How to Write Your Last Page

James Scott Bell

It’s been a heady couple of weeks doing first pages here at TKZ. So I thought, just to catch our breath and balance things out, maybe we should go the other way for a moment.

What about your last page?

I love the Mickey Spillane quote: “The first page sells your book. The last page sells your next book.”

How true that is. How many times have we begun a novel or movie, only to be let down when the book is closed or the credits roll?

I love beginnings. Beginnings are easy. I can write grabber beginnings all day long. So, I suspect, can you.

But endings? Those are hard.

Why? First, because with each passing day another book or movie has come out, another ending has been rendered. So many great endings have already shown up. We who continue to write have the burden of trying to provide satisfactory surprise at the end when so much ending material is already out there.

Second, our endings have to tie things up in a way that makes sense but is also unanticipated. If the reader can see it from a mile away, the effect is lost.

I like what Boston University writing teacher Leslie Epstein said in a recent Writer’s Digest piece (“Tips for Writing and for Life,” WD March/April 2010). When asked if a writer must know the ending before he starts, Epstein says, “The answer is easy: yes and no. One must have in mind between 68 and 73 percent of the ending.”

Epstein’s having a bit of fun here, but his point is solid. If you have the ending 100% in mind, you’re in a straitjacket, unable to let your story sufficiently breathe, or twist, or turn.

OTOH, if you don’t have any idea where you’re going, you could easily fall into the meander trap, or the backed-into-a-corner trap.

There are some very helpful techniques for writing a great ending. Joe Moore discussed some of these last month. Type “endings” in the search box in the upper left of the blog, and you’ll get other thoughts by my blog mates. And I’ll humbly mention that I have also treated the subject in Plot & Structure.

But rather than focusing on principles, today I want to offer you my own personal approach to writing endings. It’s called Stew, Brew and Do.

Why is it called that? Because I made it up so I get to name it.

Here’s how it goes:

Step 1: Stew.

I spend a lot of time at the end of a manuscript just stewing about the ending. Brooding over it. I’ve got my final scenes in mind, of course, and have written toward them. I may even have written a temporary ending. But I know I won’t be satisfied until I give the whole thing time to simmer. I put the manuscript aside for awhile, work on other projects, let the “boys in the basement” take over.

I tell myself to dream about the ending before going to bed. I write down notes in the morning.

Step 2: Brew.

When I am approaching the drop dead deadline, I continue to outline ending possibilities. I will have files of notes and ideas floating in my head. When I know I have to finish I use Brew in both a practical and metaphorical way.

I take a long walk. There is a Starbucks half an hour from my office. (In fact, there is a Starbucks half an hour from anyplace in the world). I put a small notebook in my back pocket and walk there and order a brew—a solo espresso. I down it, wait a few minutes and then start writing notes in the notebook.

Then I walk another half an hour, to another Starbucks (I’m not kidding). There I make more notes. If I have to, I have another espresso. I am a wild-eyed eccentric at this point, but I do have ideas popping up all over the place.

Step 3: Do.

I go back to my office and write until finished.

Well, it works for me. I like most of my endings, but they were very hard work to get to. But hey, that’s good. If this gig was easy, everybody’d be doing it, right? Be glad it’s as hard as it is. Your efforts will pay off.

So what works for you? Do you find endings hard? Or do they roll out of your imaginary assembly line fully functioning and ready to go?

What are some of your favorite endings? Or better yet: what endings, to movies or books, would you change?

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35 thoughts on “How to Write Your Last Page

  1. Interesting. I find beginnings much much harder than endings. But then I like my dessert first.

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  2. You made me feel immensely better. I thought I needed to have my ending all worked out before I started my book– I don’t and I was panicking. Will try your method as I’m almost there.

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  3. Maxine, you’re quite welcome.

    BK, that just shows we writers are not all wired the same. As long as you’re pleased with the results, do whatever works (that may be the only real “rule” of writing)

    Terri, I’m glad you feel better about it. I think having a “fuzzy” vision of your ending is a good thing, but subject to change.

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  4. The best ending to a movie for me was The Sixth Sense. I had to cast my mind back over the whole thing, trying to figure out the clues. And then of course I watched it again.

    I usually have a pretty strong vision of my ending when I start a book. The one time I didn’t, and had to come up with an ending late in the game, it felt contrived. (And some reviewers noticed the same thing, aargh).

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  5. Considering the endings of yours I’ve read, my advice is don’t ever switch to decaf. What you’re doing is working.

