Elements of a great ending

By Joe Moore

We’ve had plenty of posts here at TKZ about story beginnings. As a matter of fact, we invite submissions and devote the month of March to critiquing the first page of your stories. Beginnings are so important because they set the hook and grab the reader.

But what about endings? Are they as important as beginnings? After all, they occur after the big finale, the gripping climax, the roaring finish. In a way, we can think of endings as anticlimactic. And yet, they have an important function to perform in any story.

First, the ending should resolve anything that was not addressed during the climax. Once the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is put to bed, what’s left must be brought together as a resolution in the ending. There must be closure to anything still hanging in the reader’s mind.

The ending also answers the story question. Since the story question usually deals with character growth or change, the ending must make sure the story question is answered.

Let’s say that the main character had to stand by and watch his family perish in a terrible accident that he inadvertently caused. The story question might be: will he ever forgive himself and have the courage to find love again and perhaps start a new family? The actual plot might deal with something totally different, but along the way he finds a new love interest. Once the climax occurs and the plot is resolved, the reader must discover the answer to the story question. It has to be made clear in the ending. In most stories, the main character takes a journey, whether it’s physical, mental or spiritual. How he completes the journey is the answer to the story question and must be resolved in the ending.

Another function of the ending is to bring some sense of normalcy back to the characters’ lives. It can be the restoring of how things were before the journey began or it can be the establishment of a new normal. Either way, it must be resolved in the ending. Our hero has found a new love and plans to start a new family. It’s his new normal and the reader must understand the changes that he went through to establish the new normal.

If the story contains a theme, message or moral, the ending is where it should be reinforced. Not every story has an underlying theme, but if it does, it must be clarified in the ending. This way the reader can close the book with the feeling that the theme or message was accomplished or confirmed. The main character(s) got it, and so did the reader. Even if the reader doesn’t agree with the message, it has to be confirmed in his or her mind what it was, and if it was completed.

The end resolution of the theme or message must be in sync with the story. For instance, if the theme is to accept a spiritual belief in the existence of a greater power in the universe, the plot and characters must touch upon or address the idea somewhere along the way so the end resolution confirms that they have changed their beliefs to support or at least admit to the theme.

The ending should also cause readers to feel the way the writer intended them to feel. Whatever the emotional response the reader should experience, the ending is where it’s confirmed. After all, the writer is the captain of the ship. He steers the story in a specific direction—a direction he wants the reader to go. The reader is a passenger along for the journey. It’s important that in the end, the ship dock at the right port. Worse case is that it doesn’t dock at all. That’s the result of a weak ending.

The ending is how you leave your reader. It’s the last impression. And it just might be the reason the reader wants to buy your next book. Or not.

Have you been disappointed with an ending to a book or a movie? Did you invest the time only to come away feeling betrayed? And what book or movie do you feel contained all the elements of a great ending and left you wanting more?


28 thoughts on “Elements of a great ending

  1. Definitely have run into a disappointing ending — it was enough that any time I see that author’s books, I pass on them. She’d set a story in Washington, DC, where I live — a murder in the Supreme Court. Spent the entire book with the detectives following the clues to figure out who among all the suspects committed the crime. Got the end — and it was a random killing! Made me wonder what the point of the book was at all!

    On the writing side, it looked like she was up against a deadline and ran out of time so she took the easiest way to get the book done.

  2. I’m of the opinion that the ending of a story is far more important than the beginning. Most people have already made the decision to try to read a book before they reach the first page, so if a story starts out a little off, it doesn’t necessarily kill the book. But endings… Now that’s a different story. The ending is our opportunity to leave the reader with a lasting impression. If we end well, the reader will be thinking about the book long after the cover is closed.

    To give an example, the story of Hosea, which is the where I took the plot of For the Love of a Devil from, is essentially the story of a man with an adulterous wife. There’s nothing particularly unusual about that. Marriages end every day because on or both of the people involved committed adultery. The thing that makes the story of Hosea so amazing is how it ends. Most guys would eventually give up. You might for give your wife for a one time mistake. Maybe for a second time, but there’s a limit. But not with this guy. He never gives up and when she has fallen so far that she’s being sold as a slave, he buys her. Without that ending it would be just another sad story.

