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Endings

by
Lori Handeland


How do you create the perfect ending? How do you find a way to put the finish on months of work? How do you produce an ending to your masterpiece that will make your story linger in the minds of your readers' long after they close the book?

It's not easy. But nothing worthwhile ever is. Sometimes you find your way through trial and error. Sometimes you find it immediately. And sometimes the perfect finish comes to you out of the blue when you're not even looking for it.

Now that we've learned how to start a book and how to get through the middle, it's time to search out our ending.

First and foremost, an ending must deliver on the promise inherent in the rest of the book. In a romance this means--A HAPPY ENDING! I can't stress that enough. I've judged several times in the Golden Heart competition and I've actually had to write on manuscripts "Don't kill off the hero at the end of the book." It makes editors cranky, not to mention a reader who's been promised the happy ending inherent in the words "romance novel."

In your ending you must use the same characters, conflicts, problems and tensions you've used throughout the book. Do not promise apples and deliver oranges.

Your ending will fail if:

  1. You bring in different characters to save the day-for example, the old standard cavalry rides over the hill at the last minute to save your hero and heroine. The reader wants to see the characters they've come to identify with save themselves.

  2. You switch to a last minute conflict in order to intensify your climax. For example, your hero and heroine are about to say "I do" and your heroine suddenly speaks up with the fact that she's Catholic and she can't marry a Protestant. Excuse me, but if her religion is a source of conflict she should have mentioned it before now.

  3. You try to evade the promised climax. For example, you devise a peaceful compromise for all parties and no one loses anything. There is no conflict here and therefore no climax. No emotional growth.

How do you find an ending that delivers on your promise?

  1. Think carefully about what your story has promised the reader both emotionally and intellectually. If you've written a very deep, dark love story filled with conflict--wonderful--but make sure your ending is as emotionally wrenching as the rest of the book.

  2. Think about what forces you've set in conflict throughout the middle of the book. What ending will bring those forces into a plausible, satisfying climax, leaving some characters victorious and others vanquished? Or in other words, your hero and heroine happy and your villains not so happy.
Your ending begins with the climax--the moment you've been leading up to for the entire book, the moment when your characters must decide their final course of action. This is the turning point, the highest source of action both emotional and physical.

For a climax to succeed it must:

  1. Satisfy the view of life you've implied in your story. In a romance this means happily ever after.

  2. Deliver emotion. The reader should feel what the characters feel. If the character isn't feeling, this is not the climax.

  3. Deliver an appropriate level of emotion. The level of drama in the climax must match the level of drama throughout your story. If you put too much drama into the climax of a quiet story, the climax will feel contrived, as if you're trying to inject artificial drama. If you put too little drama into a strong action story, the climax will feel flat.

  4. Be logical to your plot and your story. The climax must grow out of the actions preceding it and those actions must have grown naturally out of the personalities of the characters. Deus ex machina (which means a god from a machine) refers to plots in which the climax depends on a new, outside force for the change. This is not a good idea and neither is coincidence. Though coincidences happen all the time in real life, in books they always look contrived. Go figure. You can still surprise the reader with an unexpected ending and not violate the above criteria. You just have to make sure the surprise is logical, warranted and the clues are laid down throughout the book and lead to its occurrence.

  5. Your climax must be in proportion to the length of your story. If you write 20 pages setting up a tense situation, the resolution should not flash by in two paragraphs. It won't feel important enough. Draw the climax out as long as you can to increase the tension. For example, in my novel Charlie and the Angel, the hero realizes he loves the heroine, and though he doesn't feel he's good enough for her, he wants her anyway. So he rides to her house. "Yes," the reader thinks, "now's a good time. Go get her." He arrives to find she's been sent to a convent under a heavily armed escort. And he's off again . . .

