Write The Elusive End

Write The Elusive End

Ruth E. Walker

Oh, the love affair of writing the novel. The first blush of an idea. The rising heat as you pound out page after page of an unfolding story. You don’t want it to stop.

You constantly think about your novel, about your characters, your plot, your wonderful, endless possibilities… Until you find yourself without an ending.

Yeah, End-less: Your sense of dread when you need to finish your novel but there is no ending in sight.

Or End-less: Your sense of disappointment with an ENDing that is LESS than satisfying.

Poet and playwright Y.B. Yeats referred to the ending of a poem like a “click”:

The correction of prose, because it has no fixed laws, is endless, a poem comes right with a click like a closing box. (1935 letter to Lady Dorothy Wellesley)

While I might argue with him that prose indeed has many fixed laws for its “correction”, I’ve always liked Yeats’s idea of a “click like a closing box.” In my opinion, not just poetry needs to possess that “click” at the end.

No matter the issue, if you come to the end of your novel with a whimper instead of a bang, or at the least, the lovely satisfying “click”…your readers will be unhappy. And nobody wants unhappy readers.But if you’ve written a great beginning, do you need to give the same focus to the end? Prolific crime novelist Mickey Spillane said:

Your first chapter sells your book. Your last chapter sells your next book.


Spillane’s not talking about sequels. A wise writer remembers that a disappointing or weak ending will undo all the joy your reader got at the beginning.

So what inspired this post? I’m working on the ending of my novel. I have three written (or at least, sketched out.) One tragic. One that leaves room for a sequel. And one that ends more positively. I’m undecided but I feel that I’m getting closer to the right ending. To help me work through the possibilities, I did some exploring on what a good ending needs. I’m sharing some highlights here:

A good ending needs:

To show change
  • Growth/change in your POV character is a common expectation for readers. But you could have a POV character who is “static” and remains unchanged right to the end. In that case, your reader must somehow be changed, have a new/deeper understanding of the impact of that character’s lack of change.
To be inevitable
  • This is not the same as predictable; no reader wants an ending that has been hinted at in every chapter since page one. And no reader wants deus ex machina endings with the ‘gods’ suddenly appearing and fixing everything.

To read something brilliantly written with an inevitable yet often unexpected ending, check out any of Alice Munro’s stories. I can re-read one of her stories and still get that yummy satisfaction from an inevitable, but often surprising, end. Munro’s “Dance of the Happy Shades”, about an uncomfortable children’s piano recital, has a masterful and quietly profound ending.

Not to be afraid to be unhappy
  • Who doesn’t want a happy ending? But if Romeo and Juliet ran off and lived to a ripe old age, how memorable would that be? Theirs was an “inevitable”, if tragic, ending. We may want a happy ending, but our lives (and some good stories) don’t always comply. And really, they are often better stories if the ending is not all rainbows and sugar plums.

In sum, a good ending needs to be satisfying for the reader…and for the writer. Whether it is a “click” at the end, or a sunset being ridden into with the future uncertain, a good ending needs to make sense. But how do you know if you’ve written the right ending?

In a later post in The Top Drawer, we’ll explore techniques and tips for knowing when you’ve achieved the best possible “The End.” Hopefully, by then, I’ll have found mine.

Did you know:

From endings come new beginnings. Writers in Ontario (and beyond) learned at the Ontario Writers’ Conference that it would be the last such gathering. Gwynn, Heather and I were so sad to hear that. We’d been at every OWC since its launch in 2006. But then the OWC announced an exciting new start. It wasn’t ending after all, just changing format and exploring how to offer writers its signature networking and education opportunities in new and exciting ways.

While it retools, OWC is still holding its monthly Story Starters contest, using images to spark the imaginations of writers. There are prizes to be won and bragging rights to add to your bio, so check out Rich Helms’ quirky and fun image and enter.