    And by the way, I believe every story has a theme, it is just that not all authors know what their theme is.

  3. My favorite ending in film is Independence Day – there’s something amazing to me watching Will Smith and Jeff Goldblume walking across that desert landscape, both smoking cigars, their family and friends rushing to meet them, and that big old spaceship crashed and burning in the background.

    Oh, wait, and then the final scene in Moonstruck, with the family all gathered around the breakfast table and Nicholas Cage proposing to Cher, with his brother’s ring. Love that one.

    And what about the final scene in How To Train Your Dragon, when Toothless opens his wings to Stoic, and Hiccup is lying there in his arms, battered, but alive.
    The big Viking cries because the dragon he spent his life hating saved his son…

    I hate to say it, but I find that these are exceptions to the rule.

    I find myself wanting to rewrite endings all the time, Joe. Do you do that too?

  4. Linda, I may have read the same book, certainly similar disappointing ones. You don’t want to have your reader get to the end and have an “are you kidding me!” reaction (in a bad way). I’ve also seen a number of examples like the one you mention where the writer has to wrap it up to make the deadline. At some point, readers drift away and turn to other writer’s work. Thanks for your comments.

    Timothy, I couldn’t agree with you more, both in the importance of the ending and the fact that all stories have a theme. The success of a great book or movie is to move the theme smoothly along like an undercurrent with the plot and have the readers or viewers get it without it being shoved in their face. BTW, best of luck with FOR THE LOVE OF A DEVIL.

    Paula, your examples are great endings. I agree with them all, and yes, I also find myself coming up with alternative endings that I feel would have done a better job of satisfying the viewer. An example of a movie with an absolutely awful ending: the recent remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. I believe they simply ran out of money and the studio ordered them to rap it up no matter where they were in the story. It was one of those instances where I felt like throwing the remote at the TV.

  5. That’s a great question, Joe. I don’t think I’ve been disappointed in endings so much as the events leading up to them. If the last third of the book is carefully paced, I can forgive an ending, that might be predictable. Occasionally, however, one has the sense that the author, at around page 300, has said, “Okay, let’s wrap this bad boy up” and does so. I don’t think that’s fair to the reader.

    Endings I like? Anything by Karin Slaughter or Brad Thor, or NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN by Cormac McCarthy. Disappointing ending? THE WASTE LANDS by Stephen King. He puts his cast on a sentient choo-choo named Blaine, sets the whole kit and kaboodle heading toward almost certain disaster, and then doesn’t publish a sequel for SIX FREAKING YEARS! ARGHHH!!!! If you’re going to end a book on a cliffhanger, have the resolution written before you do send it out into the world.

  6. Joe, I definately agree that in a series or sequel situation, you don’t want to keep your readers waiting too long. For one thing, memories are short–the longer they have to wait, the more frustrating it can be for readers to try and remember who’s who and what’s what.

    I’ve read a few books by King, but frankly, I’ve taken a look at the length of some of his work and decided I could read 4-5 books by others in the same time as it would take me to read his latest.

  7. In movies and books, there is sometimes a rushed, perfunctory feel to the ending. It’s as if the writer ran out of time and had to crank it out without much forethought or review. Recently I saw a movie where the detective spent the entire two hours putting his career at stake to track a clever killer. At the end, we see the killer, and it’s no one we recognize. The detective announces, “It doesn’t matter who he was. It just matters that he was caught.” That one made me want to throw something at the screen. All the “clues” and red herrings that had been seeded throughout the story had just been a trick to fool the viewer.

  8. Joe, I always say “Beginnings are easy. Endings are hard.” I can write openings all day long. But an ending has to make sense AND be somewhat surprising AND leave off with “resonance.” It’s doggone hard to do, but as Mr. Mickey Spillane said, “Your first chapter sells your book. Your last chapter sells your NEXT book.” And he sold a few in his day.

    I spend more time tweaking my endings than on any other aspect of my books.

  9. Kathryn, you’re echoing my feelings exactly. There’s nothing worse than investing the time in a book or movie and coming up disappointed.

    Jim, I’m with you. I can write beginnings all day, but the wrap-up is where the sweat really soaks the page.

  10. I don’t like stories that rush the ending. I’ve read some books with tons of drama/conflict/tension, and then only a sentence or a paragraph is given to make everything okay.

