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A Novel Ending

January 19, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 13, 2013

(I wrote this article in 2009 and posted it at A Novel Edit. I’ve posted it here to make it easily accessible to readers of The Editor’s Blog.)

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As a writer, a novelist, what do you owe your reader?

A fast read?  A world of escape?  Adventure or thrills or beauty he can’t experience at home?

Do you guarantee 300 flawless pages with characters who overcome odds or solve the mystery or promise to love forever?

Maybe your stories teach a lesson, open eyes, spark conversations over late-night coffees or breakfast-table cereal.

No matter where you take the reader, what you drag him through or under or around, you must see that he’s satisfied.  Ensure that at the moment he reads the final page, he feels the satisfaction that yes, this story could only end this way.

When the hero limps home with a prize many times more valuable than the one he sought, when the amateur sleuth cracks the case that stumped professionals, when love succeeds where animosity failed, then the reader feels the world is back in balance. The ride is over. And it’s been a rewarding one.

You want him to feel his foray into your fictional world was worth every minute that he spent with your characters.  That it was worth passing up every other endeavor he missed or put off in order to read your book.

But a satisfying ending is not easy to write.  You must answer major plot questions without rehashing every event.  You must remember to pull Aunt Edna off the roof where you stashed her when the terrorists took over her home.  You must have given your readers something to love in both hero and heroine so that when you tell them they’ve fallen in love for life, the readers believe, can actually feel the love.

Your mysteries must not have been so simple they could be solved by page twenty.  Your leads must face conflict and emerge victorious, even if they’re beat up by the time they reach the end.

Even if your story doesn’t include a happily-ever-after, is the end still inevitable?  Did you plan each step so the reader feels that sense of certainty when he reads the final pages?

Authors don’t owe their readers a happy ending (unless it’s an expectation of the genre).  They don’t owe annihilation of all evil.  They don’t owe restoration for every injustice faced by their characters.  But they do owe their readers satisfaction, a completion of the contract entered into when the reader laid out money and/or time to live in the writer’s world for a couple of hours.  It is justice, of a kind.  Fair dealing between writer and reader.  And if it’s done well, this completion of the author/reader contract, the writer has reason to hope the reader will both recommend the novel and look for more from the same author.

Authors owe their readers a good read.  A satisfying ending is one way to ensure that good read.  A reader will forgive, maybe forget, a saggy middle if the end sings.  But there’s no remedy for a bad ending.  The bad taste remains in the reader’s mouth with nothing good to wash it away, except maybe a different novel with a more satisfying ending. But what writer wants to send his readers from his worlds to those of another writer?

Please your readers. Pay them back for their investment in your book.  And invite them into your next story by giving them the expectation that each novel will not only take them on an adventure, but return them to their world fulfilled and rewarded for having lost themselves in yours.

Checklist for reader satisfaction:

  • Is the end inevitable? (Or would other endings make more sense?)
  • Was the end hard won? (Or did the hero fall into his triumphs?)
  • Does it make sense by every measure? (Or were vital steps glossed over?)
  • Is the end long enough—deep enough—for the length and breadth of the novel?  (Or does a 400-page novel get a two-paragraph resolution?)
  • Are major plot points addressed without being overemphasized?  (Or does the ending drag?)
  • Are burning questions answered? (Or are they relegated to nothing status by the end?)

To set up the satisfying ending, be sure

  • The main character is someone the reader identifies with
  • Conflict and tension are present and dynamic
  • Reader emotions are engaged
  • Pace varies
  • Action is seen, not only talked about
  • The story is layered, so the reader must be satisfied by several outcomes on several levels
  • The ending grows out of earlier events

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