The End Game

By Joe Moore

I enjoy taking about the mechanics of writing, particularly the basics—Writing 101. The reason is that it’s where most new writers stumble and fall. It’s why so many manuscripts fail to get published or even get considered for publication. And a lack of appreciation for the basics is a huge source of frustration later on when things aren’t clicking. There are no magic beans or silver bullets in dealing with the basics. And despite some urban legends, you won’t be initiated into a secret society of published authors with a special handshake. The basics are just that: basic concepts on which to build your story without letting anything block the flow of your creativity.

It’s obvious that a strong ending is as important as a strong beginning. Your reader should never finish your book with a feeling that something was left hanging or unanswered that should have been completed. It doesn’t matter if the ending is expected or unpredictable, it shouldn’t leave the reader with unanswered questions. You don’t want to play the end game and lose.

Oftentimes, beginning writers don’t successfully bring all the elements of a story together in a satisfying conclusion. There’s no real feeling of accomplishment at the end. Your readers have taken part in a journey, and they should feel that they have arrived at a fulfilling destination. This is not to say that every conflict should be resolved. Sometimes an open-ended conflict can cause the reader to ponder a deeper concept, perhaps an internal one. Or a more obvious reason to have an unresolved conflict is to suggest a sequel or series. But something has to occur that will give your readers the feeling of satisfaction that the journey was worth the investment of their valuable time.

There are a number of methods you can use to make sure your ending works. Consider ending with a moment of insight. Your character has gone through an internal metamorphosis that causes her to learn an important life-lesson. Her growth throughout the story leads up to this emotional insight that makes her a better or at least changed individual.

Another technique is to set a series of goals for your protagonist to work toward and, in the end, they are achieved. Naturally, the harder the goals, the more satisfying the ending will be for the protag and the reader.

The opposite of this technique is to have the protagonist fail to overcome the main obstacle or goal in the story. The ending may not be a happy one for the character, but he can still experience an insight that is fulfilling for the reader. An example of this would be a character who truly believes that riches bring happiness only to find that true fulfillment comes with the loss of material wealth. In the end, the goals of becoming rich are never met, but he is a better person for it.

You might choose to end your story with irony. This usually occurs when the character sets out to accomplish a goal and expects a certain result only to find in the end the result is exactly the opposite. A con artist tries to pull off a big scam only to be conned and scammed by the victim. There’s an old saying that the easiest sell in the world is to a salesman. Watch The Sting.

How about a surprise ending? There’s probably never been a bigger surprise ending than the movie The Sixth Sense. A kid keeps telling a guy that he can “see dead people”. Well guess what? He sees the guy because the guy is dead. There were audible gasps in the theater at the ending of that one.

As you decide on an ending and begin to write it, think of the summation an attorney makes right before the jury goes into deliberation. The final verdict will be whether the reader loves or hates your book. Or worse, feels nothing. Present a convincing argument, review all your evidence, and walk away knowing you’ve done all you can to get the verdict you want.

So how are you guys at playing the End Game. Any additional tips? What about telling us your favorite ending to a movie or book?

35 thoughts on “The End Game

  1. The closing arguments in A Time To Kill, when Matthew McConaughey (in the movie version of course) asks the jury to close their eyes and imagine the murdered child as white instead of black. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most astounding.

    In my limited experience, I have decided it is in the author’s best interest to have a good idea of how she wants the book to end as soon as she has written the first couple of pages. Write the beginning, write the end, fill in the middle.

  2. Good insights, Joe. I do think endings are the hardest part, yet for most novels the most important element. Leave ’em satisfied, not let down. Your last chapter sells your next book, as old Mickey used to say.

    My own method often involves getting the boys in the basement busy. I concentrate on the ending, then take a long walk, listening to music. I end up at Starbucks, down an espresso, and let the boys send me their notes.

  3. My favorite ending in a movie ia the original Thomas Crown Affair, with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway.

    Favorite ending in a book is Night Over Water by Ken Follett. That, to me was the perfect ending.

    The most frustrating ending was the last book in the “Try” series, by Mr. Bell. It was the perfect ending as far as being a series and making you crazy waiting for the next book. Unfortunatly, there is no next book.

    I’m still waiting Jim…

    • Dave, thanks. I do get that a lot. In one sense, I so agree that the trilogy ended just right. OTOH, readers do wish these characters could go on . . . hey, isn’t there something called self-publishing these days? Might that be the perfect spot for novellas that keep characters going? Hmmmm……

  4. Great post, Joe. I would add an ending that appears to have the story come full circle. The world at the end doesn’t have to be the same one restored. But I like to bring back elements that I started with to show that satisfying moment when the boogeyman is gone and there is a sense of peace restored. That feeling of survival.

    Thanks for your insights.

  5. Great post, Joe.

    My guiding principal is: start with an explosion and end with a bigger explosion. But in seriousness, your points are crucial because while a good beginning makes people want to keep reading, a good ending makes people want to recommend the book to their friends.

  6. Great post, Joe. Very informative and helpful!

    While I don’t think they played entirely fair with the reader/viewer (some things turned out to be lies, but you’re never given the hint the person telling the stories isn’t trustworthy), but I really loved the “tying it all together” in LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN.