    Nope, sorry, that’s not enough to unwind the tension the author created in my gut. There’s not enough sense of “this is the new normal” for me to see how the story continues past this point.

    If the author wants it to feel like a happy ending, then I should be able to close the book and imagine what that would look like.

  11. Spot-on, Jami. I read many years ago that the reader should get the feeling that the characters in a book were living their lives before the story started and will continue to do so after it ends–the ones that survive, of course. But the concept is true. The book (or movie) is just a slice of their lives. There was a before and an after. Thanks for stopping by TKZ.

  12. I remember reading the Robin Cook novel “Siezure.” It was really getting good by page 350 and I noticed there were only a few pages left to read.

    All the way to the last page things were still building, when suddenly, on the last page, the main character jumps out of a window and kills himself.

    No real explanation, no real closure. I was pissed.

    A books first sentence sells that book, the last sentence sells the next book.

  13. I am opposite on the winding up. I usually need the author to wrap it up pretty quick. I don’t like the ending to drag forever. Leave the party while it’s still hopping.

  14. Wilfred, I know what you mean. That happened to me once where I noticed very few pages left. I started wondering if they had printed everything.

    Hi Heather, I agree that the best time to leave the party is at its peak. But I always want to make sure I’ve sampled all the goodies before I head for the door. Thanks for coming by TKZ.

  15. I was gravely disappointed in the end to Stephen King’s “It” – what was a truly scary book had the resolution to evil a scene with 6 little boys have sex with one little girl?!?!?!? I gave up on him forever because of that.

    In general, I found Michael Crichton’s books to to be great all the way up to the end, whereupon they usually crashed. “Jurassic Park” had a good ending, but multiple others were very weak or so anti-climactic that you felt let down. “Sphere” in particular comes to mind . . .

  16. Good advice Joe. When thinking about endings I’m reminded of Lou Anders who was on the Writing Excuses podcast to talk about the Hollywood Formula and endings in particular. It’s http://www.writingexcuses.com season 6 episodes 18 and 20.

    He said to drop the curtain after the following three events happen: (1) when the protagonist achieves his goal, (2) overcomes the antagonist, and (3) reconciles with the companion character. The closer these three events can happen to each other, the more emotional impact the film (or novel) will have. If you include material after these things, you lessen that impact.

    He used Casablanca as his primary example but also included a whole treasury of Hollywood hits.

  17. Terrific post, Joe, and timely, at least for me: I’m going to be writing about endings myself in my own next blog post. This piece will definitely get a link.

    But I got to wondering about your comment about the ending establishing a new normal or returning the protagonist to his/her old one. When you’re planning a series, as it looks like my WIP will be, isn’t part of the launch into the next book an incomplete transition or return to normality? Wouldn’t/couldn’t that incompleteness be the thing that propels the reader into the next book (once it appears)?

  18. Great post, Joe. I printed it out so I could think about it more. Usually when I feel an ending isnt right is on TV or in the movies when the film focuses too much on the main action and not enough on the emotional elements of the story.

    In books, it’s been a challenge to come up with enough of a cliff hanger ending for a series book where a reader feels like the main story line was resolved well but there is a compelling question left unanswered or a hint of more to come that doesnt frustrate them too much. Editors love that cliff hanger stuff, but it’s a balancing game for the author to create just the right blend of resolution and world restored versus WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT??? kind of ending experience for the reader.

  19. C’mon Joe, Stephen King did have that near fatal car accident to survive in the middle of the Dark Tower series . . .

    I have seen so many books fall to what I call “page 323” syndrome. That comes from a book I was really liking until the MC did something so stupid on page 323 that I wanted him to die in the inevitable high-speed chase.

    I, on the flip side, like a little ambiguity in my endings. It lets me continue to live the story in my head as I explore the ‘what ifs’ left open. TKZs own Ms. Gagnon did a brilliant job with her series. She resolves the crimes, but left her characters in tatters. I still enjoy thinking about it.

    Great ending line. M.M. Kaye in The Far Pavillions. The MC is devastated. All that he has ever known is dead and burned. All but his true love. He asks her what she wants to do now and she replies, “why, find our valley” (a shared childhood fantasy). They load their horses and set off into the mountains and the last line reads, “And perhaps they found it.” Ummm, shivers.

