I’ve spent the last eight months writing a novel, and I’m now closing in on the finish. What makes a good ending? How do you know if you’ve landed it?
One of my favorite TV shows of all time is heading into the final season, and I am not happy about it ending at all, so the actual end had better really hit all the right notes, or it will be ruined for me.
Ruined for all time.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a new adult series of five books about a love triangle. As I came closer and closer to the end, I started to realize that the ending I though I’d be writing was not the ending the books needed. To write it the way that was right, deep down right, I would have to break a sort of rule about triangles, which is that the girl will end up with the first guy the reader met. It’s not a hard and fast rule, not like the happily-ever-after of a romance novel. My protagonist had her happily-ever-after, and a happy romance.
But I knew I would get letters, and I did. One absolutely broke my heart, from a reader who’d been deeply invested in the series and couldn’t wait for the last book. She read it the minute it arrived, and cried all night long because the ending wasn’t the one she wanted.
Cried all night long.
That’s the kind of thing that will keep a writer up nights. I’ve rethought that ending a dozen times, a hundred. I tried to set it up so that readers would know there was ambiguity in this triangle, and new adult is known to break rules, but readers love what they love.
Just as I do. The reason things have to end the right way in Game of Thrones is because I am fiercely attached to one particular character. I need her to be okay. I love others, but she’s my heart. If she dies, I will cry all night long.
A series that was difficult to end properly was The Sopranos. I loved the way they didn’t exactly tell us, but you knew what happened. I could let it be however I wanted it to be in my head. It was logical. It felt true. It matched the series in tone and gave us the grace note of the entire series in one scene—Tony with his family at a diner, while his career is about to interfere.
A great ending emerges from the work itself, from the characters and the themes and, of course, the plot. To be satisfying, it has to answer all the questions that have been raised by the story (which means you have to know what those questions are). It has to have a sense of rightness in terms of what happens to each character, and it has to follow the rules of the genre you’re writing. Nothing is more irritating to a genre reader than a book that breaks the rules just because. My sister and I saw Message in a Bottle together at the movies, and after my rant at the end, which lasted all the way home, as I furiously listed all the reasons THAT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN LIKE THAT, she refused to go tot he movies with me again for a long time. I’m not going into details, but it’s a very bad ending for many reasons, the most glaring of which is a character issue that makes no sense whatsoever.
A satisfying ending answers questions, has a sense of rightness for each character, and answers the rules of genre.
Most of us want better than that, and we should. A great ending can make a reader close a book and just stare into space for awhile, then eagerly seek out the rest of your work and tell everyone she knows to read the book, too. A great ending has a grace note that pulls all the rest of the material into focus. A great ending moves beyond the expected ending for a particular character to one that’s even deeper, better, more compelling than you originally imagined. A great ending also keeps your reader in mind, which is where I might I have dropped the ball on that ending for the series. The readers of those books are young women for the most part. Teenagers. Deeply romantic, unjaded. Sure of possibility.
That doesn’t mean I made the wrong choice. I’m not sure I’ll ever really know.
As I head into creating a powerful ending for my work in progress, what is my checklist?
First, I stopped writing the rough draft about a chapter or two from the end, then started over at the first page, reading and rewriting. This is where I will fill in the details currently being held by TKs, finalize names and places, and reorder anything that has been flagged. I smooth and polish a lot on this draft, so it always takes way long than I think it will, but it’s a muscular kind of writing, left-brained. Orderly.
It also reminds me of all the threads and themes I’ve been looping through the book, this ribbon and that one woven into a braid that now awaits the finishing touches.
When I’ve reached the place where I stopped, I’ll clear the schedule in a very serious way and write the ending as fast as I can, trying not to think at all. This is how I find the emotional center of the ending, and orchestrate what I hope will be the punch. Not just a resolution that makes sense. Not just characters learning their lessons (often finding their right work) or finding a happily ever after, though those things are part of my books. What I’m hoping will emerge in that roar of the end is the tiny, secret, vulnerable things that will most take the reader over the top. (I have talked about this before, but I can’t find it now—think of Rose dying as an old, old woman in Titanic, then going to meet all of the people who died. She lived for them, all of them.)
Once that’s done, I’ll make a third pass, aligning and polishing one more time. This one usually goes fast, but I need to go from beginning to end in order to see if the threads are properly braided.
On the very last day, before I send it to my editor, I am exhausted, brainless, boneless. It’s a ritual to make one last pass the morning of the deadline to do spell check and space checks (I learned to type on a typewriter, so the double space after a period habit is a tough one to break). It’s here, when I’m wide open from birth, emotionally unshielded, that I will often see the grace note, that little moment of perfection that will send the reader over the edge, or pull everything into crystal focus.
If I do it right, I’ll be sobbing as I push send. Sobbing in a good way, sobbing because it’s great. Right. This is the place to trust your gut.
How do you approach the end of a book? Do you know it when you begin? Do you write toward it with your gut? Have you written an ending you’re particularly proud of?
About Barbara O'Neal
Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is at work on her next novel. A complete backlist is available here.
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