Novel Endings: What is your best advice on how to write the ending of a novel?
With Deborah Kerbel, Ben Stephenson, Lilian Nattel, Dave Hugelschaffer, Kyo Maclear, Lauren B. Davis, Benjamin Wood, Tamara Faith Berger and Jeffrey Round.
As Fiction Craft continues its long, contemplative gaze at the process of writing fiction, this month I asked nine novelists for their advice on writing the end of a novel.
It took me a while to figure out how to write the ending of my novel Snakes & Ladders. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what was going to happen (I did), nor that the writing wouldn’t flow (it would). The problem was that in relation to the struggles presented in writing the beginning and — especially — the middle of the book, writing the ending just seemed too damned easy. There are hundreds if not thousands of advice books on writing. Years ago when I was learning to write, I read or at least dipped into dozens of those books looking for instruction and help. Sometimes I needed concrete advice, such as how to structure narrative drive. Other times, I needed sweeping theory (hello John Gardner). And sometimes I just needed simple truisms to affirm I was on track (“The first draft of anything is shit,” says Papa.) But in none of those books did I ever find advice on how to write the end of a novel. What I learned in writing Snakes & Ladders was that writing the end of the novel is like a controlled fall. If all of your real work has been done, the pieces should all be in place like dominoes and all you need to do as you approach the final act of the story is tip the first one and let them fall — one event after the next — onto the page. That, at least, is my theory based on having written one novel. The experience, I suspect, may be vastly different for other writers, and it may be vastly different for me when I write future books. But the advice I have now is, don’t be surprised if it is easier than you think it is. And most importantly, don’t resist the simplicity of it by trying try to make the ending more complex than it needs to be. You can always go back and edit later, but much of what you set up earlier in the book -- all the exposition, all the foreshadowing, all the careful language, all the character delineation, all the plotting, all the conflict and relationships -- all of that and more has been done, and at the end the writer should let the story come to its natural conclusion, quickly.
Now let’s see what some other writers have to say about writing the end of a novel.
Deborah Kerbel is the author of the novels Under the Moon, Lure, Girl on the Other Side and Mackenzie, Lost and Found. She lives in Toronto, ON.
Go with your gut. - I’m the kind of writer who plots the outline of a novel before I start writing. However, with endings, I almost always throw the outline aside and fly by the seat of my pants. Endings are my favourite part of the writing process, as there’s a certain kind of magic that takes place when you reach the final pages of a novel. By this point, I know my characters inside and out, I’m riding on the momentum of the story’s climax and racing toward the finish line with a kind of end-of-the-marathon rush of adrenaline. This is the point where you let the outline fall away and allow your instincts to take over.
Respect your reader. - Every novel I set out to write begins as ‘my’ story. But at a certain point in the process, I become aware of the novel’s future readers and an imaginary contract starts to take shape between us. Inevitably, by the time I’m ready to write the ending, it’s become ‘our’ story. And, after leading these future readers through the emotional journey of the narrative, I’m acutely aware that there’ll be a debt to pay when we reach the finish line. The ending is my settling of accounts, our final handshake, and (sometimes) tearful goodbye. I’m not a big ‘happy ever after’ enthusiast, but if I haven’t tied up all the plot threads by the ending, I know I’m not living up to my part of the contract.
Honour your characters. - No, they don’t need to be happy, but endings should offer some form of satisfactory resolution for the main characters along with a smattering of hope for their unwritten futures. In a way, endings are an author’s eulogy to their characters. As their creator, my goal is to send them into the literary afterlife with a strong enough emotional chord to keep their story resonating with readers long after the book is closed.
Ben Stephenson is the author of the novel A Matter of Life and Death or Something. He lives in Halifax, NS.
I’m a bad person to ask because a) I never read endings because I can never get through books, and b) I’ve only written one novel and one ending. I guess I knew where the story had to go the whole time, and I had written that ending even at the first draft stage, although it got edited a million times. So I was always aiming at that ending – I hope that doesn’t offend anyone who likes the organic process of a story like, blooming, or whatever. I sort of imposed my will on it, but at the same time I think my idea of what had to happen was naturally part of the story idea all along. It just seemed so obvious. I tried to make it seem really obvious but hopefully not guessable. I think it has something to do with recognizing how crucial the ending scene is, but not letting that come out too much in the actual writing of it. It has to read like “Oh my gosh… of course! It couldn’t have ended any other way.” Probably you also just get lucky. I see everything I’ve ever written as a gift that fell out of the sky. Or at least, I try to cut stuff that doesn’t have that particular fallen-from-the-sky aura about it – the bruises from impact or whatever. And you have to give the reader what they deserve. Don’t cheat them! Don’t teach them something. I don’t know; I don’t know anything. I hope if I write another book it will have an ending, because I could foresee it being incredibly painful if it didn’t.
