The dreaded novel endings. There are so many ways to end a story--sad, happy, bitter-sweet, abruptly, peaceful, cliffhanger. You can convey any mood you want with your ending. There's no right or wrong way to do it. I'll talk about a few different types of endings and pros and cons. When trying to figure out how to end your story, think about the message, feeling, and tone you'd like your readers to remember your book by. Remember, these are BROAD generalizations and exceptions definitely exist.
Happily Ever Afters
This is when everything ends on a happy note and all the loose ends are tied in a nice, pretty bow. Everyone's all smiles and laughs and everything is good for the protagonists. They end up in a better place than when the novel started. This can be a great choice if your novel was more of a light, fluffy, happy tale. (think Disney movies)
The issues with happily ever afters is that they can be unrealistic. They might be too good to be true. Be careful not to make it too happy. If your character was some random poor kid insurgent, don't suddenly have them invited to the palance to become the adopted prince, find their long-lost girlfriend, and bring the dead back to life in an impressive feat of newly-discovered magic powers, oh and then they win the lottery.
Stories generally end with something horrible happening to the protagonist if there's a lesson to be learned. With Romeo and Juliet, their deaths can teach several moral lessons. One might be not to hot-headedly dive into a romance and marry a guy you met yesterday. Or it could show how quarrels between families can end up hurting those you love.
This is a risky ending because who likes being sad after putting a book down? The reader needs to feel the tragic event or death was absolutely necessary. Don't kill off a character at the very end just for shock value. Maybe the character had a terminal disease and you knew they were going to die eventually. Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes for example. That would be a justified ending because it was inevitable.
Basically, the sadness should be somewhat expected. If you were writing a comedy or a light, fluffy romance, and all of a sudden at the end the protagonist's life gets ruined and leaves the reader in this unexpected pit of misery, it probably was a bad way to end the story.
If you look at Star Wars Episodes 1-3, whether or not you knew ahead of time that Anakin would become Darth Vader, during the third episode, it became obvious this wouldn't end well for him. He was already too far immersed in the dark side of the force, and we knew he was going to spiral even further. By trying to cheat Padme's (his wife) death and alter the future, he ended up becoming the one who caused her death.
It was sad, but it was a perfect ending (to a less-than-perfect trilogy... but I digress).
This means something good and something bad happened to your MC. Maybe they defeated the main antagonist, but they ended up crippled in the process. Maybe the heroine saved her love interest's life, but in doing so was forced to part with him forever. Maybe they didn't beat the antagonist, but they found something more awesome. They could've died, but then they were reincarnated or cloned so their legacy may live on.
These are nice because they appease the realism stickers as well as the happily ever after'ers.
How many ends should you tie up?
Tying up every loose end might be unrealistic because not everything works out so perfectly in real life. But there are definitely some loose ends that MUST be tied up in order to have a satisfying ending. Unfortunately, I can't tell you which ends should be tied and which can be left open-ended because it depends on your specific story. My advice is to write the ending however the heck it pleases you. Then go to your critique partners and readers and ask them if you missed a loose end that should've been tied, or you tied an end that would've been better left open.
That doesn't mean change your dream ending because someone didn't like it. Not everyone will like an ending, especially if it's dark and bitter, and that's okay! Stay true to your vision for the story, but also keep an open ear to suggestions. Pick and choose the ones you personally think will make your ending more epic and memorable. Endings are one of those things you have to feel out for yourself and see what makes you happiest. Not what makes someone else happiest.
Shakespeare's Hamlet leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions at the end. To name a couple: did Opelia kill herself out of grief or did she just slip on accident? Did Hamelt actually go crazy for a while, or was he always in control of himself?
It's all the open-ended plot points that have become the subject of heavy speculation and interpretation, and that's why Shakespeare is a manipulative genius and why his works are still discussed and debated today. If you definine something in your story too well, you limit the number of people you can touch with it. If some things are left open for interpretation, your readers can mold the story to their own tastes a little, and that helps them enjoy the story and connect with it more on a personal level.
The Sixth Sense "Bombshell" Ending
If you haven't seen The Sixth Sense, watch it right now. The entire movie had you thinking one way, but then the last few minutes dropped a bombshell on you that made you reevaluate your understanding of the entire story. These are plot twists of epic proportion, not just twisting the moment at hand, but the entire story. When you finally learn "the truth", you end up seeing every line, every event, in a new light. It's mindblowning and really slaps your readers awake.
One of my more controversial endings entailed killing off every. single. character. Protagonist, love interest, side characters, and every person in the whole damn city they were fighting in. I hate sad endings with a passion, but the last couple lines ended up changing the entire tone of the story and ending, shedding new light on the characters, solidifying the personalities and beliefs of the protagonist in one of the most heartwrenching ways (okay, at least that's how i felt. Whether the readers actually felt that is left to be determined. :P). So a single line can actually change the mood and message of the entire story. You just have to find the right words, which is HARD. Incredibly hard.
Endings are hard. If you have ending angst, you're not alone! Trying to find that perfect balance of events and messages and tone sometimes feels like walking on broken glass while you're in the middle of a volcano. It's painful, grueling, and not an experience you'd ever want to repeat (and then you go and start a new novel and do it all over again! WOO!)
One tip I can give for that ending line (and I mean the very last line of the novel), is to try incorporating the title of the novel in it. I absolutely love those ending lines because it puts the entire novel in perspective and brings everything full-circle.
Of course, it's not the only satifying way to end a story. My favorite ending line, in fact, was from that story where everyone died, and I don't mention the title anywhere in the novel.
Something I heard that was interesting is one of the distinguishing features of YA vs. Adult fiction is that YA novels must end on a hopeful note. Even if everything isn't all good and cheery, there's some ray of hope that everything might get better. That there's still a future. Even in my novel where everyone died, there obviously wasn't a future for the protagonist, but there was a future for humanity, and that's what my ending portrayed, and now that I think about it, that's probably why it resonates so deeply with me. It talks about how, because this horrible thing happened, no one will take happiness for granted anymore. And the guy who caused the horrible thing to happen--he basically tricked the protagonist and betrayed her at the end, but even in the last line, she doesn't want to believe it. She convinces herself that he did this horrible betrayal in order to save humanity long-term. Even while she's dying and everything went to hell around her, she still had hope that he wanted to change the world for the better. And that leaves the reader with that same hope.
To Epilogue or Not To Epilogue?
Unlike with prologues, there's no unspoken taboo on epilogues. I love them. They're a nice resolution, a quiet scene, after the big climax. When I do write epilogues, they're usually super cheesy and grin-inducing, so the books I have epilogues for tend to be the cheesy type anyway, but you can write an epilogue in just about any tone you'd like. Whatever fits your story and your fancy. If you want one, write one! This is where you can finally have fun with your characters after the main problem is resolved. They're free to do whatever they want, so it's a lot of fun to see how their lives have changed from the beginning. Are they better? Worse? Better in one aspect but worse in another? This is really where you can see the physical and mental changes/growth that your characters underwent.
So there are all my tips and tricks and thoughts about ways to end a story. What are you favorite kinds of endings and why? What ending line of a story (either yours or a published novel's) still resonates with you long after you closed the book? Do you have any tips for writing a satisfying and memorable ending? Share in the comments below!
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