Last time I talked about Great Beginnings for our books. I’ve also blogged about Middles, Part 1 and Part 2.
Now we’ve come to The End.
No two words are sweeter for the writer to type. The End means you’ve finished your novel. But is the ending as satisfying as it can be?
I’ve recently read some books whose endings let me down. The opening held much promise, the middle was exciting, but the end left me unsatisfied. I couldn’t put my finger on the problem so I thought I’d do a little investigation.
At the beginning, a story makes a promise. In a romance that promise is to show two people overcoming obstacles to get to their happily ever after. The middle develops those characters and the conflicts they face, showing them coming closer and closer to collision. The ending must use those same characters and conflicts/problems/tensions to show us this collision at the climax.
In “Beginnings, Middles & Ends” from Writers’ Digest Books, Nancy Kress warns that the writer deviates from this pattern at her peril: “If the ending tries to use different characters (such as the cavalry riding over the hill at the last minute), the story will fail. If the ending tries to switch to some other last-minute conflict, the story will fail. If the ending tries to evade the promised collision (by, for instance, a peaceful compromise in which no one loses anything), your story will fail. You cannot, in other words, promise apples and deliver oranges.”
In other words the ending must be true to the beginning and the middle of your book. How you accomplish this is by controlling the two parts of the ending: the climax and the denouement.
The climax. The climax is whatever big event the forces in your story have been building toward. If a character is going to change, some experience at the climax will show that change. If a problem needs to be solved, this is where the protagonist solves it. This is where the villain makes his last stand, the lovers are united, family troubles blow up, the quest reaches its goal.
To succeed a climax must do four things:
The climax must satisfy the view of life implied in your story. In a romance the lovers overcome the conflicts standing between them. In a mystery justice is served. Whatever is promised by your genre and your book must be satisfied here.
A climax must deliver emotion. A climax without emotion will feel flat to readers, a letdown. The reader must feel whatever the characters are feeling, and if the characters aren’t feeling anything, this is not the climax.
The climax must deliver an appropriate level of emotion. The level of drama in the story must match the level of drama in the climax. For instance, if I’m writing a romantic comedy, I’m not going to going to end with a climax in which there is a big emotional upset, such as a death or a betrayal. However, if I’m writing a romantic suspense containing war, murder and all manner of angst, a big emotional, dramatic climax is called for.
The climax must be logical to your plot and your story. The climatic scene must grow naturally out the actions that preceded it, which in turn must have grown naturally out of the characters’ personalities. The climax cannot depend on some outside force like a random accident, instant enlightenment, or the cavalry riding over the hill. Don’t rely on a coincidence. The climax must be plausible for the story and must feel inevitable.
The climax must be in proportion to the length of your story. In novels, climaxes are usually a chapter, but sometimes several chapters. In any event, the climax should not be rushed. If you have many pages setting up a tense situation, the resolution should not speed by in a couple of paragraphs. It won’t feel important enough.
The Denouement. Everything after the climax is the denouement, whose function is to wrap up the story. It shows us 2 things: the consequences of the plot and the fate of any characters not accounted for in the climax. A successful denouement has three characteristics: closure, brevity and dramatization.
Closure means you give your readers enough information about the fate of your characters for them to feel that the book is really over. I often end my novels showing my characters together and happy, and looking forward to the future. In my WIP “Welcome to Paradise” the denouement shows Jack and Bridget celebrating Jack’s daughter’s birthday and their wedding with all their friends in Paradise. I wanted to show them committed and happy and part of the community. Don’t leave readers hanging, wondering what happened to characters they’ve come to care for.
Brevity is important to a denouement because if goes on too long, it will leach all emotion from the climax. A too-long denouement will also feel anticlimactic.
Dramatization ensures that your denouement feels like part of the story, not a chunk of exposition tacked on the end. For example, in the above denouement from “Welcome to Paradise” I show the birthday party/wedding as it happens. If I had told this bit of news in the internal monologue in Bridget’s head, I think it would be less satisfying for the reader and would feel pasted on.
There's no doubt that a sparkling opening is necessary to interest readers/agents/editors. A fast-paced middle where characters and conflicts are explored and developed keeps them reading. But a well-written ending that has the proper level of emotion and drama and length will satisfy readers and make them look for your next book. Next time I’ll look at some common problems of endings and how they can be fixed.
Have you been let down by the ending of a promising book? Do you spend as much time on your endings as you do on your beginnings?