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As a writer, reaching the end of a story can be a taxing and emotional time. On the one hand, it can be thrilling to finally see a long-term project come to fruition, but on the other hand, it can be paralyzing to reach that stage, especially if this is your first project. A lot of people freeze up in fear when they are close to the end, because, consciously or not, they are afraid of what the next stage might bring; after all, the next natural step, when you’ve finished a book, is to revise it, which might bring us face to face with our own mistakes; and showing it to other people, which can confront us to their reactions and is generally terrifying for most writers, no matter how well prepared you are.
But above all, finishing a story can bring with it an inexplicable feeling of grief and loss, because you are saying good-bye to characters who can now feel like family or friends, and leaving a world that occupied your mind for a long time. Most of the time, writing an ending can feel anticlimactic or discouraging, whether or not the ending is good, because of the fear and the grief, whether or not you are consciously aware of them. But it is also possible that your ending might not be all you expected, or that it is lacking the emotional impact that it needs to have.
Endings are incredibly important. They are the lasting impression you leave your reader with when they finish your book, and it is the emotional impact of your ending which your entire story supports. Your beginning might be very important, because it is what will determine whether or not your reader will pick up your book and read to the end, but endings are absolutely crucial, because they are what will decide whether or not your readers will buy your other books.
So what makes a good ending?
Some people might argue that a good ending needs to be happy, but I don’t subscribe to that school of thought. Some of the greatest, most acclaimed stories in the history of literature have truly tragic endings, and not all happy endings are good, believable, suited to their story, and emotionally satisfying.
To write a good ending, you must first understand what exactly an ending is. Endings are made up of three parts, which are closely and inextricably linked together: the black moment, the climax, and the dénouement. Before you get to these heavily emotional moments, though, you need to make sure that the reader is well-prepared. First, make sure your subplots are well wrapped up, that everything is falling into place, that you don’t need a significant amount of new information to understand what is happening. Even if they have not been put together yet, the reader should have all the pieces of the puzzle, all the information that will allow him or her to understand the big finish, or the big reveal. You want them to go “aaaaaah!” not “what?”
The black moment is the first part of the ending of your story. It’s the worst moment in your story, the most urgent crisis, the bottom of the barrel. It’s the bit where everything seems lost, where it can seem impossible for your protagonist to pull through. It’s a “do-or-die” moment, one where the character would be tempted to give up. The peak of the conflict is here, and there is usually an impression of a fork in the road, one where the hero must make a decision about which road to take, and only the author knows where each will lead. It’s also often been called the “moment of transformation”, because when the hero hits bottom, they usually find the strength within themselves that they need to see the next part through.
The next part is the most important part of the ending, and of your story; it’s called the climax. As most of you probably know, the word “climax” is employed to mean not only the emotional peak of your story, but it is also commonly employed to mean orgasm. Why do I mention this? Because the climax is exactly that: it is the orgasm of your story. It’s the most exciting, thrilling, emotionally charged and satisfying part of your story. Every single event has led up to this very moment like the slow crescendo of the 1812 overture, and this moment is the big trumpet finish, the final release.
There are a few criteria that must be respected in order to make sure you have the finish your story needs. First of all, your protagonist (or main character, if different) needs to be responsible for the actions that solve the mystery or end the conflict. It shouldn’t be a minor character that we’ve met only once or twice, and it certainly shouldn’t be by some means that come completely unexpected, out of nowhere, as a deus ex machina. There is a reason why the deus ex machina is a no-no in writing (unless you’re doing it consciously for comedic purposes); the reader feels cheated, like he or she wasted their time reading this story, because the story was not what led up to this intense and emotional moment, if it is something random that ends it; if the hero takes all of the story to work up the courage to do this one thing, don’t take it away from them!
Second of all, it should be difficult. The reason why the black moment is called that is because it is the lowest place in the story, the hardest thing the character has ever faced; it can’t be that if the climax is something risk-free or easy to pull off. The hero is taking a huge risk, a crazy leap of faith in doing this. Intense emotion is seldom generated by things that are easy or guaranteed. Triumphs come from true adversity and pain. Especially if your hero fails for whatever reason, for the emotion to be real, this failure has to feel believable, and the reader has to know the protagonist tried their hardest.
