A Checklist For Writing A Great Ending

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

I don’t always write a “happy” ending. In the romance genre, that’s called HEA, or happy ever after. My main goal is to stay true to my character(s) and motivation. The plot can spring from the flaws of a character or be influenced by those imperfections. Since I like conflict between my main characters, that can mean their happy ending doesn’t neatly happen by the end of the novel. I don’t want to force it or contrive an ending that doesn’t remain true to my character’s story arcs.

“Happy ever afters” are popular and even if you’re not a romance reader, a satisfying ending can be important, especially if it makes the reader feel good at the turn of the last page. But there’s nothing wrong with an ambiguous ending if it fits with your character and your world. An author writes the story he or she wants to tell.

A Checklist For Writing A Great Ending

1.) Tie up the loose ends – One of my final edit reviews is when I search for subplots and key elements to tie up to make a satisfying ending. If I introduced a DNA lab result earlier in the plot, did I bring the results in later? Are all my subplots resolved? Are all my character motivations justified enough? Nothing make a more hearty meal than a good, solid ending. Don’t leave loose ends.

Word of caution – Don’t tie up everything in one long character dialogue scene. This reminds me of the cheesy Charlie Chan movies or older Sherlock Holmes films where the hero regurgitates all the clues with answers. Try to be more subtle or break up the loose end tie-ins so it doesn’t feel too contrived. Another pet peeve of mine is the villain who feels compelled to answer all the detective’s questions on his motives, gloating. Break apart these disclosures and don’t turn your diabolical villain into a chatty girlfriend who wants to bear his or her soul. Find a more realistic way for these disclosures to come out in subsequent scenes when the investigators are closing their case.

2.) Restore the world even if it’s not perfect – Redemption at the end of a book can be good as well as uplifting. I like the idea of restoring the world that an author creates, but it doesn’t always have to be the same world. Crime affects people in a bad way and it radiates out like ripples on still water with many people affected—from the victim to the family survivors to cops investigating the case. Don’t be afraid to show the aftermath. A story can feel positive if the protagonist survives, but don’t be timid in portraying how much your character has been affected.

3.) Consider your series endings – There are many ways to end individual books within a series. You can have a major cliffhanger. You can hint or foreshadow something coming in the next installment. Or you can have each book end completely, yet have the growth and story lines of the characters weave a tapestry through your series. How an author develops a series (and the books within it) can be a conundrum. A key decision element might be if you plan on releasing each book back-to-back with a short period between book launches. Your readers won’t have to wait too long for each installment. But if you’re a new author and want a traditional house to consider your work to publish, unless the house is interested in buying the whole series, it might be better to write a more conservative ending without a major cliffhanger (in case the publisher doesn’t not buy the whole series).

4.) Do not clutter your ending with last minute conflicts – I would consider a last minute distraction or entanglement to be a cheat for the reader. When such a beast springs from the pages, a reader might sling your book at a wall with the contrivance. Give the reader an ability to solve the case on their own. They can’t do that if the author springs unexpected characters or plot twists that haven’t been introduced earlier. Many times I will have a certain twist in mind, but go back and lace in different clues in several spots so the reader can decipher the puzzle before the big reveal, but I never make it easy.

5.) Foreshadow a realistic future to come – If you don’t want to write a blatant romantic happy ever after, you can “hint” of a future for your characters. Often a forced romance or a contrived relationship can end with a marriage proposal that doesn’t “feel” real. But if the author foreshadows a more realistic relationship with the promise of a tomorrow, that might be enough for a reader to get the idea and feel positive about the ending.

 

6.) Stay true to your voice – If your author’s voice through the story is dark or starkly realistic, don’t explode pink glitter and unicorns all over your ending. A reader will feel betrayed by this. Whatever ending you choose for your character, make it realistic for the vibe of your book.

7.) Know your ending by genre or choose to be different – There’s always the exception to a general rule, but certain commercial genres have endings readers will expect. For example, an amateur sleuth will be expected to find who the killer is, or a romance relationship story will have the lovers together or with a future by the end. A thriller story will have the maniacal villain thwarted and the world restored. Not all successful stories follow this idea. I’ve written endings where the bad guy gets away with his crimes (Evil Without A Face & No One Left to Tell & No One Lives Forever), but if you dare to do this, you must have a reason (a potential teaser for a series) or a villainous character that the reader might accept such an ending.

