Either the writer chooses a dénouement that doesn’t fit with the personalities or plot points introduced, or the writer so inadequately resolves the circumstances and themes explored that the reader feels cheated.
In essence, a disappointing ending does a disservice to the quality and uniqueness of the writing that precedes it. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending – or a completely resolved ending – but it does need to make sense with everything that came before it. Otherwise, it’s like singing on pitch throughout an aria, but then ending on a false note.
Why are endings hard to write? Because satisfying endings are hard to come by in real life too. If you’ve ever loved or wanted something, you know this. The Smiths know it. Even the fat squirrel running across my back fence knows it. And for many, reading books is a way of getting the happy endings they are not able to achieve in real life. There is a whole swathe of writing published specifically for this reason – think Harlequin Romances and chick lit.
However, if a happy ending is not the express goal of your fiction writing, the ending can be a little tricky. And for those of us that don’t know the ending, that are simply starting with a voice or a situation, it gets trickier still.
- Don’t opt for a sad or unresolved ending because you want to be “different”. Not wanting to have a Hollywood-style ending should be about more realistically capturing the world, and not wanting to be perceived as an alternative writer. The ending should first and foremost suit the story — and not your personal branding campaign.
- If you’re going to pull a “final punch” à la Keyser Söze or “I see dead people“, don’t make it gratuitous. The reason that the final punch worked in The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense is that the narratives were well-constructed from the beginning. If you pull a switcheroo at the end without giving the reader a fighting chance to see it coming, then you may be sacrificing the integrity of your piece for a cheap thrill.
- Sad endings are not necessarily sad. What I mean is, even if a sad event punctuates the end of your piece, it can still be infused with other more hopeful feelings. Don’t discount a sad ending on the basis of the prevailing emotion in the moment – if properly set within the emotional landscape of the full piece of writing, it can resonate hope, dreams, happiness, etc. Once again, as long as it’s natural and in the logical flow of narrative events, it will be a satisfying one for readers.
My fellow writers, what other advice can we offer each other about writing satisfying endings to our fiction?