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Monday, July 22, 2013

Great Endings

I just finished a new novel. We hear so much about the importance of great beginnings in the fiction world. Great first sentences, pages, chapters. True enough, a great beginning will hook someone to read your book. But you know what will hook someone to read your next book? You guessed it, a great ending. So as I was wrapping up my book, I stopped to ponder some of the rules of great endings. I'll share mine, and feel free to add your own in the comments.

1) Give the reader what they expect or something better.
This is a general rule of fiction, but it doubly applies to endings. If you give a romance reader anything less than their expected hero and heroine vow their undying love, or leave your mystery reader without solving the crime, you will have one ticked off customer who will not be buying your next book. Reader expectations must rule the day. On the other hand, if you give them exactly what they expect. Ho hum. Boring. Try to find some unexpected twist that will satisfy your reader plus give them a little extra something special.

2) Tie up loose threads.
Any published author knows that you must provide a proper climax and resolution at the end of a novel. However, a good novel will also answer all the reader's questions. It will not leave them wondering, “But what happened to such and such or so and so.” Authors must be careful to go through and make sure they have tied up all their loose ends. Of course the exception would be a series. For a book in a series, the major conflict of the plot should be resolved, but loose threads concerning subplots and minor characters can be left open to be explored in future books.

3) Properly pace the ending.
Endings should neither be too short nor too long. You don't want to rush the reader through the ending or bore them which unnecessary details. I think a general rule of thumb for an average 75-100k word novel is one to two chapters for the climax and one scene to one chapter for the resolution. Again, this could vary by genre. For a novella, perhaps one short scene for each or a longer scene that incorporates both. You never want to have climax, one paragraph of resolution because you're out of words, and done. Whew! Your reader will not feel satisfied. Nor do you want 10% of your book to be happy sappy resolution with no tension. Now for a long epic novel, the ending will also need to be longer. You might need to provide proper closure for a number of characters. And for the ending of a lengthy series, the resolution could stretch quite a few chapters as it provides wrap-up for a significant investment of time by the reader.

4) Provide emotional satisfaction.
You can tell you hit the other elements properly if you provide your reader with an emotionally satisfying ending. For a happy ending you want them to sigh, even cry tears of joy, and then put down the book feeling good about it. If it is a more realistic ending, they should feel like they've taken a worthwhile journey and have deep issues to ponder for many days to come. And if it's a sad ending...well, if it's a sad ending, move to France because we don't like those. Okay, fine, if it's a sad ending it should provide a cathartic experience with plenty of tears and teach a valuable lesson.

5) Utilize circularity.
Readers, chances are you have delighted in this feature in your favorite endings without even knowing the name. And authors, this one will really put your ending over the top. Circularity occurs when you bring back elements from the beginning of the story at the end. Particularly bringing back subject-matter, settings, words and phrasings. In my most recent book, I wrote my ending and concluded the story. Great. Job done. Reader satisfied. But then I went back and rewrote the ending with echoed words and phrases from the opening of the book that juxtaposed the character at the beginning with the character at the end. That's no longer just mission accomplished, it is mission accomplished with flair.

So those are some of the elements that I think make a great ending. How about you? What are some of your favorite endings and what makes them stand out?

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