This blog was featured on 01/23/2020
The End—Knowing When to Stop
Written by
Diana Y. Paul
January 2020
Written by
Diana Y. Paul
January 2020

The ending of a book often impacts the overall impression: an unsatisfying ending can leave a reader with an undesirable feeling about a book that might otherwise have gotten a rave review from them. Let’s look at the significance of a novel’s end.

“I loved that story. I hoped it would never end.” I’ve felt that way—lingering and digesting the last few sentences, wishing the novel would continue. John Irving claims he writes his last sentence first. That’s hard for me to even imagine!

I begin to think about the ending as soon as the conflict peaks. That’s not to say that I’ve figured out all the plot points completely. The moment my characters’ meanderings cease to fascinate – within a cohesive, forward-moving plot – that's the moment I no longer have a compelling story. The plot and characters have to dance together to a crisis, or climax. I’ve now taken my readers to the scene that is the most dramatic and intense. It’s time to take a deep breath and end the story in the best way possible. Otherwise, why should any reader want to read to the last page?

Get Your Reader on the Edge of Their Seat

Readers need to be so involved and engrossed in your story that they cannot go to bed – not even go to the bathroom! – until they know how it all ends. When the story’s dramatic questions have all been addressed, it’s time to start wrapping up. Knowing when to stop is key because if you prolong the ending for more than a chapter or two, your story will quickly become flat and boring.

If a writer has done his or her job well throughout the first three-quarters of the novel, then the protagonist has been developed in a logical manner and the ending has already been hinted at. No new characters nor sudden turn of events should appear in the last two chapters to jar the reader and make the ending less plausible.

Finding the Right Ending for Your Story

As a writer, I have to ask myself: Will my protagonist achieve what she needs after the crisis or climax occurs? If so, it’s a happy ending. If not, it’s an unhappy one, or perhaps a partial, more ambiguous closing, in which case it's both happy and sad. In my first novel, Things Unsaid, the main character was successful only in part of her mission, giving the book a mixed or ambiguous ending.

I love ambiguous endings, but the ending is the most difficult part of the writer’s journey for me. I have to imagine what will satisfy my readers and satisfy me at the same time. I left the ending of my debut novel Things Unsaid on an ambiguous note since I wanted the freedom to write about the main characters again someday. Will the characters live on after the final page is turned? I like to think so.  If I have succeeded in presenting vivid and three-dimensional characters, I hope the reader will go on to wonder what would happen to them in the future. Readers should feel that every question raised was acknowledged, if not completely answered.

And one thing about happy endings: you don’t have to have one. Sometimes a happy ending just doesn’t make sense. But, there should be at least some awareness or realization of what life will be like in the end.  (Think Orwell’s 1984: the change is undesirable and dystopian, but the farm residents are at least aware of it. That is the only hint of positivity.)

Bringing Everything Full Circle

When I reach the ending of a novel as a reader or a writer, I like to go back to the very beginning of the story – I always do this. Is that opening sentence an echo of the last? [What is frequently called “bookending.”] Are the earlier elements a guide to indicate that the ending is plausible? The ending can be unexpected, but it has to make sense in the world the author has created and be appropriate for the protagonist.

Experiment with multiple endings. There may be more than one that suits the story: write and rewrite, remembering the beginning hook and what you thought the initial ending would be. In the case of Things Unsaid, every time I wrote a new draft and rudimentary outline, the ending changed as the personality of the protagonist changed, developing in parallel. The ending affected the beginning of the story which then had to be rewritten. When I had run out of believable options, I knew I had come to the end and needed to stop.

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  • Michelle Gwynn Jones

    I pretty much know the ending the moment I start writing the story. I have been known to rewrite the ending as many times as I rewrite the first chapter - which is a lot.