Once you've written your climax, you're ready to write your denouement or the final comment. This is everything that comes after the climax and the function is to wrap up your story. You must show the consequences of the plot and the fate of any characters not accounted for in the climax. The characteristics of a successful final comment are:

  1. Closure-give the reader enough information about the fate of the characters for them to feel the book is really over. Show the readers just enough of the character's future so they aren't left hanging. Try to tie up any loose ends earlier on if possible so you don't have too many to do this near the end. But make sure all the loose ends are tied up. Nothing makes a reader madder than searching for an explanation that isn't there.

  2. Brevity-if the denouement goes on too long, it leaches emotion from the climax. End while the reader is still affected by our big scene. Generally, the more subtle and low-key your climax is in action and tone, the briefer the denouement.

  3. Dramatization-show what happens to your characters in action or the denouement feels like exposition that's been tacked on after the story's over. Whatever action you use should be mild so it doesn't compete with the climax.

You should set aside these final elements in an epilogue only if it differs significantly from the main narrative in time or place or if it's radically different in style.

The last paragraph or sentence of a novel, the very end, should resonate, or set off a complex emotional reaction in the reader.

To create a resonant ending try the following:

  1. Suggest connections between the story and a larger context--justice in your story, and justice for all.

  2. Whatever emotion the story seeks to convey, choose the final action to evoke that emotion in the reader. This is why so many romances end with a marriage proposal, the actual wedding or the birth of a child. That's what these books are all about.

  3. Have the last sentence imply the theme. In Laura Kinsale's novel Seize the Fire, the heroine tells the hero in the last few lines, "I'm here. I'm here and I love you no matter what." Not only do these words state the theme of the book, they state the theme of a romance in general.

  4. The last sentence explains or reiterates the title. In my first novel Second Chance, the hero, Jake, has the last line. "We've been given a second chance, Katie, and I won't let you down."

  5. The last sentence or paragraph echoes the opening sentence or paragraph. Pete's Dragon by Lindsay Longford begins with the line, "Every evening at twilight, the dragon came to the garden." The book ends with the words, "The dragon winked one final time at Petey and disappeared into the late-summer darkness.

But what do you do if you can't find the right ending or the one you've written isn't working?

  1. Don't panic-usually if you wait long enough, put the book aside and don't worry about it, the right ending will become clear to you. This happened to me with Shadow Lover, my romantic suspense novel. I couldn't figure out what the problem was. Then finally it hit me. The wrong person "did it." Voila! The ending worked out fine.

  2. Look at books you like and study their endings. Which endings do you remember and why?

  3. Try writing the ending a few different ways and see which feels right.

  4. Let a very trustworthy friend read the book and see if they think the ending works. Pick someone who reads a lot, perhaps a writer, but they must know the English language well, like your genre and be able to comment honestly. We all want to hear we're brilliant. But it doesn't help you to learn if someone tells you this and you're not. Also, having someone who reads mysteries and has never picked up a romance will not help you. They will tell you things that do not relate to our genre. As for me, I love endings. Maybe I'm strange--actually I know I'm strange--but that's beside the point. A lot of writers will say they get depressed when they finish a book, that they don't want to see those characters exit their lives. For me, I love the last few chapters of a book. I've got the hard work behind me, I know the characters well by this point, and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. When I come out of that tunnel, there's another book on the horizon, and therefore a new beginning on the way.

When you reach the end of your book, rejoice, you've earned it. Too many people never reach the end. When you do, you know you're special. The more books you write, the better writer you'll become. I firmly believe that every book is better than the last -- and every rewrite makes every book stronger.

The best thing to do when you're done with a story -- and by done I mean you've rewritten it enough so it's the absolutely best work you could possibly submit right now -- then send it out and start another. Never sit around and wait to hear the feedback on that book. Go on. Then if the worst happens and you get rejected, you'll already have another book half finished or three-quarters finished or done and you won't find yourself blocked by one person's opinion of your work.

One of the best endings I've ever read is the following from, Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon:

"And the world was all around us, new with possibility."

Further Reading:

  • Beginnings, Middles and Ends by Nancy Kress-Writers Digest Books: The Elements of Fiction Writing Series

2008 Lori Handeland


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