The end. We're not talking about the climax or the resolution here, we're talking about those last few lines. The last words your reader reads. The last sentences an editor sees. We're talking about not needing to say "the end" because it feels right and natural. We're talking about the difference between leaving your readers in state of awe . . . and meh.
First lines are important, because they hook your reader. And because of that, authors obsess over them. But last lines are almost equally important. Like the last notes of a glass of wine"”they leave a strong taste in your mouth. So if your ending falls flat, it can dampen the enjoyment and appreciation of the whole. On the other hand, if the last lines of your book are resonant, they can amplify reader appreciation tenfold.
So how do you find the perfect ending for your story? There is no one answer for every story. The best endings are those that suit the work in question. That said, here are a couple of tips on how to work four of the most common kinds of endings.
JANE: Gee willikers, I'm so glad we got away from that pack of angry red balloons!
DICK: By golly, it was a close call! Lucky for us, we had our Swiss Army knives!
JANE: The way they swarmed all over Ginger and Roger . . . I . . . I can still hear their screams!
DICK: There, there, Jane. Come here. [DICK takes JANE's knife, gently puts both knives down] It's all over now. . .
[DICK puts an arm around JANE, they walk off stage. Ominous music starts again. RED BALLOON drifts after them, its string dragging on the ground. Fade to black]
If you secretly (or not so secretly) want your book to have sequels, then you might want to end on a cliffhanger ending. A trademark of horror stories, the cliffhanger is a way authors can tease the reader with what comes next. It can be a surprise twist, it can introduce the next villain or plotline, or it can simply leave the story open to continuation. A good cliffhanger (like the revelations about loved ones at the end of Daughter of Smoke and Bone) feels natural, just subtly changing the tone of the story at the end and whetting the reader's appetite. A bad cliffhanger is clunky and obvious, and reads as humor at best"”and shilling at worst. But the best cliffhangers (Peeta at the end of Catching Fire anyone? Or Tally at the end of The Uglies?), leave readers yowling for more, furiously deprived and determined to wait at midnight release parties for the next installment.
The Symbolic Ending
The symbolic ending is hands-down my favorite ending. It isn't a twist (though it can be), so much as it is a perfect puzzle piece falling into place that gives everything you've seen before a deeper meaning. My favorite example of this is in The Prestige (spoiler warning), when the screen widens, so you can see the hundreds and hundreds of dead clones in the basement. It's not like you didn't know he was drowning his clones. It's not like you didn't know he would sacrifice anything to achieve his goals. But showing us the rows upon rows of watery coffins . . . there is something about that that just ties it all together.
In order to craft a good symbolic ending to end your book with, you need to have a firm understanding of the symbols and themes of your book. Symbols need to be woven in pieces throughout the story for them to have resonance, which means either planning ahead (outlines FTW!), or going back later and editing them in once you've figured it out.
When editing, I tend to trace the different plotlines, character arcs, and kinds of symbolism out. For practice, in The Prestige, try tracing drowning as it relates to obsession and as it relates to magic throughout the story. There are some really clever parallels with both, and the ending ties it together perfectly.
The Happily Ever After
Classic, wrap-it-up-with-a-bow-to-go, "and they lived happily ever after." It comes in many different guises, but this one-size fits all kind of ending has a certain charm. One of its modern guises is the soap opera-esque "and then everything returns to just the way it was before [almost]." The "almost" is what leaves room for long-term character and plot development. This is popular for lighter books that capitalize on the idea that you can have your adventures and live to tell the tale, like Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos books.
One of the best things about this kind of ending is that readers can pick up any book in the series and enjoy it, instead of being hopelessly lost. And, being as I grew up reading my books in a library in which books one and two seemed perpetually checked out, that's a very good thing.
The Return to the Framing Device
Nothing says LEGENDARY like a framing device. From the various framing devices in several of the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales, to Shakespeare's chorus whose speech frames Romeo and Juliet, to the poignant voice of Morgaine in the Arthurian The Mists of Avalon, framing devices have couched history's most iconic stories in mystery and status. Beyond that, most of us will always have a soft spot for a good framing device, as they take us back to when we were children, listening to stories before bed.
Using a framing device says a couple of things about your story right away. It says it is a story that is important and interesting enough to be retold, despite the likelihood that you already know the ending. It also implies that the story is being told for a reason"”that the story has some kind of message and plenty of symbolism. And it implies an emotionally rich and trying story requiring a measure of distance to fully appreciate it without being overwhelmed.
The best ending is the kind of ending that makes the reader want to relive the experience of the book"”whether it be to explore the symbolism, to reveal the turns of the twist, or to enjoy the grounds of the joke. And that's important, because reflection allows people to claim the memories they made with your book, turning your story into their story.
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