If the beginning of a story is a promise to the reader, the end is its fulfillment. Once hooked on a story question, readers will keep turning pages. A skillful writer deepens characterization and escalates both stakes and conflict with each scene.
But the ending is what clinches it. A strong one leaves the reader with a sigh or such a sense of satisfaction that she immediately checks to see what other books the author has written. A weak ending is a promise broken, and if the reader feels sufficiently betrayed, there may be no second chance for that writer.
So what goes into a great ending? For certain, questions raised must all be answered. Nothing is more irritating that reaching the end of a story and turning to the next, blank page and asking, “But what happened about the boss who was blackmailing him with those compromising pictures?” Not every plot thread needs to be tied up neatly in a bow. There’s room for subtlety, even ambiguity, if the writer makes the reader believe that was the goal. Otherwise, the reader feels irritated – or worse yet, tricked - that the author made her care about something so unimportant it was later forgotten.
One of my requirements for a satisfying ending is that the main story problem be actively solved by the protagonist. Not a convenient earthquake which opens up a chasm to swallow up the bad guy in the crucial moment. This unlikely sort of conclusion, called the deus ex machina (or “god comes from the box”) ending harks back to a time when Greek playwrights wrote their characters into a corner, then had a deity handily show up to save the day. Today’s readers want their heroes and heroines to earn their happy endings because of strengths they have developed by surviving the story’s challenges.
We also like the protagonists to suffer in the process. In real life, change is difficult and its costs are high. We expect to see that dramatized in fiction, just as we hope the outcome reaffirms our belief that when someone suffers sufficiently, learns, and grows for a worthy cause, the effort will be rewarded in the end.
I’d like to finish this entry by asking what book or movie endings have left you most satisfied? Which particular stories left you desperate to read the author’s next work or see the next movie by the same screenwriter or director? Can you explain why the conclusion worked so well for you?
In March, I’ll be giving a workshop to the West Houston Romance Writers of America on writing satisfying endings, and I would love to add the opinions of both readers and writers. Thanks so much!