Ending Up At The End

by Joe Moore

One of the most popular features of TKZ is our First Page Critiques. We invite you to submit the first page of your WIP and we will critique the good, bad and ugly elements of the work. We offer this feature because of the importance of grabbing the reader right off the get-go. A list of all the previous submissions can be found at First Page Critiques along with an invitation to submit your first page.

So we all know how important the first-page grab is, how a writer has to set the “hook” as soon as possible. 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. So today let’s take a Writing 101 Series look at endings.

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 or clarifies 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 emotional. 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 that 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.

18 thoughts on “Ending Up At The End

  1. Joe,

    This was beautifully written and I do have a problem with neatly wrapping everything up. But thanks to this resource and others like it, I am learning.

    Oh I wish I could submit my first page, but I don’t think you guys would want to read an upper middle grade magical realism. And you may laugh that I’m even here, but this is one of the best blogs on writing I’ve found.

    I may not have a lot of intrigued but I do have a murder and a magic sketchbook that solves the mystery ?.

    Thanks so much for the post and have a great day.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Cindy. The biggest reward for me blogging at TKZ is getting comments like yours. And someday when you feel the time is right, submit that first page. It doesn’t matter what the genre is, good writing is good writing. You’ll aways get fair and honest feedback at TKZ.

    • ” . . . but I do have a murder and a magic sketchbook that solves the mystery.”

      Hmm. “A Murder and Magic Sketchbook.” You have a good title and idea for a novel there.

      I promise. I won’t steal it. (Darn it.)

  2. Good advice as always, Joe. I especially stress the “feeling” aspect. We want readers to go away not just pleased, but blown away. Not easy. But I try for “resonance” and re-write the last page more than any other in the MS.

    There’s an old saying in the theatre: Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.

    Well, openings are easy. Middles are difficult. Endings are hard. But when you pull off a good one, there’s no better feeling in the fiction craft.

    • Completely agree, Jim. Finishing the last page of a great book with a feeling of satisfaction is unequaled. Of course, the opposite is true as you throw the book into the fireplace. It’s even worse if you don’t have a fireplace.

  3. “The reader is a passenger along for the journey. It’s important that in the end, the ship dock at the right port.”

    Terrific advice, Joe, thanks! Lately, I’ve been laser-focused on my first page and, after reading your wise words, I now realize the last chapter needs more work.

    Side note to Cindy: Joe’s and Kathryn’s encouragement to submit is genuine. Take them up on their offer. You’ll receive invaluable help from the good folks at TKZ.

    • Thanks, Debbie. The first and last pages of any book are arguably the most revised of the entire manuscript. Something I’ve always wondered: what if a writer gave as much attention to the other 450 or so pages as to the first and last. It would either be a masterpiece or a dead horse. 🙂 Keep visiting TKZ, Debbie. We really appreciate your feedback.

  4. Great advice and nothing lets a reader down more than a poorly executed ending. Like the first page it’s a writer’s calling card really with the ending hopefully encouraging a reader to go out and buy another book by the author straight away!

  5. Chiming in with advice given to me by my first mentor. “Your first paragraph sells your book. Your last paragraph sells your next book.”

    Which is why I struggle with tying that final knot.

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