[Editor’s note: the essay below is taken from an e-mail newsletter sent out by the writer Bruce Hale. you can find his web site at: http://www.brucehalewritingtips.com/. You can also sign up for his e-newsletter at that site. Each electronic newsletter comes with other information, including a writing joke.]
IS YOUR ENDING REALLY SATISFYING READERS?
How many times have you heard that the first page of your story is the most important? Too many, I’d say.
Not that a compelling opening isn’t vital — it is. But with all that focus on crafting a killer beginning, it’s easy to forget about making an awesome ending. Endings may not get as much attention in how-to books as openings, but they are just as hard to do right.
One thing to bear in mind: An effective ending needn’t necessarily be happy, but it must be SATISFYING. In other words, whether or not your hero gets what he wants, the reader must get what *she* wants.
While you’re working on your ending’s SQ (Satisfaction Quotient), here are some key points to keep in mind.
– Has the asked question been answered?
No matter how unstated or simple it may be, every book has a theme. As part of that, the story poses an implicit (sometimes explicit) question that must be answered by the end of the book.
Whether it’s “Can a girl and a vampire find happiness and true love?” or “Will Samantha ever get her big red wagon?” that question has been brewing in the reader’s mind throughout your story. Be sure your ending has conclusively answered it.
– Have all subplots been resolved?
Before you respond with the inevitable, “Duh, of course!” be sure all elements of your story have a true sense of closure. If any
subplots or characters are left hanging, your readers won’t be fully satisfied.
Readers need to know not only that the hero’s main problem has been resolved, but that the supporting characters and villain are taken care of, too. Maybe that’s why so many concluding chapters are stuffed full of, “Dr. Evil was caught at the border, and Hannah? Why she married that cute jockey.” No need to be that blatant, but do be that comprehensive.
– Have you given the reader something expected?
A satisfying ending must fulfill the reader’s expectation. If you’re writing a mystery, the expectation is that the murderer will be brought to justice. If a romance, that the protagonist will find true love. Mess with these expectations at your peril, but also consider…
– Have you given the reader something surprising?
The best endings leave you with an “I knew that would happen, but not like THAT” feeling. A pat, expected ending feels boring, a letdown, even if it delivers on a reader’s expectations. So it’s essential to unearth some kind of surprise in the WAY the story resolves.
I just read an adult mystery where the detective was haunted by an almost supernaturally evil man he’d first met as a child. You expect that man to be defeated by the detective, but instead he was struck by lightning and died in a Biblical wrath-of-God way that was surprising and satisfying — and right for the book. I got the ending I wanted, but not in the way I’d expected it.
– Have you echoed the opening?
This isn’t necessary, but it is a nice-to-have. If you can echo some image or scene from the beginning, but have it take on a different meaning, that’s the icing on the cake. You’ll notice many movies use this technique.
In SAVE THE CAT, his excellent book on story and screenwriting, Blake Snyder says: “The final image of a movie is the opposite of the opening image. It is your proof that chance has occurred and that it’s real.” For example, in the movie Miss Congeniality, the opening image is tomboy Sandra Bullock, surrounded by boys, but not fully fitting in. The final image is of her surrounded by women and fitting in as herself.
And if you can come up with that kind of ending… your SQ will go through the roof, and readers will thank you!