Lilian Nattel is the author of the novels Web of Angels, The Singing Fire and The River Midnight. She lives in Toronto, ON.
Reading a novel is an experience of more than reading: new brain research shows that vivid language activates the same areas in the brain as would be engaged in actually living the story, where the brain processes sounds and smells, for example. Interestingly that doesn’t happen with pedestrian description or with clichés. A good ending makes sense of that experience.
While writing, I’m working toward the end, making it feel logical, inevitable and right. I’ve read otherwise wonderful books that have a happy (but unbelievable) ending tacked on and that spoils the book for me. The ending should be a possibility that is worked in throughout the novel, while still leaving doubt in the reader’s mind up to the last minute. That turns pages.
From a writing process perspective, the ending can radically affect the storyline. With my first novel the ending was obvious from the first draft. With my second, I kept getting stuck 2/3 of the way into each draft until I realized that I’d already arrived, essentially, at the end. And while I was working on Web of Angels, I wrestled with seemingly intractable problems, until I realized that I had the wrong ending. That turned on the lights! It gave me a new approach to every aspect of the story that was problematic and resolved it in one go—except of course for the elbow grease (or butt glue) of crafting it scene by scene.
The best endings hearken back to the beginning, encapsulating the heart of the story once more, this time with the wisdom attained through reading it.
Dave Hugelschaffer is the author of the novels Whiskey Creek, One Careless Moment and Day Into Night. He live near Edson, AB.
Endings, hmm – where to begin? To discuss how to end a novel I really do need to start at the beginning. Someone much wiser than I once said ‘Start with the end in mind.’ For me this starts with plot, perhaps because I write a mystery series. Why is this thing in my head a story? What’s the engine?
Integral to the plot, because stories are about people, is motive. Motive is the grand thread that connects us all, makes characters believable, human, because we all have motives (often more than one at any time) and we can empathize with a character’s motive. Okay, so we’ve got a guy that wants something really badly. If he’s the good guy in the story it’s solving a crime, proving his innocence, rescuing someone. If he’s the bad guy he’s ready to kill for it, blackmail, steal, maim. You get my drift. How does he do it? Who does it affect? What goes wrong to complicate and frustrate him? The more we think about it, the more we rub our hands with glee, plotting.
Once I have a general plot in mind, and I create basic characters (which I’ll get to know much better as the story develops), I need a place to start the story, an event to pin down the narrative. Then I roll up my proverbial sleeves and get to work. This is the fun part where you drift into your own world; your wife tells you things you later claim with a straight face you never heard; the kids fight and you don’t care; the dog tears hunks out of the couch and you don’t notice. Characters start to do things on their own and you can’t wait to see what they do next. Seems bizarre but it’s true. It’s you, of course, but there’s something going on in there that can’t quite be defined.
By now you’re wondering if this is still about endings. Patience; I’m getting there. Once you have all that stuff on the go, boiling away, you understand your story better. The vague idea of how to end the story begins to firm up a bit. You know there are a few really key things that need to happen along the way, plot points, and these serve as landmarks as your story swerves and bends, following the nuances of character and situation. Regardless of the swerves you keep going in the general direction of your landmark and as you approach it becomes clearer and the next landmark appears on the horizon. The last landmark is, you guessed it, the ending. It was so tiny and far away when you started that it was almost hypothetical but it gained form and clarity as you approached. You have arrived, all conflicts and plot threads resolved.
A bit of a winding explanation—like a novel.
Kyo Maclear is the author of the novels Stray Love and The Letter Opener, as well as the children’s books Virginia Wolf and Spork. She lives in Toronto, ON.
