Chapter 7 — Writing the Ending

Many writers believe the ending of the story is the big, massive climax.

  • The former Texas Ranger transports the body of his friend and colleague from Wyoming back to the southern tip of Texas because he gave his word, and his word actually means something.
  • A magic ring is returned inadvertently to its rightful owner, who had agonized for years over its loss, as both he and the ring plunge into the fires of Mordor, effectively ending a war.
  • The Death Star explodes because someone forgot to install a screen over what amounts to a vent that just happens to run directly to the reactor core. Or something.

Those are all big climaxes. But none of those is the ending.

The ending comes after the climax. It’s what many call the resolution or the validation.

  • It’s the former Texas Ranger dismissing a reporter because there’s no possible way the reporter could ever understand.
  • It’s the Ring Bearer accompanying others as they board boats to pass from Middle Earth forever because their time is now past.
  • It’s a walking shag rug and others, amidst much cheering, being rewarded medals and money during a grand celebration, the whole of which takes place on the steps out front. Because seriously, who wants a walking shag rug inside the palace.

The ending in a film is a satisfactory conclusion. It gives the viewers a warm fuzzy feeling and tells them the story is over. That it’s all right to get out of their chairs and go home.

The ending in a novel or short story is a satisfactory conclusion as well, one that subliminally signals to the reader the story has ended.

In both cases, the keyword is “satisfactory.”

Just as a valid climax should cause the reader to slap himself on the forehead and say, “Of course!” so should the ending (resolution, validation) make the reader feel good about the protagonist or the situation or both.

And a satisfactory ending isn’t important just to keep the reader from throwing things.

Remember, the hook and opening sell the reader on the current book.

But the ending of the current book sells the reader on the next book. That’s how important it is.

Tricks for Endings

One common technique is to jump ahead to a new scene after the climax.

The Lonesome Dove series resolution above obviously took place at least a few days later when Captain Call had time to rest and clean up and heal from his injuries and exhaustion. Notice we feel a kinship with Captain Call despite his flaws.

The Lord of the Rings wrap-up likewise took place a few days or perhaps even weeks later. It’s difficult to tell, and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we feel the passing of the age as strongly as the characters do.

And in the Star Wars resolution, again it might be a week or longer. We assume they needed time to bury their dead (the ones who weren’t vaporized) and maybe to clear the chunks of buildings out of the streets.

But whatever the reason for the jump, it’s all right. We don’t wonder what happened during the missing time. We simply accept it and go on.

So you don’t have to provide a reason for the gap when you jump ahead. Again, just write a quick scene to tie up any final loose ends and close things out.

If you do feel a need to provide an explanation for the gap, do so with a very brief narrative or a brief bit of dialogue between characters.

Sometimes writers will maintain a single POV character throughout the story. If you do that, be sure to use the same POV character in the resolution. In other words, don’t switch POV after the jump ahead unless it’s a multiple POV story.

Watch Your Pacing

In the big climax, sentences and paragraphs generally are shorter and more terse. Things happen quickly. Narrative is sparse and even any dialogue is short and tense. Everything is frantic.

When you jump to the ending, slow things down. Use neater sentences, calmer syntax and words. In other words, you want to write a much more relaxed scene. That’s how you ease the reader out of the story after the high-tension climax..

Finally, you want to be sure you bring the story full circle. In a stand-alone story, be sure you don’t have any unwrapped threads still out there. Make sure you resolve all open matters that were not resolved earlier in the story.

Watch for the Ending

Most often, even in a novel, you can feel it coming when you’re within a few thousand words.

When that happens, just keep writing. Keep letting the story happen.

But if the writing begins to grind to a halt, there’s a chance you’ve written past the ending.

I first heard of this from Dean Wesley Smith, but it’s happened to me a couple of times too.

In my first novel, I sensed the ending was coming up. I just kept writing the next sentence, writing the next sentence, and suddenly there were no more sentences to write. That didn’t feel right. I knew there wasn’t another scene yet to go.

So I backtracked. Sure enough, I had written past the ending by about 200 words. That wound up being the first book in a nine-book series, but the “extra” I wrote beyond the ending of the first book didn’t make it into the second one.

If that happens to you, it’s all right. Just backtrack and look for the great line or situation that ends the story satisfactorily. Then allow the characters to talk through the resolution.

What Makes a Good Ending?

It seems appropriate to end a book titled Writing the Character-Driven Story with this.

Good endings are always endings about the character. They leave the reader feeling good about the protagonist.

A good ending might contain an air of nostalgia. For an excellent example, see the end of Lonesome Dove with the images of fallen comrades filing by as Captain Call said, bitterly and with sarcasm, “Yeah. One hell of a vision.”

It often contains an emotional attachment to another character or characters. This emotional attachment might be one-sided. You’ll see this in almost any western in which the hero rides off into the sunset alone while the wistful female lead watches him go.

The emotional attachment can also be mutual, whether a personal romantic attachment between characters or a professional bond among characters who have shared a unique experience in a team setting (especially combat).

And of course there are a host of others. Study endings in real life, and then adapt those in your books.

One example Dean used with me was a time jump to funeral. They didn’t show the actual funeral (remember, this is the ending, the validation) but used the funeral to set the mood for the scene. Then they showed the characters walking away from the funeral, talking about what’s coming next for each of them (a great lead-in to the next book in a series), getting on with life, and so on.