A solid ending that brings a story to a satisfying close can be tough, but important. It’s your last moments to spend with a reader before releasing them back into the wild and you want that parting to be a positive one. This is especially important when writing the ending for a mystery as you not only have to end the story is a satisfying way, you have to bring together all the parts of the puzzle neatly and without holes. You never want an ending that leaves a mystery reader asking, “Okay, but what about…?” Mysteries are rarely open-ended because the very nature of how mysteries work requires closure to be successful. So let’s think about what makes for a good mystery ending.
A Good Ending Doesn’t Dangle
Strong writing for a mystery requires that an author keep up with lots of bits and bobs. By the ending, every clue must be resolved, including the red herrings. And readers tend to want real resolutions, not guessing. For one mystery novel I wrote, I opened up a clue about who had let someone into a building when the building was closed. I had two characters talk about it and one said she guessed it was one of the staff who was too chicken to admit to having done such a thing. I thought that would be enough. It was not. My editor was badly bothered by not knowing who actually let the person into the building, even though that ultimately wasn’t a clue that mattered to the actual mystery. So I had to assign a person the job of letting in the ne’r-do-well and a solid motive as to why it happened. Close enough wasn’t good enough.
Because every clue must be resolved, an author must be especially aware of every clue, every misstep, every question that might pop into the mind of the reader so that all are answered by the end. In order to be prepared to write an ending that leaves none of these bits dangling you must keep track of the questions you’re raising as you write. For me, this means lots and lots of sticky notes jotted down while I’m writing. Every time I write something that must eventually be resolved, I’ll write it on a sticky note (along with the page number when it’s introduced) and stick it to my computer. Once I’ve resolved the issue, I jot that on the sticky note along with the page number and move the note to the bullet journal I keep open when writing a novel. In the journal I keep things like photos of my character inspirations, photos and maps of locations, and rough plans for every building, as well as these notes about the plot questions. When I’m done with a book, my journal is full of these notes and I can check them again when doing my final read-through to be sure it all works smoothly, and that the way I’ve resolved each thing doesn’t create more questions.
A Good Ending Doesn’t Rush
For my first mystery novels for adults, I received feedback that I’d rushed the ending. At the time, I found that a little confusing. I’d completely resolved the mystery, so wasn’t the story done? Coming as I did from writing short stories primarily, I wasn’t used to having the leisure for long endings, but now I know that readers like to have a small peek at “what happens next.” It’s not enough to catch the crook, the reader wants to know what’s going to happen to him and to the other important characters in the story. It’s not enough to slip out of the bad guy’s clutches, the reader wants to see the main character safely at home again. You don’t necessarily need to drag us through the fairly boring trial of the bad guy or let us ride along as the main character takes a taxi home, but I’ve found readers tend to like a closing scene that is about the relationships built during the story, and that gives us a sip of the future. Readers aren’t looking for an ending that says the good guys lived happily ever after, but generally, they do want to know the good guys are okay, and the bad guys are well and truly done doing bad things.
Once I recognized that this was true, I began to pay attention to how published novels with thriller endings or mystery endings or adventure endings brought these kinds of high tension, complex plots to a close, and I found that most have a breather moment before letting the reader go. Some actually go so far as to hint at the next adventure in store or some other suggestion of more to come for the characters. So a wild adventure will rarely end with characters swearing off ever going outside into the big scary world again, instead we get the sense that these people will continue to have lives that are exciting. The main thing you’ll be wanting to convey is that, for these characters, there is more — they may make plans for when they’ll see one another again or the maybe romance may end with a kiss, but something more personal tends to come after all the threads are tied up. Doing that helps the reader feel they weren’t rushed out of the story when they were still enjoying it.
A Good Ending is Clever
The very last lines of your ending often follow the tone of the overall story. So a witty story full of quips and humor is likely to end with a quip from the main character. It might not be hysterically funny, but it brings the last moments to a close with a reminder of the character the reader enjoyed throughout. A frightening story will often end with a breather, a reminder that’s it’s okay, the characters made it out all right, but then, at the last moment, sometimes there’s a little glimmer of mystery or maybe a last scare. Maybe the still slightly edgy character sees something she’s sure means it’s not all over, only to discover she’s misinterpreted what she saw. It’s okay. It’s all going to be okay. Or is it? Clever endings leave the reader thinking a bit about the ending, and not in a negative way. Instead, the way you tie up the mystery can be funny or charming or a little bit scary but it should be uniquely yours and uniquely tied to the story you told.
Sometimes the perfect ending takes a while to find. I’ve known writing friends who took days or even months to find the perfect ending for a story. Right now, I have a scary story that I’m very fond of, but I haven’t found the right ending yet. I’ve tried a couple endings on for size, and they resolved the story just fine, but they weren’t right. That’s okay. I have time with this one. I’ll keep poking it until I find exactly the ending that works for the story and works for me, because I know how important endings are to reader satisfaction. A satisfied reader will look for stories from me next time and that’s exactly what we want.
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.