8.) Don’t be afraid to explore ambiguous endings – If you’ve written a carefully plotted book that’s stays true to your character study, don’t be afraid to explore an ambiguous ending. A favorite book I read called The Piano Man by Marcia Preston is a women’s fiction book that has a realistic yet ambiguous ending. At first I wanted the ending to mean an HEA for the two main characters but that would’ve been a cheat. After I thought about it, the way it ended was perfect for the nature of the two characters and it was a beautiful story of two people whose lives crossed in a moment of tragedy. If the author gets the emotion right and the character motivation, there could be a variety of endings possible. Don’t be afraid to explore more than one ending that can add depth or a thought provoking conclusion.

 

Discussion:

1.) Have you ever written a forced ending that didn’t feel right to you? Did you correct it?

2.) What makes a good ending for you (as a reader or an author)?

3.) What are some of your favorite (most memorable) book endings? Were they happy endings or not?

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

23 thoughts on “A Checklist For Writing A Great Ending

  1. Absolutely. I never like the ending I first write. Often times I need to set the manuscript aside for a while and come back with fresh eyes for the correct ending to occur to me. Love your tips, Jordan. So nice to have TKZ back!!!

    • When I come up with my first thoughts on a plot, I generally envision the ending most of the time. Each book is different. Thanksfor joining the conversation, Sue. Happy 2017!

  2. I hate writing endings. Then again, I hate writing beginnings. They say the first page sells the book; the last page sells the next book.

    One total turnoff for me is the cliffhanger or totally up in the air ending. I will NOT move ahead and buy the rest of the books; to me, it’s a cheat, a marketing ploy to try to sell the book rather than a realistic place to end. I’ve seen these as serialized novellas, but they still come across as a gimmick.

    As for rule breakers–I’m not sure CJ Box’s The Highway really broke the rules when the bad guy got away, since it was more thriller genre than mystery. I like your “potential tease” example, whether it’s for good or bad, depending on genre.

    When I wrote my first book, thinking it was a mystery, and it turned out to be a romance, not being a romance reader, I was unaware I was expected to tie up the romance at the end, so I ended up writing a sequel with the same h/h protagonists. However, I still kept to the “promise of the HEA” at the end book 1. Instead of an epilogue, I wrote an whole book.

  3. Great tips, Jordan! I’d add making sure the ending ties back to, mirrors, or somehow incorporates elements of the opening and any major plot twists. Helps make the journey of the story seem like an integrated, cohesive whole. (Of course one has to make sure the ending isn’t “telegraphed” to the reader by making the connection too obvious.)

    • Romance is a challenge for me because of the reader expectation of HEA. That’s not how I see stories I want to tell. So I generally include romantic elements in my books and write a cross genre story to create novels I enjoy as a reader. Thanks for sharing your insightful thoughts, Terry.

    • Hey Kathryn. You are so right about bringing in elements from the beginning to give the readerthe feeling of coming full circle with the world restored, even if it’s a different world. We torture our characters through the whole book. As an author, I love infusing that element into my books so I feel it too. Great addition. Happy new year!

  4. For cliff hangers, I have one main protagonist and a side character that plays a huge role in the main characters life… and decisions of my latest book. To avoid the kind of gimmick talked about earlier regarding the cliff-hanger endings, I wrapped up the plot for the main protagonist but left a hanger for the side character that the series continued on with. It’s a bit of both worlds. Finalizing the main issues and letting the sub-plot carry the story forward. Great tips!!!

    • I did something similar in Evil Without a Face. I had an endearing secondary character who gained in mystery with every page he was on. I had no idea what his backstory was but I wanted a challenge to discover him in the next book. My agent & editor were thrilled with the intrigue because they loved him by the end of the book.

      A subplot is a great way to leave cliffhangers without disrupting a major plot structure, as long as the foreshadowing is something the reader cares about and the subplot has the feel of being complete.

      Foreshadowing an element to the worldbuilding can be a good ending too. Hunger Games did this, where the rebellion & a mystery district was an intriguing & looming threat.

  5. I seem to write novel endings and short story endings in completely different ways. I hate cliffhangers in novels, so even in my series work, the books have resolutions at the end. But some of my favorite short stories had speculative endings, ones that make the reader wonder just what happened and invite them to fill in the blanks based on their own beliefs. I don’t know if the form matters to everyone, but it seems to when I write.

    I really loved all of your points, but my favorite is #6. I don’t think that can be stressed enough. Not just with endings, but the whole way through. Maintaining voice is crucial to making the characters and plot believable. Great post.

    • I like your idea of writing endings in different ways, Staci, because an author should remain flexible in what is best for each project. That’s instinct. Trust it. Good for you.