It’s probably best to end on some dramatically cathartic and conclusive note: the villain taken away in handcuffs, the couple reunited, the wetlands saved, etc. But I don’t roll that way. And, anyway, I think it depends on the particular piece of fiction. A heavily plotted novel demands a heavily plotted ending. A less plotted narrative has more freedom—which includes the freedom to acknowledge that stories, like life, don’t really end. (It would be weird if a book by Dan Brown petered off with a Chekhovian finale: "The rain beat against the windows all night long.")
I personally like an ending that combines a sense of awe and ordinariness and conveys a degree of messy "truthiness.” But I think the problem is that while writers may like ambiguity, most readers like a bit more closure. So, ultimately, for me, it’s about striking a balance between closure and non-closure.
Given that there are no generic solutions, here are a few fun ways to end a story:
End mid-sentence. (The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence.)
End on a question. (The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss.)
End on an exclamation. (Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. )
End the same way you started. (Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.)
That’s it. The end!
Lauren B. Davis is the author of numerous books of fiction including the novels Our Daily Bread, The Radiant City and The Stubborn Season. She lives in Princeton, NJ.
First, I highly recommend it – writing through to the end, that is. You’d be amazed how many people start novels but never finish them, getting forever trapped in Rewrite Land. Get that first draft out, I say. Write 500-1,000 words a day until you have a beginning, middle and end. You can -- and should -- edit later. (Never confuse a first draft with a finished manuscript!) But until you have a firm structure on which to build, you run the risk of starting dozens of projects and never finishing them.
For me, endings are both fluid and solid, by which I mean, by the time I’ve written perhaps a hundred pages, an ending presents itself. A scene or an image appears, floating up from my sub-conscious. Only then do I know what I’m arcing toward and confident I have a viable novel. That one scene or image sums up the theme of my work. Getting a glimpse of the ending is like getting a glimpse of land after many weeks adrift at sea. I start paddling for all I’m worth. Now, by the time I actually arrive at the ending the scene may have changed a great deal, different characters, different dialogue, different setting, etc. What NEVER changes is the mood, the tone and the emotional resonance. The mood is solid.
Still, you have to be willing to hold your ending loosely. If you try and jam a predetermined ending onto a novel, without accepting that characters change over the writing process, you are likely to end up with an ending that feels forced and artificial. That’s the problem with having too firm an outline. You need to allow the story and the characters to grow as you write. An outline can be a kind of map, but I suggest drawing it in pencil. If mid-way through the novel you realize there’s a tangential shift, be open to redrawing the map. Always be willing to sacrifice a preset idea to what is true and right for your characters. The particulars of the ending are fluid.
In other words, my experience has been that during the early stages of writing an ending will present itself; aim for that, but let the creative winds set your final course.
Readers have told me they crave endings containing a little hope for the characters they’ve come to love. I like that. Another said she looks for a couple of lines so good she wants to copy them and keep them her wallet. Beautiful language counts.
Finally, I find it’s useful to look carefully at the last two or three paragraphs of a novel – one can often delete them entirely and be left with a more subtle, powerful ending.
Benjamin Wood is the author of the novel The Bellwether Revivals. He lives in London, UK.
I think it’s important to have an understanding of how the novel will end before I start writing it. That’s not to say I can envision the precise dimensions of the closing scene, action by action, or conceive every line of dialogue in advance. It’s more that I hold some vague perception of the dramatic moment the plot is building towards, and how I intend to leave the reader feeling. It need only be an instinct for a scene—dim, blurry, oblique—but I can’t begin without it, or the novel will set off in the wrong direction and never recover. Anything on a grand scale requires a focal point or it will seem too vast and unconquerable. I need to put a buoy in the ocean before I set out, even if it drifts away and changes colour as I approach it; even it’s a different object when I arrive.
It’s vital for an ending to be plausible. Avoid contrivance: Dan, the tennis pro, who borrowed the female protagonist’s racquet in chapter one, should not return as her convenient love interest in the final scene, just to give the story a happy twist. Or deus ex machina: a sudden electrical fire should not destroy the murderer’s handwritten confession before the police can reach his house.
Try to end on an image or a descriptive sentence that carries thematic resonance (one of my favourite examples of this is the final line of Tobias Wolff’s Old School.) By the ending, all the windows of your plot should be boarded up, with enough space between the planks for light to enter and escape.
Tamara Faith Berger is the author Maidenhead, The Way of the Whore and Come Lie With Me. She live in Toronto, ON.
