolution
One of the most important narrative tricks for a powerful resolution is making sure your character has utterly failed just beforehand. I’ve mentioned this before when discussing plotting, but will go over it again as it is important.
Think Lord of the Rings and Frodo putting on the ring and turning away from Mount Doom.
Think Harry dying at the end of The Deathly Hallows.
Think Tyler Durden, having sent Marla Singer away on a bus, tied up, beaten up (by himself) and about to watch the city be destroyed with no help coming from anywhere.
These are all the just-before-final scenes of the climactic endings. This is an important narrative trick. It gives the ending weight and importance, especially after a whole story has been told. If they didn’t happen, the endings wouldn’t have anywhere near the same impact as they do.
Fight Club does this well.
Task 1: Cook up a scene where your character fails entirely just before your ending. Make sure the reader knows they have failed, unequivocally. Then, find a way to turn it on its head for the resolution.
2. Resolution of Character Arc
The Rolling Stones had it all worked out. Let me tell you why.
The most important thing that Fight Club gives us is a resolution of the protagonist’s arc. This is done by answering the dramatic question - which is derived from the protagonist’s goal.
The important thing to remember is that the stated goal or the apparent goal of the protagonist is not necessarily their actual goal. This is key in making impactful endings.
If you can have your protagonist think they want something, but actually it just be symptomatic of something else, then you’re working with real development. And if in the end you can give your character a resolution on their actual goal, while failing at their apparent goal, then you have a good ending.
In other words: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, you might find you get what you need.”
Let’s think about this in terms of Fight Club.
What is Ed Norton’s goal? Well, initially he just wants to sleep. This is his goal. Then he wants to be a bigger part of Fight Club. Then, when he finds out what Tyler is doing, he wants to stop Tyler from blowing up the city and killing people.
These are all, of course, symptomatic. He doesn’t know what his real goal is, but it is obvious from the start. He is lonely. He needs some kind of human connection.
This is the dramatic question - will he ever find true human connection?
He fulfils this at the beginning with consumerism, buying IKEA furniture, etc. But it doesn’t work. And the result is he can’t sleep. He then fulfils it with the emotional connection he gets from support meetings, but ultimately because this connection is false, it doesn’t work. He finally fulfils it by inventing a friend for himself and then building a cult around himself just to discover some sort of emotional connection, which he still doesn’t get. Meanwhile, there’s Marla, who he slowly, unknowingly, develops a love/hate connection with, but it is the only real one he has.
The ending works so well because he fails his stated or apparent goal at the end - which is to stop the buildings blowing up. He fails it completely. But, he finally achieves his true goal with Marla. It is the juxtaposition of this failed apparent goal and achieved real goal that makes the ending so powerful. The shot at the end literally shows the buildings exploding and them holding hands simultaneously, coupled with the wonderful line: “You met me at a very strange time in my life.”
Task 2: Specifically at the end of your novel, identify what your protagonist’s real goal is (which should be tied closely to the dramatic question). Then, give them an apparent goal which is symptomatic of their real goal, but different from it. Now, end your novel by having them fail at the apparent goal and achieve the real one. Trust me: that’s a great ending.
3. Change and Acceptance
This is one is pretty common knowledge, but is worth being stated again. Your ending needs to demonstrate to the reader either some level of change in the protagonist or some level of acceptance of their fate.
Most clearly, if you can have them make a choice that they would never have made at the start of the story, you are onto a good resolution.
Think Breaking Bad: Walt’s last scene is him telling Jesse to kill him - purely and honestly. He wants to die. This is such a departure from the Walt we have seen previously and this choice gives his character wonderful resolution.
In Fight Club, Ed Norton shoots himself in the head. Does he know it’s all in his mind and he will survive? No. He kills himself in an attempt to stop Tyler. That is what is most important to him. This, again, is a choice he would never have made at the end.
What Fight Club does wonderfully is it merges change (caring enough about something to shoot himself in the head because of it) and acceptance (staring at the exploding buildings and accepting there is nothing he can do about it). This is all summed up in the phrase: “You’ve met me at a very strange time in my life.”
4. Don’t Resolve Too Much
Just because you need resolution, this does not mean that you need to resolve everything. In fact, resolving every single plot point into a neat little bow that has no sense of continuing momentum often feels false. It takes the reader out of the story and reminds them that they are reading a narrative, constructed to end, rather than ending naturally.
As such, a sense of continuation of world, story and character is desired.
Think about this in terms of character. If you character is active and moving throughout the whole plot, you don’t want your reader to be left feeling that there is nothing left for them to do now and they are just going to sit on the sofa and watch TV for the next 50 years. It wouldn’t fit with their personality.
Let’s take two series that I’ve used repeatedly to show good and bad examples of this:
a. The Lord of the Rings
Does the story end with the one ring being destroyed and peace coming back to the world? No, it ends with Frodo leaving on a boat to a new place, new discovery and a new adventure with Bilbo, Gandalf, etc. I know the stated reason is to live out their older years, but the sense of continuing momentum we get from them departing again is both conclusive and satisfying. It is a good ending.
b. Harry Potter
The Harry Potter series has, for me, one of my least favourite endings to a series of books. I understand that she wrote it early on, near the start of her career, before her writing style and characters and plot had developed, but the ‘flash forward’ is an example of what I’m talking about above.
You may disagree with me, but many people I have spoken to have said it feels cheesy, false and somewhat takes you out of the gravity and emotion of the end of the series. I feel this is because Rowling is trying to resolve too much.
She’s trying to bring together every single thing and tie it off neatly, and the result is that Harry’s kids end up being called Albus Severus, James Sirius and Lily Luna. I mean, really? There’s such a complete sense of resolution to it - emotionally, plot-wise, developmentally - that it ends up feeling forced. So be careful about this.
If you can complete the arc for the character, which is more important than the story. The plot doesn’t need to be ‘resolved’ as such.
Again, one of the reasons Fight Club works so well is it leaves us with this final scene of action. We leave the story with questions. What will happen to them now? There is a sense that the story will continue, but because the arc is resolved and he has answered the dramatic question (finding a connection in Marla Singer) we don’t feel cheated that we aren’t there to see it.
We are comfortable with the knowledge that this is where we get off and the story can continue happily without us. This is the sense you should be aiming to achieve.
Endings are hard to get right, and they rely very much on how well you have set up the dramatic question and the motivation of the characters in order to get there. As such, I would always advise writing your story with a planned ending in mind. But some tips to remember are:
1. Resolve your character's true goal, but not necessarily their apparent goals.
2. Have your character fail before they succeed. Give it some drama.
3. Have your character's resolution demonstrate change and / or acceptance.
4. Don't try to resolve everything in the entire story. Decide what really counts and resolve that. Leave your reader with a story with some forward momentum.
Next week, I will write about how to write in 1st person perspective and what that entails, specifically looking at classics like The Remains of the Day.
See you next week.
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.