    And as much as it drove me nuts, I am one of the few people I know who understood and appreciated – if not exactly ‘liked’ – the way Stephen King wrapped his Dark Tower series.

  7. My least favorite endings are those that seem rushed, like the writer decided to just wrap things up quickly. Things get resolved in a rapid-fire style, as if the writer is checking off a list of threads that have to be resolved. I’ve been guilty of that myself at least once.

    • That’s so common on TV dramas, Kathryn, but it doesn’t have to be in book. Just print more pages to tell a proper ending.

  8. I like an ending that really isn’t the end. When the hero finally catches the villain and discovers..oh wait, this goes much deeper than I thought and the real bad guy is still on the loose. The TV series 24 was great for this. Jack caught the guy with the bomb, only to discover he was just a small player in a massive operation that would end life as we know it! That’s how I want my books to end.

  9. I was young when both The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents were on television. Those shows instilled in me a real appreciation of the twist ending. I love them. To get one that works, you must drop clues all the way through the story. Your goal is to get the reader to slap their forehead and say, “I should have seen that coming.” It also requires a lot of attention to the overall structure of the story.

  10. You said it, Joe: “The final verdict will be whether the reader loves or hates your book. Or worse, feels nothing.”

    I know there’s this structure that makes a story. It’s just been so hard to internalize it. I want it all to spring forth from my head, like magic. Eventually, to make this all work, ya gotta embrace the bones. Otherwise the whole exercise goes kaput. Thanks, Joe.

    • I hear you, Jim. I take a nap every afternoon in hopes that the rest of my book will come to me in a dream, that springing forth, you mentioned. Hasn’t worked yet.

  11. Aw, heck, I thought I’d belonged to that secret society. LOL Your tips are all great. I like to have my characters reach a goal and also come to a realization about themselves. This brings the ending to a satisfying and emotionally fulfilling conclusion. I may drop a hint about the sequel but each story in itself must finish. After the climactic scene in my mysteries, I like to have what I call a “wrap” scene with my heroine’s friends or family, where they tie up any loose ends and think about what the story has meant in their lives. The ending is all important because the reader will decide if he wants your next book or not.

  12. The wrap is so important, but it must be done carefully so as not to appear like Kathryn said, rushed and rapid fire.

    BTW, I leaned the secret writer society handshake many years ago but it’s been so long I’ve forgotten it. I do know the secret password, though. It’s . . .

  13. You make so many excellent points here, Joe, with great examples. I was blown away by the endings of both The Sting and The Sixth Sense! And as always here at The Kill Zone, the comments of other authors add value and insights. I love this blog!

  14. Dwight Swain worte something re: endings that I found interesting, “…climax centers on how your focal character behaves when faced with a choice between principle and self-interest.”

  15. I know a couple writers who hate the idea of “basics,” or put another way perhaps, rules. They want to write freely in a manner that makes them happy, conforming to their own set of standards. Oftentimes, their standards aren’t the same as the reader’s.

    As for endings, I try really hard to make sure my endings drive my reader nuts. I often use the open-ended, unanswered question type ending, which is probably quite cruel of me. But a bad ending can really ruin a story, even if you enjoyed the rest of it. Forgive me, but Stephen King disappointed me twice. I hated the endings of the “Langloliers” and “Secret Window, Secret Garden.” One was cheesy and the other was the forced “wrap-up.” Completely spoiled the stories for me.
    -JH Mae

  16. I loved good endings, especially like others have said, if they leave you hanging a bit.

    My first few stories all tied everything up at the end and left with a ‘riding into the sunset’ sort of feel. But as I’ve grown in this story telling thing and realize there’s a nearly inexhaustible supply of stories in my noggin, I am leaning toward slightly more open-ended endings. Last book, MIDNIGHT SUN, had a recurring character disappearing into the Alaskan wilderness on the last pages. While that story and all the other characters are probably done for me, I knew I wanted to bring Kharzai back later.

    Now as I work on my WIP, I am picturing not only the ending scene with my characters physically, but imagining the emotional and spiritual state I want them in by the time it is over. This image is feeding the story as the action and drama needs to build them to that end that is already visible in my mind-story-eye.

  17. M.M. Kaye ended my favorite epic with the phrase, “And perhaps they found it.”

    The characters had just been through a slaughter and decided to go seek a peaceful place to start over. A description of that place would have been mundane. Instead, she left it to the readers to imagine their ideal.

    My ending is a wrap-up of the big drama and she is left alone, her old world totally gone (but with a colorful new world,)and betrayed (or was she), with a bit of comedy and the last line, “C’mon Simon, we’re going to Mount-Damn-Rushmore.”



  18. Great post Joe. Some of the best advice I’ve heard is from the Cockeyed Caravan blog. “Always fulfill the expectations of your audience.” And these are generally rooted in a story’s genre.

    Secondly, think of your major plot threads separately and end them appropriately and independently of one another. Whether each resolves in a good, bad, bittersweet, or open-ended way, there should be some measure of closure.

    Consider The Silence of the Lambs which is an exemplar of both these concepts.

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