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.
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?