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Deliver the Payoff

April 6, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified April 6, 2011

Wow. You ever read a book, a great book, only to get to the end and find it falls apart?

I don’t encounter this often, but when I do, I’m thoroughly disappointed. Sometimes more than disappointed.

I’m ticked off.

This happened to me not long ago. I was enjoying the book, looking for the payoff, and then, not a bam. Not a wow. Just nothing. An ending of underwhelming proportion.

No payoff. No climax. No sparks or excitement or fireworks. No final race toward the big moment.

No big moment at all.

The book was a mystery, but a mystery literally without a climax. What kind of mystery has no climax, no high point? No moment the story has been building toward?

An ending that doesn’t pay off for the reader, that doesn’t meet genre expectation or satisfy reader anticipation, is a problem ending.

Does this mean an ending must be predictable? Of course not. But it does need to be inevitable. And logical. And it needs to satisfy the reader on at least one level and preferably several.

How do endings satisfy?

In terms of basics, the ending must rise out of the story opening; it must answer the question posed at the beginning. It must resolve the protagonist’s dilemma. The ending doesn’t have to be a positive resolution, but it must provide an answer.

No is an answer. Failure is an answer. Death is an unequivocal answer.

A story that poses, in the opening, a question about a man’s purpose in life and then delves into his spirit and soul for 300 pages cannot be resolved by the man discovering who stole his neighbor’s dog.

A romance, in the modern sense of romance novels, cannot end with the couple hating one another and uttering death threats.

A suspense thriller cannot end without the source of the suspense—person or situation—being identified and neutralized or being identified and succeeding in spite of the protagonist. (Yes, sometimes the bad guys win.)

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I remember only three books that disappointed me at the very end and only at the end. But I remember each quite vividly.

One was the mystery without a climax. And not only was there no climax, but the identity of the murderer and the motive for the murder did not satisfy. The murderer was introduced late in the story and given almost no attention. And the motive for the murder carried no weight; it meant nothing to the story. So little, in fact, that it seemed tacked on, an afterthought. No threads relating to the motive had been pulled through the narrative.

Another story that didn’t satisfy was a romance in which the author killed off the heroine in the final chapter. No, she hadn’t been sick. No, there was no foreshadowing. The heroine was simply killed off. In the last chapter. Of a contemporary romance.

I never read that author again.

The third book that disappointed me with its ending was one where one of the leads—who’d appeared in all the other books of the series—was killed off. I also never read this author again. I couldn’t. I couldn’t trust that he would play fair. I would always be looking for the sucker punch rather than allowing myself to get lost in the fiction.

Am I saying that a writer can’t kill off a character? Not at all. Kill away if doing so fits the story and advances the plot. Keep in mind, however, that story endings must be inevitable and logical and fit what has come before. A book that takes a left turn (or spirals out of control) in the final pages—solely to set up the next book in a series—has not fulfilled its own premise. And its author has broken faith with readers.

You don’t want to turn off your readers. You do want to entertain. You want to surprise the reader within the boundaries of the contract that writers and readers share.

Each book must stand on its own. If you can complete one story and introduce the following story at the same time, go for it. But the key here is completing the first story. Don’t cheat the reader out of the ending that completes that first story. Finish what you start. Come to a resolution. Tie up story threads.

Answer the questions.

Fulfill your promises.

Are there methods to ensure that readers get that fulfilling ending so that instead of being disappointed, they are satisfied by the story’s end? Of course. The writer can direct the ending to make sure it brings story elements to a true conclusion, not merely a stopping point.

Considerations for story endings

~  Stay true to genre.
If you begin with a mystery story, write the ending to a mystery and not the ending of a western. This means telling whodunit and how and why.

You can’t please every possible reader simply by mixing genres. You actually turn off readers when you promise one genre but include elements of all other genres.

Stick to one genre.

~  Stay true to genre expectations.
Every genre has accepted practices and elements, practices that readers expect to find, elements that appeal to readers’ tastes.

Readers pick up genre books because they want to find these elements. If you don’t include them, the reader may be disappointed. If you violate expectations, you may turn off readers.

Honor genre expectations.

Mystery—An ending must arise from the clues provided. You can’t hold out on the mystery reader; they need to be able to solve the mystery from the clues you’ve included. The killer or perpetrator cannot be introduced in the next-to-last chapter. You can’t hide clues, only to reveal them at the last moment.

Romance requires a happily-ever-after.

A literary novel heavy on character development will need character growth or will need to show a character receiving revelation.

These are only a few examples. Each genre has expectations that need attention at story’s end.

Remember characters.
Make sure the ending fits the person your lead character has become while not ignoring the person she was to start with. Write an ending that fits your protagonist. Give an ending to your antagonist that’s appropriate for her as well.

Give your characters a fitting send-off.

Maintain tone and style.
Don’t adapt a different style of presentation at the end. For example, don’t suddenly shift to a teaching or preaching style of wording to hammer home your theme. Don’t switch to a humorous voice in the final pages if you’ve not used that voice in the rest of the story.