    I have a rough idea of the ending when I start the book. That is, I know the mechanism by which I’ll bring it to a close. What I don’t know until I hold a caucus with myself toward the end is who the villain will be. Works so far.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  6. Kathryn, that is indeed our challenge–be original, but not contrived. Hard to do, but worth the effort.

    Richard, I like that you “caucus” with yourself. That’s sort of what I’m advocating here, only I bring in those faithful consultants, the “boys in the basement.”

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  7. I like those tips! I try to give myself some permission to do any task like walking, organizing cabinets, something that doesn’t require my full mental attention and yet allows me to brew on the story.

    Great post, thx –

    Elaine

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  8. You make me feel better too! I usually have an idea of my ending, but I find I “stall” for a bit before writing it. Sometimes I do write that temporary ending–but I think it’s my real one!–and don’t learn until I come back to it in editing that it’s not sufficient.

    Now that I’ve identified the stall as part of my process, I can see that it helps me greatly in writing that killer ending. When I’m in a book, I’ve been stuck in the middle too long to bring things to a proper close. Too much is forgotten, or changed from my first ideas. So I either write that temporary ending, or leave the last few chapters undone, and then fix them in the edit.

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  9. Wow, I am continually amazed by how wildly writers’ processes differ. The ending in the only part of a book that I absolutely need to know before I start writing the first page. I don’t necessarily know all of the tiny details–who says what to whom, or what the setting looks like, that sort of thing–but I have to know who lives and who dies and how the ultimate crisis is resolved. I can’t imagine how I could write a fast-paced thriller if I didn’t know how all of the various scenes were contributing to the ultimate conclusion of the story.

    In several of books, the ending was the FIRST scene that inspired me to choose the storyline. This sin’t to say that it all comes easily; but I cannot abide the thought–the risk–of investing the better part of a year in a story, only to find out that I don’t have a satisfying ending for it.

    To my taste, few books end when they should. When the action’s over and the characters are stablilized from their adventures, the book should end. A coda is fine to tie up a few loose ends, but brevity is the keyword. Give me one more scene to let me know whether the gravely wounded character lived or died, stayed or left, but please don’t introduce new plot points. And I beg you not to swim backwards two hundred pages to explain why the final twist should make sense to me after all. If your final twist doesn’t feel organic when it first arrived, I’m going to be pissed, and re-telling the story to cover your tracks is not going to help.

    Some people I respect argue that any coda weakens a story. In NATHAN’S RUN, my editor and agent both pushed me to delete the coda I crafted to assure readers that the the story had indeed resolved in the way that I had pretty firmly hinted it would. I went along with them, and I’ve regretted it ever since. The most repeated criticism from fans about that book is the abruptness of the ending. If I ever can sell reprint rights, the coda is coming back.

    John Gilstrap
    http://www.johngilstrap.com

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  10. And just to add to what John G. said, I do not advocate NOT knowing your ending (with at least some certainty) before writing. As the fellow said in partial jest, up to 73%. For thriller writers, and I’m one, this helps enormously in knowing what to write toward, and for story material.

    But for me, the perfect phrasing, the final surprises, the “resonance” I want, these have to take final shape after most of the story is written, because so much “life” has been breathed into the story during the writing of it. I have to stew a little to let all that material cook for awhile.

    I definitely want to read the Nathan’s Run coda…

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  11. And BTW, who likes the ending to GONE WITH THE WIND? Yea or Nay?

    I always speculate that in the original draft, the last line was, “Tomorrow will probably suck, too.”

    But that’s just me.

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  12. I love doing endings – I stew and brew for a long time over these:) I liked the ending to Gone with the Wind – though like eveyone else I still wanted to know what happened next (and no, the sequels that were bandied about did not satisfy)

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  13. Jim,

    Here’s where I have to confess that I’ve never read GWTW. I studied the Civil War, instead.

    Best ending, EVER:
    “And he’d be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” –TKAM

    JG

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  14. I woke up yesterday morning with an entire ending in mind. I hadn’t even thought about writing the book since I’m editing one and deep into brainstorming another. But there it was. The ending, dialogue and all, all laid out. Never happened before.

    One of my pet peeves in movies is an ending where I look at my daughter and we both say, “Is that it?” And yes, I like a good “coda”.

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  15. The ending in your book Deadlock was great.

    “Tell you what,” Millie said, her heart beginning to dance. “You make a ten-foot hook shot, and I’ll consider it.”
    The preacher’s smile widened as he turned toward the basket.
    “Right-handed,” Millie said.
    Jack pointed at her. “No problem.”
    He bounced the ball a couple of times, looked at the basket, then launched his shot into the air. It arced beautifully, then hit the front of the rim and clanked out.
    Jack stood there, frozen, as if couldn’t believe he’d missed.
    “Good thing we’ve got all day,” Millie said.