    I just finished the epic “Hunger Games” and it ends with Katniss shattering Peeta’s dreams/fantasies about her loving him. A veil falls between them as the train returns them to their dreary reality. A perfect set up to Book 2.

    And finally, “The Dark Tower.” King was massacred for the ending. I thought it was perfect. Roland, ejected back into the wasteland with a boon for having been successful and learned something. . . . there are other worlds than these . . .

    So, yes, you have to finish the story. But the big red shiny bow can be left off for me.


  20. C’mon Terri, THE WASTE LANDS, with its rail-hanger ending, was published in 1991. WIZARD AND GLASS, the follow-up, was published six years later, in 1997, when we finally learned what happened with Blaine. The accident to which you refer did not occur until June 19, 1999 and accordingly could not have had anything to do with the long delay between the third and fourth volumes in the series, and the unresolved ending of the third volume.

  21. Okay . . . okay . . . you’re right (ratzafratzin writers and their research) I now remember when I was in law school that Wizards and Glass was the biggest thing the OJ verdict. I just loved Wastelands so much (but, then that goes with my comment about unresolved endings).

  22. My cousin Leonard recently returned from one of his time machine trips and mentioned something about meeting King in 1991& giving him a ride in the time machine. He accidentally stranded him on the side of the road in 99 about the time of the accident and things, as Leonard put it, “got a bit oopsie doopsie”. He had to do some fast moving back & forth in time to get the 91 King away from the 99 King so he wouldn’t get hurt trying save himself & ended up dropping into 96 by mistake & switched the 91 & 96 Kings in the confusion of the moment. That confused things even more because the 96 King when returned to 91 thought he’d already written the sequel which the 91 King who was now in 96 was still just starting to outline. And so you can see how things all got messed up Joe & Terri.

    And that’s the end as it began.

  23. Hi Ross. Yes, with a series, the new normal very well could be your “incomplete transition”. That would be the new normal. Ciaos is a state of existence just as calm. My point is that whatever the new normal is, it must be clear in the reader’s mind. Thanks for your comments.

    Jordan, I think an unanswered question used as a cliff hanger for the next series installment is fine as long as you don’t make the reader wait too long. Otherwise, just the insinuation of more things to come might be all that’s needed.

    Terri, I agree with you. Michelle G is brilliant.

    Basil, the world thanks your cousin Leonard.

  24. I hate reaching the end of a book and realizing the author has no intention of finishing the story because he intends for me to buy the next book. Usually the book ends up on the never to be read again pile and I don’t buy any more of his books.

    If an author intends to continue with a series, I think the best way to end each book is to tie up all the loose ends of the book’s story, but leave something in the bigger story that we can live with, but it would be better if we solved. In Star Wars, the first movie ends with the destruction of the Death Star. As far as the local story is concerned, it is over and we can celebrate, but the big villains are still out there. It isn’t until the second movie that we see how little they really accomplished the first time. But we were kind of okay with that because it seemed like the Empire was just the way things were.

    We might apply the same approach to a different setting. With mysteries, we may have a gumshoe who investigates a crime and brings it to a successful conclusion, but he may have been the victim of a crime he has never solved. Each book can bring him closer to solving it, but his status quo is that he is the victim of an unknown criminal.

  25. I agree, Timothy. Writers should not play tricks with the reader. I co-authored a 4-book series in which each book could stand alone. At the planning process for each, we asked what our main character still needed to learn. There were common threads, of course, but no tricks to get someone to read the next installment. We relied on the quality of our writing sell the next book.

  26. GREAT topic, Joe! The one book that I threw across the room because I felt betrayed by the ending was John Fowles–The French Lieutenant’s Woman. MAN!!!! I felt so betrayed by that book. But then again, so did the lieutenant, so Fowles did an amazing job of pulling the wool over all of our eyes! LOL!!

    But, I agree with you, endings need to rock the reader with an enthusiasm to pick up the author’s next book. . . which IMHO makes the ending more important than the beginning hook!

  27. Hi Kathy, you’re not the first person I’ve heard complain about the ending to Fowlers’ novel. I never read it and probably never will. Too many others to choose from out there.

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