Writing Endings That Satisfy
And they all lived happily ever after.
Who among us doesn’t want a happy ending in our lives or in the stories we read? Why else do so many people share an affinity for Hallmark movies? There is something very comforting in a happy ending and I suspect that I am not the one who has an addiction to them akin to cravings for chocolate or potato chips. And while I freely admit to watching seasonal movies until I’m bleary-eyed, I recognize that the endings in my own writing often seem ambiguous, deliberately challenging the reader to invoke their own sense of closure. I consciously choose to play with the happily ever after standard. And yet, there are many who claim the last line in your story or novel is the most important one you write – because it is the one readers take away with them and remember.
Charles Dickens was often subjected to grief and criticism over his endings. Two examples that come immediately to mind are the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, which was the cause of a huge public outcry; and the relationship of Pip and Estella in Great Expectations. The public pressure in the later instance was so great, that Dickens bowed to pressure and wrote a second, more satisfactory ending for the tormented pair. Interestingly, the second ending was also subject to criticism with critics claiming that it trivialized the book and lessened the moral message.
In my own writing process, endings are often the most challenging. I typically hate “letting go” of the characters and have trouble severing the storyline. It’s only in the editing process, after I have given myself some distance from the piece, that I can clearly see where the ending should occur and what shape it should take. For instance, in a story I wrote, Hawk in Winter, the protagonist is dealing with his wife’s death, disappointment with his son’s character, his own mortality, and physical attraction to his much younger, former daughter-in-law. It took me years (literally) to get the ending right. Finally, I saw him striding to the woods while remembering having watched hawks mating mid-air, and then the last line came: And now I was remembering what it was to clutch at love while spiraling slowly to the ground. It’s enigmatic but also satisfying when read in context. None of the other ending types would work as well without shifting the trajectory of the story.
Reflecting on these things has made me think about those components that serve to create a satisfying ending, and also the types of endings that are commonly utilized. While my lists are not exhaustive, they may help to serve as a reference point.
TYPES OF ENDINGS:
- Circular Device – the story brings you back to the opening lines or opening scene;
- Twist or Surprise – the story takes an unexpected turn and ends abruptly, surprising the reader with new information;
- Moral Lesson – the protagonist learns an important life lesson;
- Cliff-Hanger – the story ends but things are unresolved, typically at an exciting point;
- A Fairy-Tale – the good guys win, the bad guys are punished, people fall in love and everyone lives happily ever after;
- Enigmatic – this is when things are left deliberately undefined allowing the reader to fill in the blanks and interpret what has happened;
- Reflection – a character reflects on something important or invites the reader to do so; sometimes this is done by simply describing a scene and a mood without using speech; sometimes it takes the form of moralizing.
CHECKLIST FOR GOOD ENDINGS:
- Pulling all the loose ends together, respectfully and logically;
- Resolving tension and conflict;
- The ending occurs after the falling action or denouement, at a natural place;
- Resolution is satisfactory but hasn’t been given away too early or too predictably;
- Leaves the main character or the reader with something lasting/worthwhile;
- The last line resonates in a way that will be remembered.
I hope this is helpful to your own writing. Let me know.