Book endings are often just as hard as book openings. Where exactly do you stop? Let's first look at the different types of endings you can have:
1. Positive outcome - The happily ever after tends to be a favorite, because we like it when good guys win.
2. Negative outcome - Many readers like these, because it reflects real life. The good guy doesn't always win.
3. Uncertain outcome - These often have mixed reactions, because some readers feel like it's unfinished. They want a concrete resolution. Another way to look at it is: this chapter of the character's life is complete. The ending is uncertain because the next chapter of life is uncertain. Just like real life.
Regardless of what type of ending you have, the following makes a story feel complete:
- The threads of the primary and side-plots feel tied up. This doesn't necessarily mean a concrete resolution was reached (as is the case with the uncertain outcome). It just means this particular journey has reached its destination. The goal that was set in the beginning has either been reached or missed. (This doesn't include large over-arching plots that span multiple books in a series.)
- The character has undergone a personal journey. Whether they go on an actual journey or not, a character should have undergone some kind of emotional transformation. This may not apply to some genres, like action thrillers, where the focus is on the plot and not the character.
Once you reach these resolutions, the story can end. If you keep going, everything after the resolution will feel pointless.
To actually END the story, think about what you want the lasting impression to be. What do you want the reader to walk away with? What is the last thing you want the reader to see or experience?
- It could be a quotable "last word," like in the movie, Casablanca: "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Even though the main character lost the girl, he didn't come out empty-handed.
- It could be something that makes you wonder. In the movie, The Breakfast Club, the students who bonded over detention scatter back to their own lives at the end of the day. What might their lives be like after this?
- It could be a particular image. Like the classic cowboy riding off into the sunset.
How to Tell If Your Ending Works or Not
When readers (several, not just one) say things like, "That's it?" or "Wait, what about ____?" the ending may be too abrupt.
If you normally get some comments but they drop off toward the end of the book, and your statistics show that readership is noticeably dropping off toward the end of the book, maybe it's dragging on too long. (Statistics are tricky though, so don't put a whole lot of stock into it. It's perfectly normal for reads to drop as the story progresses. I'm just talking about a sudden drop in numbers.)
When the votes you get are infrequent, but readers tend to cast one for the last chapter, you probably have a good ending.
I wish I had better measures for you other than gauging the behavior of fickle readers. Just remember that these are simply clues and not solid answers. Writing is more art than science.
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