Maintain consistency.

Provide sufficient strength and balance.
An ending must be able to support the weight of a story. It cannot be too short, but must be sufficient to account for the other story elements. It cannot be weak, but must instead be strong enough to contain resolutions to all major plots and problems.

The ending doesn’t have to answer every question, but it should address the vital ones, especially those that sent the protagonist on his adventure or trek or quest.

The reader has invested a number of hours in your fiction. Give him something worth his while. Give him a meaty conclusion.

Don’t skimp on your ending.

Remember a resolution.
This is one of the very basics of storytelling, but keep in mind that you actually have to finish the story, the same story you introduced to the reader at the book’s opening.

Events at the story’s end must be planned as a natural outgrowth of every event and thought and piece of dialogue that has come before. Endings don’t happen effortlessly; they must be planned. Loose ends must be tightened. Story elements must be given a resolution.

Write a true end to your story.

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Readers expect satisfaction. They certainly expect main characters to live through the book; that expectation is in the author-reader contract.

Yet, could you kill a main character at story’s end? You know it’s been done. I found times when it wasn’t done well, when doing so didn’t satisfy the rest of the story. But it could be done in a way that brings closure, that truly ends a story.

You can end a story in almost any way, as long as the ending is inevitable, satisfying, and logical. Yet, keep in mind the reader’s expectations, expectations for stories in general and your story in particular. Never forget that real people will be reading your work. Yours is not likely the first novel they’ve read, nor the first of the genre. They don’t read in a vacuum.

They bring experiences with them, both from life and from reading other books.

And if you challenge them, offer twists to their expectations while at the same time satisfying them, you’ve likely gained yourself new readers.

If you give your story an ending that could happen no other way, that satisfies the story elements that have come before, your readers aren’t likely to remember you in a negative light, as a writer who betrays their expectations. They won’t be likely, more than 20 years later, to still remember the story that turned them away from your writing forever, the story that became an example in an article on what not to do in a story’s ending.

Be a writer who delivers on the promise you made at your story’s opening. Write the ending that satisfies story needs and reader expectations.

Deliver the payoff.

Keep the reader.

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Tags:     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

11 Responses to “Deliver the Payoff”

  1. Megs says:

    The most frustrating book I ever read was absolutely WONDERFUL, until the end. The Apothecary’s Daughter. And it took me the longest time to figure out what was wrong with it. The climactic moment resolved the wrong storyline, the one that set up as having no personal stakes in the main character’s happy future. Then, all the things that were personal were resolved without a climactic moment! Resolved well, but with no emotional punch.

    Needless to say, the climactic moment should RELATE to the main plot, not a subplot your main character doesn’t care about.

  2. Mary says:

    If you begin with a mystery story, write the ending to a mystery and not the ending of a western.

    Alternatively, if you write the ending of western, go back and turn it into a western. Just because the reader starts at the beginning doesn’t mean you have to.

  3. Lesann says:

    I just had a similar experience. A trio of novels where the author killed off the protagonist on the final page of the third book. I was stunned because it did not satisfy. It struck me as lazy. I think the author had dug his character into such a deep story hole it was easier to kill him off than to extricate him. I was so looking forward to the resolution.

  4. Megs, you said it well with this . . . the climactic moment should RELATE to the main plot, not a subplot your main character doesn’t care about. Stories do need that climax, and it needs to be the right one.

  5. Good advice, Mary. We can change those manuscripts at any time and in any way. If you’re happy with the ending, there’s no reason not to rework the story into something that fits the ending you’ve created.

    A cohesive story from opening page to last word makes a much more rewarding experience for our readers.

  6. Lesann, I wonder what the author had in mind and I wonder if he knows he disappointed his readers. Did you consider writing to him, asking him about the book’s end? Didn’t Conan Doyle run into the same problem when he killed off Sherlock Holmes?

    I’ll mention again that it’s not so much the death of a main character that bothers me but the manner in which it’s done. An end that doesn’t satisfy the setup is disappointing. It leaves me feeling hollow and unfulfilled.

    I’ve found that most writers do fulfill the promises of their stories and meet reader expectations. If they didn’t, we’d have as many disappointing books as we have disappointing movies.

    And that would be a tragedy.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom in this blog. I’ve just given my first novel (‘Ethan King’) to some “beta readers” and so am fast approaching the time when I will attempt to get my story published. Over the past couple of months your blog has been an inspiration and got me thinking about several salient matters whilst I was working on the most recent redraft.

    Keep up the great work; you’re an invaluable source — an island of light in the darkness of the world of the aspiring novelist.

  8. Martin, thank you so very much for your kind words. I’m truly touched by your sentiments. I’m glad you found useful tips for your writing, and of course I wish you success with not only your first novel, but all those that will follow.

  9. Martin, links are always welcome. I’d be honored.

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