I Am The Master Of Book Ending Angst

Or, how I write effective endings.

Throughout the course of writing several manuscripts, my methods, skills, and tools have changed pretty dramatically. But there’s one thing that’s remained constant in my first drafting process, regardless of the genre, word count, method, or experience: the ending always intimidates me.

When I played around with pantsing — that is, writing without outlining first (or writing by the seat of your pants) — the reason for this intimidation was pretty obvious: I was writing a book and had no idea how it was going to end. It terrified me to think I was eventually going to reach what I knew had to be the conclusion, and I’d sit and wonder how I could possibly end this story.

Outlining, however, didn’t solve my ending anxiety. Sure, it helped that I actually knew what would happen (it helped a lot, actually), but the thought of it still terrified me. What if it’s not epic enough? What if I end too soon (a common problem of mine)? What if there are too many questions at the end? What if my readers are disappointed? What if, what if, what if?

I am the master of book-ending angst.

Elements of a Good Ending

Thankfully, after writing several pretty terrible endings (and a couple good ones, I hope), and reading an abundance of endings that have completely blown me away, I’ve learned a couple important elements necessary in every good ending.

  • Address the main problem/antagonist. When I first wrote this bullet, I said “solve the main problem,” but that’s not entirely true. You see, your protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to win every time, but you must address the problem one way or the other. If your character defeats the antagonist and saves the world, great, you can check off this bullet. But maybe your character doesn’t win, at least not entirely, and the antagonist is wounded but gets away. That’s acceptable, too — the key is that the main problem is addressed in some way, usually with a big victory, or a major loss on your protagonist’s part. At the end of the day, your protagonist should have tried their darnedest to fix the main problem comprising your novel’s plot, and whether they win or lose is up to you.
  • Tie up loose ends and provide closure. It’s important to note that even if you’re writing the first book of a series, you still must tie up loose ends. Naturally, you can still leave some series-wide questions open and hint at possibilities of future plots and problems. But as for the main plot itself, the big problem must be addressed and your readers shouldn’t be left still wondering about several subplots or questions by the end of the book. For a series, the endings are about balance: leaving enough questions that the reader will want to move on to the next book, but still answering enough that it stands alone and creates a complete arc.As for standalone novels, or the last book of a series, all loose ends must be tied up and accounted for. You readers should have a sense of closure and all subplots and mystery questions should be answered.
  • Complete the character arcs. This is an element that I’ve often struggled with because character arcs, at least for me, often happen organically. Unless your protagonist is a static character (a character who doesn’t change throughout the course of the story), they’ll likely be changed by whatever they experience throughout the course of your book — and your ending should reflect that change, whether it’s maturity, a new outlook or worldview, etc.
  • Bonus: echo the beginning.This isn’t a requirement, but some of my favorite endings echo images or lines from the beginning of the book. It really gives the book a full-circle feel and helps create closure. I go into detail about this wonderful effect in my great final sentences post so I won’t go into it again, but if you can manage it, I definitely recommend it.

What tips do you have for writing effective endings?

This article was originally posted on Ava Jae’s blog, Writability.