I don’t want to be sobbing at the end of a book; I want to be elsewhere. I think that crafting this kind of open-ended conclusion involves a lot of scrapping and rewriting and trust. Writing a conclusion, then, is also about stumbling on a conclusion. I dislike the theory that a conclusion must wrap everything up that has gone before.
In the book that I recently finished writing, Maidenhead, I had one conclusion which felt right for a number of years. It seemed right in that it reflected back on the story I’d just told. However, luckily, there was an eleventh hour rewrite that scrapped this ‘meaningful’ conclusion and turned it into what it should’ve been all along: anticipatory. My new ending eclipsed my old ending in its attempt at risky freedom. For a conclusion, I think that risk should beat meaning. In Notice, a dark and wild book by Heather Lewis, the main character simply goes to bed in the last scene to “get some actual sleep that might start [her] mending.” But she knows that there is blackness – a leviathan – behind this good sleep that is “resting, biding its time.” Lewis manages a kind of creepiness here; an ending that is the anticipation of another end.
I said that I didn’t want to be sobbing at the end of a book, but maybe that’s not true. I do want to be under the spell of an ending. But I want it to be like a floor opening up. How to get this kind of witchy and expansive tone in a conclusion? Perhaps it is only by being open to the wrong ending that the right ending shows up in a writer’s plan. That sounds random, maybe, but I think we have to delude ourselves a bit that we have a good ending in order to get a better one. Writing an effective conclusion, then, is one that likely happens after the end has been written and destroyed. I think one thing to think about is an utter lack of neatness; I’d choose instead an end with things falling or floating or splitting in half.
Jeffrey Round is the author of numerous works of fiction, including the novels Lake On the Mountain, Vanished in Vallarta, The Honey Locust and Death in Key West. He lives in Toronto, ON
Congratulations. You’ve made it to the end of your story. Or, as Robert Browning put it, “The last … for which the first was made.” Instinct may have inspired the start of your journey, but it’s craft that will guide you home.
It doesn’t matter what kind of book you’re writing or what genre you’re working in: endings need to dazzle, not fizzle. They need to be memorable and leave the reader amazed and wondering what else you’ve written.
This is no time to be fearful. My advice at this point is to be bold and to dig as deeply into the material as you can. The beginning was only a hint of what was to come. The ending will show how well you lived up to your part of the bargain. See if you can surprise yourself as well as your readers.
When you’re done, go back to your beginning. Ask yourself honestly what you set out to explore. A good beginning contains the seeds of all that the ending bears. Did you plant roses only to find daisies and beets growing in your garden? If so, then let’s hope there’s still a market for Dadaist literature.
Otherwise, roses should beget roses, and plenty of thorns, of course. That’s the fun of it.
In Romeo and Juliet, the opening Chorus speaks of “star-crossed lovers,” setting our teeth on edge for the rest of the story. Hamlet starts with a ghost and the prediction that, “This bodes some strange eruption to our state.” Indeed, it does.
How it will happen is anybody’s guess, of course. Hamlet ends with most of the court dead (Be bold!), while Romeo and Juliet famously ends up in the tomb (Dig deep!) Alack and alas! Yet we knew from the beginning it would be a messy affair on both counts.
Heraclitus said, “Character is destiny.” Where your protagonist ends up, physically and emotionally, should be the result of everything he or she has been fighting for, or against, throughout your story. Make it worthwhile. Make it spectacular. Make it big.
If you can take your reader exactly where you said you were going to take us, and still surprise us by how we got there, then you’ve succeeded. The only wrong choice would be for the author to hold back.
So take us to the edge and push us over. It’s why we came on the journey, after all. Unlike Hamlet, Romeo, and Juliet, however, we’ll pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off for another journey, another day. Don’t worry—we’ll be fine so long as you don’t bore us or leave us feeling cheated at where we’ve ended up.
Read past editions of Fiction Craft:
March 2012: What methods do you use to get the story moving forward again when the writing stalls?
February 2012: How do you approach the use of conflict in storytelling?
November 2011: How do you capture character voice in dialogue?
Shaun Smith is the author of the YA novel Snakes & Ladders and the e-book Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food & Chefs, which is forthcoming in print from Tightrope Books. He has published journalism with CBC.ca, Quill & Quire, Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail and numerous other outlets. His book blog "Shaun Smith's Sunday Sundries" appears each Sunday (no kidding!) on Open Book Toronto.
Follow Shaun on Twitter.