The importance of having a good ending
Having just completed the first draft of my new book (which I’m still not going to talk about just yet I’m afraid), I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of having a good ending to your story. As a reader, it infuriates me when the end of a book leaves me feeling unsatisfied, and it’s especially frustrating when the rest of the story is so strong, only to be let down by a poorly thought out conclusion. For the most part, an author could have written the best story ever conceived, but if it ends badly, the reader’s entire perception of the book can be tainted, spoiling all that hard work they did on the other 95 percent of the book.
The funny thing is, it’s quite common for a poor ending to go hand in hand with a great plot, as in the pursuit of creating a clever storyline, many writers often end up painting themselves into a creative corner that they simply cannot get out of without “cheating.” What do I mean by this? Well, think of a story where the protagonist might be trapped in an inescapable scenario, or a murder might be committed in seemingly impossible circumstances. As the reader gets drawn more and more into the futility of the hero’s escape, or the hopelessness of solving a crime, they begin to form an aspiration for the ending, which they’ll want to be as impossible for them to anticipate as the scenario appears to be resolvable. They’ll want the hero to escape or the crime to be solved, by they’ll want it to be done in a satisfying way that takes them by surprise.
Let’s take the murder mystery plot. Imagine the scene: you have a classic locked room mystery. A man is seen entering his office on the top floor of a skyscraper. There is only one way in or out of the room, through a door which he locks from the inside on entering – the room is too high up for anyone to escape through an open window, and the floor and ceiling are impenetrable. A gunshot is heard from inside the room. The police are called, and in the time they take to arrive, the door is constantly under surveillance by a number of people. No-one enters or leaves the room in that time. When the police arrive, they break down the door and discover the man has been murdered, a gunshot wound to the head. They search the entire room, but there is no-one else inside, and no murder weapon. Now that’s a good plot, right? As a reader, you’ll want to know how the crime was committed, right?
But now the author now has a problem. Having set up the perfect crime, the reader will be enthralled, but at the same time they will have high expectations for a good solution. And if the author doesn’t deliver that solution and has to resort to wrapping things up with a deux ex machina (i.e. a ghost did it) or changing the parameters of the crime scene at the end to explain how the murder was committed (i.e. there was a secret door leading to a terrorist hideout that nobody discovered in the initial investigation), then the reader will not be happy. A poor ending can ruin an otherwise brilliant book, because if a plot doesn’t resolve itself in a satisfying way, then the whole thing is tainted.
So here are some tips from me to ensure your ending rocks:
1) Never ever resort to using deus ex machinas: If your hero is at gunpoint with no way of escape, they should not be saved because the villain gets struck by lightning, or has a heart attack, or gets eaten by a snake, or gets hit by a meteorite, or spontaneously combusts, or turns into a goose.
2) Think about topping off your ending with another ending: Die Hard is a great example of this. You think it’s all over, but then one of the villains comes back from the dead!
3) Be consistent: If your story is built around set rules (i.e. the parameters of the crime scene we discussed earlier), don’t change them at the end for your own convenience so you can wrap everything up. It will only be satisfying to the reader if the problem is solved within the same rules as it was created.
4) Beware of “that’ll do”: As a writer, sometimes you just want to get the bloody thing done. Don’t succumb to that temptation. Keep working on the perfect ending until you know you would be happy with it as a reader.
5) Don’t force it: Sometimes, it’s best to leave your unfinished book in a drawer, go away for a month, then look at it again with a fresh pair of eyes.
6) Recognise when it’s just not working: Sometimes when you can’t think of a good way to end your book, it’s because there is no good way to end your book. In this instance, you’ll need to go back and tweak something earlier in the story to give you the foundations for that ending. It’s painful, but not as painful as just settling for the weaker ending.
7) Things should happen naturally: With a good plot, sometimes you just get a feel for the direction your story should go in. Don’t be afraid to follow this instinct, even if you don’t know where it’s heading. If your ending surprises you, it will surprise your readers too. And that’s a good thing.
8) Think about your characters: What would they do? Would they act the way they are acting? Sometimes, their behaviour will drive your ending, so just let them do what you think they would do and find out how they shape the end of your story.
9) You don’t need to resolve everything: There’s nothing wrong with leaving some unanswered questions or ambiguities in there. In fact, leaving certain things to the reader’s imagination is often better than resolving everything for them.
10) Don’t end midway through a