Sunday, January 6, 2013

Musings on Endings

Last week, Leti Del Mar wrote a thoughtful guest post on how to create excitement for the reader with a good opening sentence. She gave several wonderful suggestions.

For me, it is equally challenging to write a powerful, satisfying ending. I have always struggled with this.

In traditional fiction (I'm thinking of the Victorians here) an author found her ending by bringing the lovers together. Even in dark novels like Bleak House the resolution always included young lovers finding happiness by marrying each other. The resolution also included a bad end for the villains of the piece.

Starting in the twentieth century writers came to prefer ambiguous endings, unresolved endings, endings that more fully reflect the ambiguity of life. A marriage is not always a happy ending. Sometimes it's hard to tell the villains from the heroes.

Most difficult of all, sometimes, is to figure out what the ending should be. At least for me. Because life does not have a discernible plot.

My novels and short stories are character-driven. Instead of creating a plot and placing my characters within it, I create characters whose personalities and circumstances create the plot. Things happen because of who they are, where they are in life,  and what they want, fear, love, hate.

As a result, I don't always know when the story is over.

I know this sounds strange. But when I set my characters in motion, they don't always behave in neat, tidy ways that result in neat, tidy endings. And often, they want to continue on and on behaving according to their natures. Sometimes I used to feel like the mean parent who comes into a room where the children are out of control and I had to yell at them:

"Enough! Stop! You're finished! Go to your rooms!"

Over the years, I've come up with a few methods to avoid this sense of having to stop the proceedings artificially. I hope they are helpful to any of you who struggle with endings.

  • Create a conflict your main characters have to resolve. This automatically creates a need for the characters to bring about a resolution. And once they achieve the resolution, the story wants to be over.
Example Conflicts: an illness, a broken heart, loss of money/position, a guilty past

  • Be sure every character in your story belongs there. It's tempting to go off on tangents--especially in a novel--but stick to your main thrust. Your minor characters must serve the main conflict by doing at least one of the following:
    • helping to create the problem
    • helping us understand the problem
    • making the problem worse
    • improving the protagonist's situation

  • Let the action flow naturally out the conflict. If your story sticks to its business, you won't go off in irrelevant  directions. If, for example, your character is a big game hunter, but his conflict has to do with his marriage, you won't send him off to Africa where he runs into ivory smugglers who arouse his moral outrage so that he hunts them to their death.

If this happens, your side plot has served the main story and possibly enriched it.

  • Make sure your end point has been arrived at logically. The main character may be left better off or worse off, but the final resolution must be the inevitable result of a character with certain, clearly-defined traits interacting with circumstances that challenge her in specific, clearly-defined ways.
If you follow these suggestions, you may find, as I have, that your endings write themselves because they are the inevitable outcomes of the scenarios you have created.



  1. sounds like a perfect diagram for an exciting novel to me.

  2. Good post with some great ideas! I find writing an ending even more difficult than its beginning.