Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending. ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I am a connoisseur of endings.
I read reviews for series—books, television, and movie franchises—when they end, so I can gauge whether or not the fans were satisfied. I find it fascinating. Even if I’ve never read or seen a second of the original product, I want to know how the consumers ended their journey. Furious? Happy? I want to know about the anger and the tears and the joy and the “thank yous” that follow. What felt—to the long time traveler—meaningful?
Because endings are important.
Not just the tying up of arcs and plots but the emotional satisfaction of the journey—does a fan say, “yes, this was worth it” or are they unhappy they wasted their time.
No one ending can satisfy everyone. That’s rule one. This character died. Or didn’t. How could they! This didn’t get enough time. That got too much. Ugh. Why did they wait so long to do that?! Why didn’t my favorite couple end up together!?
Even in disagreement, there can be a consensus the ending made sense within that created universe.
A Neat Bow Isn’t Always Necessary
Depending on the genre you are writing in, there is a built-in expectation of how a story will end. Few people go into reading a horror novel and hope for a happy ending where everyone lives and faces tomorrow with a bright smile. Conversely, just try and skip out on the HEA at the end of a romance novel. You might want to have a fake beard and wig in your bag when you make a run for it.
The true trick of the “right” ending is satisfaction.
Throwing a generic ending on your story will leave a reader feeling disappointed, perhaps even angry. Or worse, they won’t care and this will linger when it comes time to buy your next book.
Your ending should feel natural for your story.
What is the end result of the circumstances set in motion at the beginning of your story? Where would these characters end up, after all, they’ve been through? What have you signaled about their ultimate end?
Is this a morality tale? Then someone must pay a price.
Is this a romance? Then people must come together, changed by their love for each other, and settle into a new space they’ve created.
Is this a thriller? Then there should be a resolution to the mystery or murder or chase the characters have been dealing with.
Deviating so far from the expectation might earn you a few nods of acknowledgment but chances are you did not build a connection with the readers of that genre.
Yes, But I’m Trying To Be Different!
Does your reader know that? Or did they look at the cover and the genre, decide, “Yes, I enjoy thrillers!” and purchase it with an assumption that there would be a resolution to the story?
“Different” doesn’t have to mean, “screw conventions!”
“Different” can mean that you have studied your genre and tropes, and understand the emotional satisfaction your readers are seeking. Then you take that knowledge and lead them into a direction that surprise while still understanding why they picked up that book in the first place.
The Worst Ending Ever
Thirty-plus years ago, I picked up a book that I thought was a romance. It had flowers on the cover and was about two people who fell in love. I had an expectation of the ending, as you do when you pick up a romance.
The opening was riveting. Two people, each unhappy in their lives, are shopping on Christmas Eve when the department store they are in explodes. Trapped, they can only speak to each other, willing each to hang on.
I was hooked!
The story progresses as they engage in an emotional affair, leaving their miserable lives to find moments of joy together. As the book winds down, they resolve to run away, meeting on a bridge before they choose happiness because life is too short.
Then, in the last few pages, they meet on the bridge, decide not to run away together, and go back to their miserable lives. The End.
It’s the first and only book I ever actually threw across the room.
Do I remember the title? The author? No, I don’t. But my anger has not dissipated in three decades.
Besides not making sense, the ending made me feel like I wasted my time. What was the point? They started the book miserable and ended it the same way. Were they changed as people? Was there movement of some kind?
Why did I spend my time with these characters?
When a reader picks up a book, they are entering into an arrangement with the author. “I have purchased your book after determining it is something I might enjoy. I will now spend time with the preconceived notion that this is correct. Don’t let me down.”
Part of their expectation is that in the end, their notion will be validated. “Yes, I enjoyed that book. I am satisfied with the ending. This author kept their promise.”
You’ve earned their trust.
Next time they’re looking for a book and they see your name, they—perhaps even subconsciously—confirm you are someone who keeps your promises. And they’ll buy your next book.
I know. You want to be creative and stand out. I get it! But you have to then temper your expectations of reactions.
You might all remember last year a holiday romance movie being advertised, all charming meetings and snowfall, and oh! They’re ice-skating! At first, everyone was excited. A romantic comedy set during the holidays with interesting actors! But suspicions cropped up. The trailer and publicity materials were scrutinized. Was this REALLY a romance?
In the end? Romance lovers were vindicated in their mistrust (and also disappointed) because alas, there was no HEA. It was a love story but not a romance.
And that’s important to them, to the point of not wanting to see the movie. Fair! No one watches sports and thinks, “Gosh, I hope my favorite loses!”—because you have expectations you want satisfied.
Was the movie a big hit? No. The audience they were targeting had a few hard and fast rules you had to abide by before you got their money.
HEA. Or bust.
“Yes but, love doesn’t always work out! Sometimes it’s a tragic ending!”
Absolutely. And if a reader wants something tragic, something that makes them yearn and cry and stare at the wall in melancholy memory, they should be able to read that book. Maybe the one I threw against the wall!
But, their expectation is very different than the romance reader.
If you have a story idea with a blockbuster ending that you believe will turn your chosen genre sideways, I have one question.
Are you writing a story with an ending people will never expect because it’s such a good idea you can scarcely type fast enough? Or are you trying to shock people?
Disdain for a genre’s “rules” is understandable. We might be tired of stereotypes and misogyny and what seems like déjà vu as writers fall into ruts of writing the same pale version of a bestseller. We want to write something different. We want to kick over a metaphorical table and push the rules to the very edge.
Do it. No one is stopping you.
But your ending has to resonate in an emotionally satisfying way so that the reader has no choice but to agree with you. Take them on an entire journey, don’t throw a bomb at the last minute and pretend it’s about messing with their expectations.
Write a complete story so that the ending doesn’t feel like it’s set to hurt the reader, but rather compel them to see your POV.
Respect your reader. Their time and money and trust.
A Museum of Terrible Endings
Think about the endings that made you mad. Think about the endings that ruined a franchise for you, or made you give away a twenty-volume set of hardcovers because you didn’t even want to LOOK at them. Think about the rewatch of your favorite show where you don’t watch the final episode because—ugh, it makes you mad just to think about it. “How I Met Your Mother” I am looking at you.
Now ask yourself WHY they didn’t work for you?
Did the explanation seem forced? Rushed?
Did you feel you wasted your time?
Sometimes the ending is just not what we envisioned. (This is why fanfiction exists…) That’s disappointing. But the real anger, I feel, comes when it’s almost a betrayal of the material. An artificial tacking on of story to wrap things up is disrespectful for all that came before it.
Be aware of the finish line when you’re writing. Be cognizant of your reader and the journey you’ve invited them on. Respect your story (and your readers!) with a satisfying conclusion. They don’t all have to love it! But they should be very clear on YOUR love and respect for your world and your story. And your respect for them.
Believe me, once they trust you, they’ll stick around.
Check out Tere’s class, right here at SavvyAuthors!