The last part of your ending, and your story, is the dénouement. It’s a French word which literally means to untie, but is used in this context to mean tension release; in French, the black moment is known as the “knot”, so this moment is the exact contrary. Where in the black moment, things are heavy and tense and nothing can be certain, in this moment, right after the emotional release, nothing is tense, everything is resolved and certain. If the climax is the orgasm of your story, this is the moment when you curl up, right before you start snoring, and it feels like that to the reader. Have you ever seen people get up and walk out of a theater before the credits start to roll? When the climax is done, the readers can feel that the story is over. So this part must be kept as short as possible. If your story can do without, as is the case for most short stories, then cut it out entirely. For a novel, you might not be able to do that, but do keep it short. Your reader is satisfied, now; this is not a time to introduce new story elements or information, and it is certainly not the time to bring in more conflict. No matter how good it is, it’s more likely to make your reader annoyed than interested. So what does happen in this part?
Well, for one, you verify that your premise has been validated (or not). It is also the place where you show how much your hero has been changed by the story (or, if your hero is dead, how much the world has changed from his death, or how much it hasn’t). This is the place reserved for the fallout of the emotional impact of the climax.
And this is how stories end. Keep in mind, it doesn’t need to be full of action or mystery or dramatic revelations; but it does need to end with a bang, be it only an emotional one. After all, every story is an emotional roller coaster ride for your characters, whether they are light hearted romances or full-blown horror stories. Just make sure to leave your reader feeling something strong when the climax happens, and your story should have the ending it needs.
Next week, if I do not get any more requests, I will be doing the beginning of the classical structure, all the parts of a story which lead up to this three-part ending. I realize I have gone about this a little backwards, but I was asked about endings, and I always answer requests in the order they were put to me!
3 thoughts on “Parting is such sweet sorrow…”
Interesting, as I just finished a book with one of the worst WTH endings ever and am trying to sort out how to review it. My own work may not fit quite into your very good formula as it ends the book (conflict, climax….) but leads into the next one with a hook. Pray it works, as it’s the only ending it can have. Great article!
Very glad you liked it. It’s not meant, of course, as a formula, because there is no such thing, this is simply an explanation of the classical narrative structure as first laid down by Aristotle, which has been improved and refined but stayed basically the same over a few thousand years. They are loose and very basic guidelines which, of course, you can feel free to break as many books do fairly well (especially those which prefer a minimalist or surrealist structure, for example), but as with any rule, understanding it completely is necessary in order to break it efficiently, hence the explaining.
Series are definitely a different matter, but still, in a lot of the series that have made their mark, such as Harry Potter or the Hunger Games, you will find that very basic structure present in every volume. Some series authors, like Kelley Armstrong, for example, prefer to forego the denouement altogether in some of their series, and leave their readers hanging at the precipice right when the climax peaks, and this technique has worked very well for her.
If other types of structure fit your book, then that is what you should go for, of course! I always say that there is no right and wrong, only what works for you and what doesn’t; and although I will definitely write posts on other type of structures, I preferred to start with the classical structure, as this fits the vast majority or stories, and, most importantly, having a basic understanding of it is essential to grasping the other types, since they are mainly variations and deconstructions of it!
All of this being a very roundabout way of saying… if it’s the only ending your book can have, then it’s probably the right ending!
Aristotle, really? I would never have guessed! That’s pretty amazing.
I called it a formula not to be strict and literal; but in order to bend the guidelines and claim poetic license, one has to know the normal layout and general rules of a good book. I like to keep myself reminded in order to keep my work focused.
Going into pre-publication, I’ve noticed I’m a lot more critical of books I read; I view them more with a writer’s eye than a reader’s- which can be incredibly annoying when I’m looking for a simple escape from writing!
But there’s books that could be called well written- with good ideas and good voice- but the lack of basic structure, outline, or story flow ruins many. Therefore, there can be right and wrong, amidst the normal grey zone.
Much needed article. I look forward to the others!