Wouldn't stop picking at it

Writing fiction: The dilemma of good endings

My number one reason for being disappointed with a book or short story?

The ending.

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.

The only guidelines I have for writing a solid ending are:

  • 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?

8 comments for “Writing fiction: The dilemma of good endings

  1. December 7, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    I don’t think sad or unresolved endings are different; a lot of people do them. I don’t like sad endings, but I can accept them if they fit. But I really, really dislike unresolved endings. They suck.

  2. ad
    December 7, 2010 at 8:26 pm

    There needs to be an ending – that’s a very important point you’re making.
    Unresolved writing does indeed suck – almost as much as a bad ending.

  3. January 10, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    I think you have to start with the ending. In other words you have to have a fairly clear idea of where you should end up, before you begin. If not you risk wondering around in the wilderness : losing the reader’s attention and your own focus. Some works end up being like a SNL sketch where it’s apparent to everyone that they had no idea of how to end the thing and just stop

  4. ad
    January 11, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    Can you do that? Really? I have a terrible time imagining an ending – especially since, on occasion, the story ends up taking me in a total other direction.
    I always attributed that problem on SNL to laziness – that is, only caring about the funny premise and not making the effort to create a full arc.

  5. January 11, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    I think you have to have an ending in mind. Whether or not the story takes you to that ending depends. Depends on what? Well, you know, once you get going it is really easy to get sidetracked, to have insights that you didn’t see coming, to realize that the characters are not quite the same people that you thought you had created. But if you don’t have some idea where you are going, how do you know when you get there?

  6. ad
    January 11, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    Excellent point :)

  7. sarah
    April 6, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    I don’t know which ending I prefer but I don’t like endings that are unresolved as well. I’m in the idea stage of my writing as of now and the only problem I have is the title at the moment. I’m working on a series. I don’t know how many altoghether yet but I know the beginning, some other events that follow the plot, and the ending. It wasn’t my intention to come up with the ending I did come up with but I believe that what I did come up with won’t be expected until the moment the part comes up. I have the plot already and even the main characters! I just need to think up the setting in more depth and I think I’ll begin to write it.

  8. ad
    April 6, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    Sarah, it sounds as if you’re on the right track. You’re taking the time to reflect on what you want your story to be, how to make it plausible, who your main characters… and you’re trusting that it will all fall together if you keep working at it.

    Looking forward to reading it some day :)

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