      In my last novella – In the Eyes of the Dead – I risked a different ending that I hoped would give insight into my main character & be thought provoking for the reader’s own beliefs. But it felt right.

  6. Great check list, Jordan! Excellent advice. I hate those cheesy “and now I have to explain it all to you” endings. Argh.

    But I am with you that a well-earned and well-crafted ambiguous ending can be apt and sometimes very powerful. Though you have to go into it knowing that some readers really hate them. Well, you have to be true to your story and not every story wraps up with a pretty red bow.

    Ditto your good advice about paying attention if you have a series. Writing a series is a chess game…you have to constantly be thinking five moves ahead. I am dealing with that right now as I move toward my ending. I have set up a major character arc and conflict within my team and I can’t decide whether to reveal something at the end or not tell the reader but hint that it will be an issue in the future. You risk antagonizing readers with this; they think you are teasing them into buying the next book. Won’t know til I get there, I think.

    • Trust your gut on how to reveal your teaser. Sometimes you discover things about your characters as you write if you stay alert to those things.

      Planting seeds for a future storyline is another good thing to do, whether you make it payoff in the ending or as a future plot.

      When I’m selling to a traditional publisher & have an idea for a series, I’ve learned the hard way not to leave major cliffhangers. I would rather plant seeds for future spinoffs but keep each plot whole with a satisfying ending. To me, seed planting & foreshadowing are safer bets.

  7. Good reminders, Jordan. A couple of things.

    I’m not opposed to talky explanations, if they’re done with some verve (dialogue, setting, colorful characters). Harlan has these a lot because his puzzle plots have so many pieces. One trick is to invent or bring in a minor character to fill the gaps….then go BACK in the story and plant this character accordingly. It’s gotten me out of several corners.

    As for the three types of endings: down, up, ambiguous…I think the latter is more apt for literary fiction, or genre fiction going for literary elevation. Genre readers want resolution, and generally on the “up.” Down endings aren’t nearly as popular, though certainly a writer is free to choose.

    Example: I watched Vertigo again the other night. So beautifully directed, but what a downer (unsurpisingly, the French love it). The movie did not do well at the box office, and I can’t put it on my list of Hitchcock favorites–Rear Window, North by Northwest, Shadow of a Doubt. Those have “just” endings.

    One exception is horror…it can end “down” but here’s the secret: it should give us a moral message, i.e., don’t truck with evil or you’ll pay the price. That’s what King does in most of his classic horror.

    Thanks for the thought stimulant, Jordan.

    • I like secondary characters infusing explanations after the main action, as long as the denouement doesn’t go on too long without an emotional payoff. Breaking apart the loose end tie-ups gives the feel of pace. Definitely a good resolution.

      As for “just endings,” I like them with artsy film because you expect it. I also want that ending to generate discussion afterwards. If the ending doesn’t do that, it’s a frustrating head scratcher that turns the author into a big question mark, like “what the hell was he thinking?”

      Thanks, Jim. Happy 2017!

  8. Great list, Jordan. And I think Jim nailed it when he mentioned “just” endings. The world doesn’t have to be pretty at the end, but I think readers need a sense of hope that it can get that way.

    I believe that when it comes to thrillers, once the threat to the world is solved, the story is over. Another short coda of a chapter is fine, but I think the reader is ready to move on pretty quickly after the climax.

    As for cliffhangers, mileage varies for me. In a series, I think it’s fine to leave the ends a little loose on the B-story and C-story, but the A-story needs to be wrapped tight. I don’t want to invest the hours it takes to read a novel only to find out that I have to read another one to get to the end of the story I care about. The Harry Potter books are great examples of cliffhangers done well. The crisis at hand is solved, but we know there’s more on the way. Another great example of a cliffhanger well-done is the film “Master and Commander”. I’m just bummed they never made a second film in the series.

    • Great input, John. Love your examples and your take on thrillers. With your high octane thrillers, I can see your point that when the world is saved, there’s not as much point to a long denouement. Police procedurals require more tie-ups because there can be loose threads from all the evidence gathered & suspects interrogated. Great examples. Have a great 2017, John.

  9. Thank you for the excellent tips, Jordan! From the start of thinking out my WIP, I have wanted to write a series. I don’t like the gimmicks that scream to the reader to buy the next book, either. I have wondered how to do this without that happening. You have given me a lot of ideas, so thanks again! 🙂

  10. Thanks for the helpful tips, Jordan. I like to tie up all the loose ends at the close of a novel. My readers expect it and even send fan mail thanking me for “ending” the novel.

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