What Makes For The Perfect
Ending? Make Your Choice

“The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.” — Joyce Carol Oates

Spoiler alert: This post reveals the endings of some movies and books. So, if you haven’t seen or read: The Crying Game, Gone Girl, The Shawshank Redemption, The Fault Is In Our Stars and oh, my own book The Damage Done…fair warning!

By PJ Parrish

We spend a lot of time and energy here at TKZ talking about what goes into a great beginning of a novel.  Does the first line have to be a killer or can you take a little time luring your reader in? What do you have to set up? What should you leave out?

But we don’t spent enough time, in my humble opinion, talking about what makes for a great ending. It’s one of my favorite writing craft topics and it’s something in my own writing that I spent a lot of blood, sweat and tears on.

I got to thinking about this because my sister Kelly called the other day to tell me she had finally gotten around to watching  The Crying Game.  Like everyone who has seen it, she was gobsmacked when it’s revealed that the lovely Dil is transgender — born male — a fact the protag Fergus discovers about halfway through the movie after they’ve been intimate. But Kelly was also impressed with the ending — that Fergus takes the blame and prison time for a shooting Dil committed.

The transgender reveal is a great mid-point twist. But the ending, and the movie’s final scene, ah, that was just as powerful. When Dil lovingly visits Fergus in prison, the camera pans to show couples talking across tables as the soundtrack plays “Stand By Your Man.” The implication is that they will be together after he is released.

We ended up having a long discussion about what made for a great ending in a novel. We settled on a couple points:

  • It lingers in the reader’s mind long after they close the book.
  • It is a final statement of the book’s theme
  • It is inevitable and well-earned. It just feels right.
  • It makes your reader want to get your next book.

We also tried to figure out what are some classic types of great endings. Here’s a few we came up with:

Completing the Circle: This type of ending ties the ending back to the beginning. It can bring the reader back to the opening scene or first line, but provide added depth. It’s like an echo. This can be hard to pull off because it can feel artificial, corny or look like you’re too clever by half. It takes a lot of planning and rewriting to pull off. One of my favorite books, Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, is a good example of this. Here’s the opening:

My father has asked me to be the fourth corner of the Joy Luck Club. I am to replace my mother, whose seat at the mah jong table has been empty since she died two months ago.

Here’s the ending:

And I am sitting at my mother’s place at the mah jong table, on the East, where things begin.

I also like this ending because the reference to the “East, where things begin” has double meaning, referring at its deepest, to her family’s tragic history in China and the daughter’s coming to peace with it.

Summation of the Theme: This type of ending is pretty common but it’s very effective as it gives a sense of completeness to your story, as if, when the reader closes the book, they said, “Ah yes, of course. Now I see.”  Here’s a couple good examples that I culled from my shelf:

“How wonderful the flavor, the aroma of her kitchen, her stories as she prepared the meal, her Christmas Rolls! I don’t know why mine never turn out like hers, or why my tears flow so freely when I prepare them – perhaps I am as sensitive to onions as Tita, my great-aunt, who will go on living as long as there is someone who cooks her recipes.”

— Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

“Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper.”

— Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

I especially like that last one because it is just plain beautiful writing coming like a grace note at the end of a gorgeous book.

And then there is the famous last line of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. At the end of the novel Jake gets a telegram from Brett saying that she is in Madrid and in trouble. When Jake gets to her hotel, he finds her in bed and kisses her. She tells him that she made Romero leave because he wants to get married and have kids. Then she tells Jake that she is going to go back to Mike. She says, “Oh Jake, we could have had such a damned good time together.” To which Jake replies:

“ Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so?”

That one last line sums up the novel’s themes of disillusionment and reality, its tone of melancholy and “damned tragedy,” as Hemingway called it.

The Moral of The Story Is…This is a tad deeper than a mere theme summation. This is more personal reckoning, usually voiced or thought by the protagonist whose journey has given him insight or growth. Here’s a good example from Wally Lamb’s This Much I Know to be True:

“I am not a smart man, particularly, but one day, at long last, I stumbled from the dark woods of my own, and my family’s, and my country’s past, holding in my hands these truths: that love grows from the rich loam of forgiveness; that mongrels make good dogs; that the evidence of God exists in the roundness of things. This much, at least, I’ve figured out. I know this much is true.”

In my writing partnership with my sister, I am the one usually charged with writing the first and last chapters, so I am hyper-aware of the need for an ending that restates the theme. Maybe I was channeling Lamb’s book when I wrote the ending for our latest Louis Kincaid thriller, The Damage Done. The plot concerns the murder of a minister and the nature of faith is one of themes. Louis is an agnostic cop who has always needed proof to believe. Yet his arc in this book — a dark journey through the horror of his foster childhood — leaves him in a different place. In the final scene, he is in an old deserted church, speaking to Violet, the devout daughter of a minister. Violet’s husband turned out to be the murderer of his own father.

