Writing A Satisfying Story Ending, by Kelly Inglis
Like many other readers, I won’t waste my time reading a story that I’m still trying to get interested in after 75 pages. Sometimes the lack of interest stems from the plot developing at a snail’s pace, sometimes it’s because the characters are two-dimensional and unlikeable, and sometimes it’s because the plot is so ridiculously far-fetched that I spend the whole time thinking about how this would never happen in real life. Whatever, the reason, if I’m still not absorbed in the plot after 75 pages, I pick up a different book and never finish the boring one. As Joy Daniels says, “life’s too short to read bad books (or drink bad wine)”.
However, when I get really upset with a book is when the characters have been engaging, the plot intriguing and well-paced, with several story arcs that are perfectly interwoven… and then the ending sucks. After I’ve invested hours and hours of my life becoming absorbed into the lives of the characters and their struggles, nothing makes me crankier then a bad ending.
Now, I don’t mean a good ending is one that is ‘happily ever after’. Many great stories have left me feeling melancholy, despairing or even angry. What mean by a ‘bad ending’ is a one that leaves the reader feeling cheated, and having a hundred unanswered questions about what happened. A good ending, even if it’s a sad ending, ties up the loose threads of a story into a neat bow. A good ending answers many of the reader’s questions about the plot, or at least hints at the answers, so that the reader themselves can use their imaginations to fill in the blanks.
In other words, a good ending should resolve the conflict. However, the resolution should be related to the actions of the characters themselves, and not be a result of some random external force solving the problem for them. For example, think of a story where a woman has found out that her husband has been cheating on her with his young, sexy secretary, and decides to hire a hit man to teach him a lesson. Throughout the plot we would experience her conflicts – hating him, and yet recalling the love they once shared, her cold-hearted dealings with the hired gun interspersed with the moral dilemma of planning the husband’s murder. If, at the end of the story the husband gets hit by a bus and dies, sure, it solves the main character’s problems, but it feels contrived. Random chance rarely solves a serious problem in real life, and the reader, after having invested so much of their time in the story, wants to see how the conflict is resolved by the characters. Does she go through with the hit? Or does her guilty conscience lead her to throw herself in front of the bullet and save her husband’s life at the expense of her own? The reader wants to see the conflict resolved, but they want the characters to be involved in that resolution.
What about ending a story with a twist? It’s entirely possible to end a story with a twist and still have the ending be completely satisfying and plausible. Again, the trick is to not have the twist be a random surprise and leave the reader completely befuddled. A twist ending for the above story could be that the hit man turns at the penultimate moment and shoots the wife, rather than the husband. However, you need to plant little hints throughout the story so that the reader has an, “Oh, of course!” moment, rather than a, “Huh?” one. There should be indications throughout the plot that hint at an alternative story arc. Perhaps the wife has a fling with the hit man to get back at her straying husband that she cuts off when she gets a better offer. That might make the hit man angry enough to murder her instead of the husband. Or perhaps part of the way through the story, she argues with her husband when she notices a large sum of money missing from their joint bank account, which he brushes off with a lame excuse. As the life leaves her body on the final page, she realises that she and her husband hired the same hit man, but her husband obviously paid the higher price for his services. Whichever twist that you end with, it’s important to leave clues throughout the story so that the reader can pull them all together at the end and be satisfied that it all makes sense.
While there are many ways to write a great ending, it should make your reader satisfied that the conflict has been resolved and their questions answered, but still wishing there were just a few more pages of the story that they could immerse themselves in.
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