The Last Fifty Pages Make or Break Your Novel

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We’ve all been through it. We get caught up in a book or movie, we’re cruising along, liking everything about the story and then … the ending stinks.

It’s too farfetched, too out-of-the-blue, illogical, unjustified, or enabled by some crazy coincidence.

Sometimes a book just, well, ends, with plot threads left dangling (producing the Whu? effect). Or, if the plot threads are woven together, it’s in a totally predictable manner (producing the Ho-hum effect).

I’ve described certain writing errors as speed bumps. That means the reader is momentarily jolted out of the fictive dream. It might be a teeny, tiny bump, but the reader does feel it. And if there are too many of them along the way, the pleasure of the trip is ruined.

But if the ending lets you down, it feels more like a sinkhole. The whole car comes to an inglorious, crashing halt. The poor reader has to climb out, dazed, wondering why he took this trip at all.

And said reader will now think twice about picking up another book by the same author.

Remember those immortal words of Mickey Spillane: “The first page of a book sells that book. The last page sells your next book.”

And these days, with so much content out there, a competent ending is not enough.

Endings need to be unforgettable.

Yet, as important as ending are, I’ve not found enough practical, nuts-and-bolts advice for creating truly powerful endings.

So I decided to write a book about it.

THE LAST FIFTY PAGES: THE ART AND CRAFT OF UNFORGETTABLE ENDINGS releases tomorrow.

Here’s some of what I cover:

  • The five types of endings.
  • What needs to happen in Act 3.
  • How to use the Ah and Uh-oh emotional wallops.
  • A simple technique for crafting twist endings.
  • The most important secret of all—resonance.
  • The Stew, Brew, Accrue, and Do brainstorming method.
  • The best way to tie up loose ends.
  • The most common ending mistakes, and how to avoid them.

And with my usual hope for peace in our time, it is written for both plotters and pantsers!

There are many examples from top writers, including Michael Connelly, Dashiell Hammett, Louis L’Amour, Mark Twain, Suzanne Collins, Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James M. Cain, and even Don Pendleton (author of The Executioner series). Each is called upon to illustrate the techniques involved so you can immediately put them to use.

A promising writer named Gilstrap is also quoted. This kid is going to break out soon!

I also use some film examples, including unpacking what is probably the most famous ending of all, with the most famous last line. Can you guess what that is? Hint: the last line includes the words “Louis” and “beautiful” and “friendship.”

You can order the ebook here:

KINDLE

NOOK

KOBO

AMAZON INTERNATIONAL STORES 

And here is the PRINT VERSION for those who like to use highlighters and sticky notes!

Here’s a little preview. One type of ending I call the Uh-oh! This is when the author leaves you with the feeling that something bad or really tense is going to happen, and soon! It’s a staple of horror fiction, but is sometimes found in great thrillers.

In Louis L’Amour’s bestseller Last of the Breed, Joe Mack is an American Air Force pilot, half Sioux, who is captured by Soviets during the Cold War and imprisoned in Siberia. It’s the task of Soviet Col. Arkady Zamatev to squeeze information out of Mack.

But he escapes the prison, which is deemed a stupid thing to do, for the winter is coming in Siberia. How can Mack expect to survive?

Because he is the last of the warrior breed, and his Indian skills come into play for survival.

Zamatev dispatches the Russian analogue of Mack—a Yakut named Alekhin—to do the tracking. The heart of the book is their back and forth, the narrow escapes, the body count.

Finally, at the end of the book, Alekhin and Mack are face to face. It’s time for the fight to the finish.

At this point L’Amour cuts to the last scene, in Col. Zamatev’s point of view. He has received a package—something wrapped up in cloth.

It is a scalp.

There is a note inside also, written on birchbark.

This was once a custom of my people. In my lifetime I shall take two. This is the first.

Uh-oh!

So what is one of your favorite endings? How did it affect you? Why do you think it worked so well? [NOTE: Be aware that *spoilers* may be included in the comments. So look first at the title and decide if you want to know the ending!]

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48 thoughts on “The Last Fifty Pages Make or Break Your Novel

  1. Gone Girl’s ending horrified me. The thought of an innocent child being born to such despicable characters was distressing.

    Memorable? Yes.

    Did it make me want to buy another Flynn book? No.

    Pre-ordered The Last Fifty Pages and am eagerly awaiting delivery. Congratulations, Jim!

  2. You make this ordering too easy. But I’m excited to start reading. I’m in Bangkok and “tomorrow” starts in two hours. Should I wait up?

  3. I am in the throes of writing my last chapter, so your blog post and book are both perfect timing. I always take away something when I read TKZ posts.
    Thanks!

  4. I’m about 75 pages to the end of my first draft. Thanks for the added pressure! (insert smiley face here) – which is another way of saying your book comes at precisely the right time. Ordering it now! Thanks as always for all you do here at Kill Zone. My Sunday wouldn’t be complete without you.