Louis went down the steps and started down the aisle. 
“Officer Kincaid?”
He turned back to see what Violet wanted.
“Go with God,” she said.
Louis hesitated then nodded. “I’ll try,” he said.
He turned and went out the door. Outside, he paused. He could hear the rippling sound of water. But there was no sign of Christiana Creek anywhere nearby that he could see. He brought up a hand and pressed it to his chest. The tightness was still there –- it always would be — but he could feel his heart beating stronger over it.
A Bible verse came to him. Nothing he had ever heard in any church but something he had seen on the sign that first day outside Saint Michael’s.
The old is gone. The new is here.
Louis raised his face to the sun. That was something he knew he could believe in.

The Happy Ever After.  Well, this is a trope of the romance novel of course, and pretty rare in so-called literary fiction where the formula bleak = serious seems to be de rigueur.  In a sense, most crime novels and mysteries have happy endings, in that the crime is solved, the bad guy brought to justice,  the disrupted reality returned to a norm. Readers are relieved when the good side wins. In fact, it’s probably expected. The bleaker noir novels tend to avoid this, with life as miserable as ever at book’s end. I’m not well-read in cozies, but I suspect this is where this kind of ending prevails.

The Cliffhanger. The dictionary definition is “a dramatic and exciting ending to an episode of a serial, leaving the audience in suspense and anxious not to miss the next episode.” The term originated with a Thomas Hardy serial when his protagonist Henry Knight was left hanging off a cliff.  I couldn’t come up with any good crime fiction examples. The only good example I could think of is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale. The story ends at a critical moment in the protagonist’s journey that seems almost cruel. A big black van pulls up in front of Offred’s Commander’s house, and two Eyes escort her outside. On her way out, Nick whispers, “It’s all right. It’s Mayday. Go with them,” but Offred is uncertain. In a society where lies are the norm, she doesn’t know what these men will do to her.  The book ends with:

“And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.”

No wonder that Atwood felt compelled to write a sequel (The Testaments), which was inspired, she has said, by readers’ questions about Gilead, and also by “the world we’ve been living in.”

The problem with cliffhangers is the reader often comes away feeling cheated, especially if they don’t know when or even if you’ll write a sequel. If you’re a new author, it’s probably best to avoid cliffhangers. Or at least as it involves your main character.

In The Damage Done, we have a cliffhanger of sorts involving Louis’s captain. The unanswered question is huge in the last fourth of the plot but we don’t answer it. Yes, it leaves room for a sequel but we were careful to tie up all the plot points central to Louis’s journey, and the unanswered question is not about him but another character.

The Ambiguous Ending. I like room at a book’s end for me to imagine what really happened or what is going to happen to characters I’ve grown attached to. Would Gone With the Wind be as great if Rhett had said at the end, “I forgive you, Scarlett, baby,” and carried her up the stairs to bed?

I think these endings can be very powerful. In Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, the story ends with Red on the bus, after getting out of prison, heading to see Andy. He’s hopeful but unsure. But the movie takes it one scene further with Red walking down the beach to where Andy waits with his fishing boat. The screenwriter wanted to go with King’s ending but was overruled. According to studio notes: “After two-plus hours of hell, you owe them that reunion.”

The Heartbreaker. The opposite of the Happy Ever After. Go ahead, ruin your reader’s day. That’s what John Green does with The Fault Is In Our Stars. If at the end of this star-crossed dying teens book you don’t cry, you’ve got a stone where your heart should be.

The I HATE This Book ending. Well, it can’t be helped. We have to end with Gone Girl. here. It’s famous for its clever pretzel twists as you discover perfect Amy isn’t the perfect wife she’s been pretending to be. But the ending is just plain icky-horrifying. Amy impregnates herself with Nick’s semen in order to blackmail him, and murderous Amy and her idiot husband decide to stay together for the sake of their unborn child. Just…nope. But I will say, the ending stays true to the characters’ natures.

Okay, a few final points on craft. When you first set off to write your novel, you’ll probably have no idea where it’s headed. And no matter what Joyce Carol Oates may say, you probably don’t know the final line. Don’t sweat it. Let your character take off but keep them on a leash. Allow for sunlight and serendipity, especially you guys who outline.

Your ending will come. Most likely emerging in the rewriting process. Nothing is writ in stone, grasshopper. You are in control. You can go back and stick in that killer first line when it finally comes to you as you drift off to sleep one night. And you can go back and rewrite your ending…when you’ve ended.

For my ending, I’ll leave you will the advice of an expert, William Goldman:

“The key to all story endings is to give the audience what it wants, but not the way it expects.”


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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

15 thoughts on “What Makes For The Perfect
Ending? Make Your Choice

  1. A lot to absorb before 6 AM and coffee. I’m approaching the ending of my wip, and it’s something I always struggle with. Satisfy the reader and sell the next book.
    As far as your points go, there seems to be a ‘trend’, especially in romance, to end with a real cliffhanger. The story is NOT resolved, and it’s a ploy to get the reader to buy the next book. I won’t. Just won’t. It might work for those in Kindle Unlimited where they can just download the next one on their subscription, but for a person who doesn’t go along with that model, it’s a cheat.

