Talking about how to end a book or story is a bit harder than talking about how to begin one.
The first paragraph of a book doesn’t really count as a spoiler for the book, but the last paragraph certainly might. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile to talk about how stories end, because the ending is (in its own way) every bit as important as the beginning.
The beginning captures the reader, but the ending keeps hold of that same reader after the story is over.
The ending moment of the book or story is a bit different from the end of the plot. The plot of a story ends when the major plot problem has been resolved in some fashion. You may have the main character succeed in overcoming the problem. You may have the main character decide to stop fighting the problem and instead adopt different goals. You may have the problem eat up the main character and burp politely. All are possible endings of the plot because they signal the end of the pressure that the plot problem put on the main character. But should the book or story end with the end of the plot? Maybe not.
The best endings for stories are at moments of emotional reward for the reader.
In any story, the reader has followed your plot machinations hoping for a believable resolution to all the plot balls you’ve been juggling. But the reader also has an emotional investment in the story (or we hope the reader does) and a story that pays off an emotional reward for that investment will leave the reader clutching your book and talking about it with love.
Let’s risk spoiling one classic book (it’s going to be Charlotte’s Web, so if you don’t want to hear vague reference to know how it ends, you may want to skip to the next paragraph). In Charlotte’s Web, we have a heart-breaking emotional moment in the book, one that throws Wilbur into the hardest moments of his life and gives him one of his greatest, unselfish challenges. The reader is probably fairly distressed, and to end the book in any kind of heartening way, the author had to resolve some of Wilbur’s pain. What Wilbur wanted most from life was close friends and security, and readers wanted it for him. The story ends when the author pays off both of those needs. We can’t have Charlotte back and that hurts, but we can give Wilbur real joy and the book does. And the reader shares some of Wilbur’s joy.
I wrote a short hi-lo reader for teens some time back. One of the requirements of the book was that it be open-ended. We needed to not know how the main problem resolved. It needed to end with a question. Did everyone survive or did they not? Did the main character live or did he not? But I know that leaving everything unresolved would make for some very unhappy readers. So although the particulars of the ending are unresolved, the emotional driving force for the main character is resolved. He is a teenager who has never felt like what he does matters. So he basically doesn’t try to fit in or make people happy. Instead, he is constantly playing pranks, often as a smoke screen for his other behaviors. But one of his pranks turns into a disaster, changing everything about the place where he lives. And in the end, his actions offer his home its only chance of survival. Ultimately, he sacrifices a lot in order to do something that truly matters, but he does it. And that emotional pay-off gives a strong sense of hope and an ending, even though many of the plot strings are decidedly left hanging.
There’s a reason so many old fashioned romantic movies ended with a kiss and a fade out. The movies often spent a lot of time making us care about the romantic interaction between the leads, and making us want them to be together. There are other things at play in the movies. A plot that is just “will they get together” isn’t very rewarding, but when we’ve made the reader worry about a relationship, giving a tender moment at the end often gives the reader a smile and an “Ahhhh” moment.
Some books for teen readers will take the reader’s need for emotional happy resolution and turn it on its ear. Thrillers and horror stories, for instance, make no promises that everyone will get out alive. In fact, it’s possible that no one will get out alive. This is a considerably more complicated type of plot to pull off successfully, and if you fail, reviewers can be brutal. It’s hard to give readers an emotional payoff when you kill everyone, and the book can end up being scary but not memorable. So if you decide to play with the conventions of a happy ending, be sure that you keep the idea of emotional pay-off in mind. If you ignore it, you may have a brutal book, but it may not be a memorable one.
One last nice bit is for the great last line of the book or story. Think of it as your story’s final words, gasped out. How can you make that very last line memorable? A quip is always nice in a lighter novel. Something fun or bright or amusing. The quip can also work in a darker novel, especially an adventure story, as we often have main characters who are darkly funny. So the quip will have a darker tone and be mostly a way of displaying the character’s resolute spirit rather than a way to make us smile. An understated or unemotional declarative statement can be good too. For instance, an apocalyptic novel might end with a line like: “No one lived happily ever after, or lived at all.” Or “They lived. It’s all they could do.” Short and pithy often makes for the best last lines.
So as you plot your novel or short story, ask yourself a couple questions:
- How will the mechanical ending come –– the one where the plot problem is resolved in some way, where the plot pressure ends?
- And how will the emotional resolution come?
They are not the same thing.
And the closer to the final moments that you bring the emotional resolution, the stronger your novel will linger. So before you say “The End,” be sure you have an ending that lasts.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.