    Love it! But then I love all things basketball!

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  16. Teri, I have had whole scenes come to me that have suggested whole books, though not the ending just yet. Maybe the “boys” will send one up sometime. I love it, though, when those overnight deals happen.

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  17. John, I agree about the ending of TKAM, especially in the movie as read by Kim Stanley. There’s just something about her pitch perfect voice for the adult Scout…

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  18. well, scarlet worked way too diligently to get the only ending that GWTW could have generated. an “off into the sunset” would not have worked….no matter what alexandra ripley envisioned in her suck-quel. kathy d. hey, where’s signlady…i’m missing her on this subject!!!

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  19. I’m a plotter, so I know my ending before I start writing. But sometimes the ending I originally had in mind doesn’t work because I changed things throughout my writing process (I outline, but I don’t necessarily stick to it!). Then I do something similar to you: sleep on it, then go for a walk with a notebook, and finally sit down and just write it. Sometimes what comes out is better than what I’d originally imagined, and sometimes I have to “stew and brew” over the ending longer.

    As for GWTW, one of my favorite books, I love the ending because it’s so unpredictable. Rhett had put up with Scarlett’s drama much too long! It took over a thousand pages for him to get the heck out of there, lol.

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  20. Thank you for you helpful post on endings. Just editing my first novel. When I was half way through writing it, I managed to work out an ending. I think it helped a lot knowing where I was heading.

    It was like making tracks through a forest and not getting too lost, because I was able to see my destination.

    Once I saw the end, there was joy and pain in making the inroads.

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  21. Like Laura Marcella, I always have a pretty good idea of the ending by the time I’ve worked out the outline, but I’m flexible because I know that things will naturally come up that I didn’t consider before the characters came out to play. I made an exception to that when I wrote For the Love of a Devil. Because the story is based on Hosea, there are parts of the outline that are pretty much etched in stone. Even more so than any other part is the ending. One of the most memorable things about Hosea is that even after all she put him through, he bought her out of slavery, took her home and she willingly went back to him, to be the wife she should have been all along. I had to take some literary license because I set the story in modern times, but from the very beginning I had images of him going into the filth that she had gotten herself into, buying her back for a price and taking her home to what she had hoped her lifestyle would give her, but didn’t. But I didn’t know where to start in order to hit all of those key points that we find in Hosea.

    To solve the problem, I very literally built the outline backwards. I started with Heather (the name I used instead of Gomer), waking in a clean house, a broken woman and finding that it was her husband who bought her. But I had to resolve the issue of how she would come to be for sale and how her husband would know about it. There were also issues, like how to handle her husband taking care of her and her thinking that it was her lovers who were doing that. I had to work back to why she would leave him. I can’t claim that ending as my own. God wrote it long before I did, but I love that ending and it’s that ending that causes me to want to write the story in the first place. There’s something wonderful about a man who loves his wife unconditionally and because of that love is able to bring her back to him.

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  22. I’m here, I’m here! Just came late to the party!

    Yes, I detest the ending to GWTW! But I do like how the sequel was handled (the book, definitely NOT the movie!) I’ve always wondered why Margaret Mitchell didn’t do a sequel herself. Maybe she didn’t know how to do an ending! 🙂

    Love the critiques you guys have been doing! I’ve learned a lot. Thanks.

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  23. Another movie ending that I don’t like is the one on “Thelma and Louise”. How bad does your life really have to be that going back to it, or to jail, is worse than running your car off a cliff? Yi, yi, yi.

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  24. signlady, there is such a split on the sequel to GWTW. But no matter how one feels about the book, or Timothy Dalton, you just can’t replace Gable with anyone.

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  25. Oy vey, Jim, is this the perfect post for me today. As you know, I’ve been struggling terribly with the ending to my latest. I finally ripped out the last fifty pages and started over. The challenge in doing that is forgetting what I originally wrote, since it seems to become somewhat set in stone in my mind. I’m hoping to finish it by the end of the week (my drop dead deadline). This is one of those times that being a “pantser” comes back to bite me in the you-know-what.

    Hear hear on the ending to Casablanca (and aren’t we all glad that Ronald Reagan turned down that role, leaving it to Bogart instead?) I read GWTW but not the sequel- the thought of someone else writing a sequel to such an opus was blasphemous to me. I would much prefer if some had done a WIDE SARGASSO SEA take on it.

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  26. I’m brewing and stewing. Way too cheap for Starbucks, though- I stick to the Pete’s french roast made by a barrista who bears a striking resemblance to me, but is far grumpier.

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