    • Huh…I don’t read romance anymore (since I don’t write it anymore) but I share your feeling that a cliffhanger can be infuriating. You spend 200-300 pages investing in these characters’ relationship and then — WAIT FOR THE SEQUEL COMING IN APRIL 2020!

      Even if you write a series romance with reoccurring characters, I think you still owe readers a resolution of sorts to their current situation. That situation could well change in the future (ie next book), but you need to gently shut the door on the present before you move on. I remember loving Jean Auel’s cave people series and though she wrote a bunch of them, each book still resolved the main characters’ situations while leaves room for more.

      I just binge-watched all the seasons of Outlander — a terrific love story that spans 200 years. Now, many of the episodes were classic cliffhangers and I accepted this because the writers carefully constructed the plot arc over the entire season. But they also knew to at times shut the door just enough to give me time to catch my breath and absorb what had happened. TV serial fiction is not the same as what we do, of course. Or has it become closer to what television offers? Maybe…but as you said, to me such a book would be a cheap way to get me to cough up more bucks.

  2. Truly a great post, PJ! Highly instructional, yet highly entertaining. And I didn’t mind the spoilers in the least…knowing the ending of a great novel or movie never makes me shy away from experiencing it. Let’s see, maybe ten times with Gone With The Wind, and at least the same with Shawshank…

    I was glad to see “ambiguous” on the list. One of my WIP has just that ending. The reader will not know if Annie, the MC, dies the next day. Given the details of the story + the theme, there is just no other way for it to end. I’ve already written the last chapter (first draft stage), particularly the last line, and I’m having great fun getting her there.

    Thank you for starting my day off right.

  3. I think that TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD has one of the most stunning closing passages ever written:

    “[Atticus] turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” It’s just . . . perfect.

    • Yup. Had that one in my loooong post but it didn’t make the cut. So much closure in that ending. Thanks!

  4. Awesome post.

    I agree with you that endings are rarely talked about. But even less talked about is the beginning of the third act.

  5. I call a great ending the final hook. The first hook is what keeps a reader from putting down your book in the first pages. The final hook is what makes them read the next book.

    The final hook is the fulfilled promise of the story. If the story is a romance, the story should end with the promised “happily ever after.” In a mystery the crime is solved or justice is meted out, and in a fantasy the quest is achieved or the monster defeated. Science fiction as a genre doesn’t have such an obvious promise, but the individual story has a goal which must be reached.

    A “warm fuzzy” scene that offers the reader a happy emotional feeling for the main character or characters often acts as the final hook. Warm fuzzies are the scene of domestic bliss with the hero and heroine holding their baby, or the traveler returning home to family, or the adventure companions sharing a laugh and a beer.

    If a warm fuzzy doesn’t fit the tone of the story, an extremely powerful and emotional final scene is the most effective hook possible. The reader will read the end, sit quietly for a short time, then mutter to himself, “Damn that was good,” and he’ll wait eagerly for the writer’s next story.

  6. Good post, P.J. I tend to think I shouldn’t over-think the ending–but I’m glad you thought of it. I like your remark that the characters should GO, let them be. In the end, they will tell you how to end it. And as for GONE WITH WIND, if Rhett had put up with Scarlett in the end, I would have thrown all one thousand pages on the wall. What a great book. Satisfying in every respect. Thanks for giving us your thoughts.

    • Plus if Rhett didn’t walk out we would have been deprived of one of the greatest exit lines in movies. And Scarlett needed to be able to sum up her character arc with her soul-mantra “tomorrow is another day.”

  7. Great subject!

    I’m not much for the gratuitous final chapter. For me, when the zombie uprising has been brought down and the MC, through the magic of the written word, is still alive, the story is over. There is no need for a chapter where we go to the MC’s house, start cleaning up and gaze out the window to witness the rose bush bloom – I assume they are going to try and put their lives back together.

    How does one balance an ending to satisfy different readers?

    I have a story that ends with a shootout in a garage. The MC is fine and the villain is dead – what more does one need? Out of 4 beta readers – 1 wanted a next chapter, 1 was satisfied , 1 was willing to wait and see how their lives were changed in the next story and the “I usually read romance novels” one wanted to know which guy the MC picked even though I kept telling her the MC wasn’t interested in one. However, just in case I had other romance readers I changed the last chapter. Now there are two bodies. It’s a shame a good man had to die.

  8. Great post! Reading those powerful lines are inspiring.

    In almost all of my novels, I know the ending first and usually have the last line written before anything else. Then, I write the first line and fill in the rest of the story with the ending always in mind.

    I am currently writing the last book in a series and I think I’ve nailed the ending. It isn’t only for the characters, but also for anyone enduring dark moments, desperate for the light of hope break through.

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