  5. Escaped from the Faraday Cage that is most of my mother’s old house (visiting for her 93rd birthday) long enough to preorder. And thanks for making it available for my Nook. Much better user interface than the Kindle app. I’m only on chapter 1 of the new WIP, so I should have time to read and absorb. Should be a great supplement, refresher to your workshop at Colorado Gold.

    • Hey, Terry, yeah, plenty of novel left to figure out the ending.

      As I say in the book, beginnings are easy; endings are hard. (Like that old saying actors have: dying is easy; comedy is hard!)

  6. Excellent! I have a story with an ending I’m not satisfied with. I think your book will be just the ticket to get it working.

  7. I’m looking forward to reading the book. Thanks for putting it out in paperback.

    My wife’s first name is Cindy. She’s also my first reader. If the ending doesn’t resonate in the same key as the beginning and the theme, and with overtones (for those of you with a musical background), she sends it back to be rewritten.

    I’m looking forward to learning more about resonance. And that culinary technique of “stew, brew, accrue, and do” sounds like a tasty way to brainstorm.

  8. JSB –
    I like the idea of your book a lot – will grab immediately.
    I find when I know where I’m going It gives me the greatest opportunity to create/choose the most interesting, exciting, and surprising path to get there.
    Coincidentally today on WU blog where you and Donald Maass occasionally appear there is an interesting post discussing the controversial ending of “In the Woods” written by Tana French. Solid post if have not read that book but fascinating for those that have.
    Will be reading “the last fifty” directly.
    Thanks!

    • I find when I know where I’m going It gives me the greatest opportunity to create/choose the most interesting, exciting, and surprising path to get there.

      Yes, exactly, Tom. And this doesn’t have to scare the pants off pantsers, because an ending is always subject to change without notice. But when you do have a North Star, you can drop in all sorts of great plot material.

  9. I often guess the “surprise” endings of movies. But I must admit that “The Sixth Sense” surprised and fooled me. And I loved it.

  10. Hi Jim,

    I pre-ordered your new book as soon as I received your email the other week. Really looking forward to it. Perfect timing, my latest novel is now with my beta readers, and I know the ending needs work, perhaps lots of work!

    Speaking of endings, I really like the emotional resonance in the endings of Tana French’s novels–especially The Faithful Place, when Frank learns why his teenaged love ditched him and what really happened to her. The emotional gut punch of that ending still lingers years later.

    Really looking forward to Endings!

  11. Although much maligned by critics, I loved “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. I was so involved in Michael and Salander’s relationship and the plot puzzle that I didn’t see the ending coming. Best of the series in my opinion.

  12. Such great timing! I just ordered the book to add to my JSB library.

    I’m working on my second mystery novel now. The twisty climax in my first novel really pleased me — mainly because it surprised ME when I was writing it. Now I’d like to come up with another good one for the current work. Sounds like your book can get me there.

    Thanks!

  13. Your post brings to mind Joyce Carol Oates’s famous quote: “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence has been written.”

    I don’t think she meant that literally, that you must know the exact way your story ends right down to the final line. But I think she’s onto something in that everything that comes before the final moments in a story must build toward the end with a strong sense of inevitability. The reader gets to your ending being surprised, maybe shaken, perhaps even angry, but always with a nod of the head that says, “It had to end this way…I see that now.”

    Congrats on the new book!

    • Right on, Kris. Somewhere I read (probably Dwight Swain) that an ending must be surprising but, in retrospect, seem “inevitable.” Not easy! But man, when it’s carried off, it’s a difference maker.

  14. What an excellent column. Too many otherwise well-written books seem to collapse under the weight of a poor ending. Sometimes I wonder whether the ending was an editorial decision by committee, not the one the author had in mind. Just leaving off the final chapter entirely would have improved matters in some cases. Delivering a poor, weak, trite, or other ending that makes the reader say “Huh?” is a violation of the contract the author made with the reader on page one. Resonance seems to be the most important factor in good (satisfying) endings. Thanks for all your great advice.

  15. Yes, the ending is the hardest, hardest part. I sweat more over the final chapters than anything else. I am drafting out a new story, and your advice to get the ending going up front is timely. Thank you!

    I preordered your book last week and voila, it appeared on my Kindle carousel last night. Hooray!

  16. I pre-ordered your book and started reading first thing this morning. It came at the perfect time. I’ve been working on my current WIP for quite some time (compared to my 3 previous books anyway) and I’m at the jumping off point as far as the climax and ending goes. I’ve always had a vague idea of the where and what, of it, but nothing concrete. I wasn’t even sure how or even if I was going to get there (probably why it’s taking me so long.) But now, your book has given me all kinds of avenues and ideas on how to flesh that out. So THANK YOU!

  17. Hi James. Got your book on pre-order – looking forward to diving in. I’ve followed the North Star by writing my novel from the end – well it started as an idea, became a short story then the What If? happened. I’ve been playing with it for several years, written in scenes mostly, and learned much along the way – most recently an Immersion Masterclass here in Australia with Margie Lawson in November. Pleased to say the end is truly, finally, near (and has barely changed).
    Thanks for all that you share here, and for your writing books. I have them all!

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