Have a Heart: Writing a Satisfying End for the Character’s Journey
What IS a Satisfying Ending?Ask readers and experts what makes for a satisfying ending, and you’ll probably hear comments like these: – A good ending resolves the conflicts and problems that unfolded during the beginning and middle of the story and “ties up” loose ends. – Just before the resolution, tension builds as readers worry about what might happen. Going along with that, a character should not succeed too quickly or easily. – Readers should find the resolution logical and plausible—not contrived or too predictable or too pat/perfect. It should make sense, based on the character’s personality and the choices they made during their experiences in the story. – Characters will come to new realizations, based on the journey they took and the obstacles they overcame. This character transformation is often called the “heart” of the story, and that is the focus of this discussion.
The Heart of Your StoryTo identify the heart of your story/novel, ask yourself: WHAT have I written? What does my story mean? What does it say to readers? What big life issue or question does it explore? A series of exciting events or adventures might be interesting, but a great story has deeper “layers” and evokes an emotional response from readers. Here are examples of questions writers have explored in their fiction:
- What are the limits of obedience to authority?
- How do we balance individual freedoms with the well-being of the group?
- What role does forgiveness play in friendships or romantic relationships?
- Is honesty always the best policy?
- How do we end a relationship that has become toxic?
- What is the true meaning of success?
- Should we follow our dreams, even when they seem hopeless?
- How do we move on after a major loss?
- How do we move on after major mistakes?
Finding Your WaySome writers know from the start what core message they want to explore. Others might begin writing with no plan in mind, but with ideas about characters and events. There is no single “right” approach, but some planning can make the process easier. If we reach the middle or end with no sense of direction, then facing that unfinished manuscript can become a dreadful ordeal. Many experts advise writers to have some idea where they are heading, especially with a first novel. A plan or outline can be flexible enough to permit new developments and surprises, while still providing a path forward. Suppose you have already written a draft and you’re struggling with writing a satisfying ending? As you review earlier chapters, think about your character’s “journey” in the story. In his book The Plot Thickens, Noah Lukeman discusses how developing a “profound journey” for the main character can lead to a satisfying conclusion. A profound journey involves new realizations—about oneself, other people, society, the “human condition.” The character reaches a point where they see things differently and realize how they ended up in a difficult or desperate situation. They can then choose to do things differently—either through action or by avoiding old actions that led to their difficulties. Sometimes they develop new attitudes. They change. They grow. They learn to do better. Example: Suppose your main character tends to be too trusting, even gullible? During the plot, their experiences can lead them to see how this trait causes problems. They might then learn whom they can trust—or not—and why. They might learn that some people can be trusted for certain things but not others. By the end, they will have changed. They might still be open to trusting others but more cautious than before. The experiences that produce these insights will vary, depending on the writer, and myriad plots can emerge from this core exploration.
Benefits for Writers and ReadersIdentifying the heart of our story helps us to write it with more insight and then improve it during the revision process. We’ll see which scenes and events contribute to the character’s meaningful journey and determine how each subplot fits into that “whole.” We might identify material that doesn’t contribute enough to remain in the story. A satisfying ending can then emerge from this focused approach. When readers experience a meaningful journey along with the character, they, too, can feel the vicarious satisfaction that comes from learning, maturing, and gaining new insights. They have watched the character struggle to overcome obstacles. They have wondered and worried about the character’s fate. A satisfying ending will answer those questions and leave readers feeling that the story was worth their time. Author Jessica Soffer puts it this way: “ . . . good endings must do more than life: honoring what’s come before, swelling with the promise of what’s to come, and hovering in exactly the right place so that when it’s over, it’s hardly over. It’s just right.”
Victoria Sherrow has published short stories, articles, poetry, and books (fiction and nonfiction) for readers aged preschool through adult. Her books have received starred reviews and been honored by the American Library Association, Parents Choice Gold Award, National Association for the Advancement of Science, and NYPL Best Books for the Teenage, among others. Victoria has taught at The Institute of Children’s Literature for more than 25 years and has also been an assistant editor and writing contest judge.