One of the things I anticipate the most in a book that I’m invested in is how the story is going to end. Will things end happily with all the loose ends tied up in a neat bow? Or will things end tragically for your beloved characters? Or worse. What if it leaves you hanging, desperate for answers?
Most all of us can think of books that fall into each of those three main categories. It’s safe to say most people like happy endings and understandably so. We want our main character to come off victorious from the conflict they had to overcome. If you’re emotionally connected to the characters you have an even stronger incentive to see your main character(s) reach their goals and be happy at the end. Who doesn’t? You could argue all books should end happy, but not all books follow that formula. However does ending on a depressing note, ruin the whole book?
Before we answer that question. It’s important to note that the ending is a very important part of your book. While a great beginning is what hooks readers into the story, for many the ending can either make or break your book. And if you are planning on writing a series, it can determine whether the reader will bother to pick up the next book. So considering how a book can be rated poorly just because of the ending only reinforces the importance of how you end the book.
Truth is, there is no one way to end your book. There’s various approaches to take and that all depends on multiple factors. One of the main things to take into account is the genre. With the genre comes a certain amount of expectations. What is the general expectation of that genre when it comes to the end? For most romance books, there’s usually a happy ending with the two lovers finally getting together at the end. Most genres favor happy endings but especially this genre. Of course you could break the mode and end things tragically, but you are running a risk of alienating your audience.
While most genres favor happy endings, in some genres it may be boring or even unrealistic to present an ending where everything is wrapped up in a neat little bow. Typically in genres such as thriller and horror where the plot is generally more grittier, readers come to expect twists and turns throughout the story-line, keeping readers guessing right down to the end. Oftentimes you’ll see these types of books end either on a cliffhanger or the 4th option, which is bittersweet: a mixture of good and bad events to culminate the book.
Even within each genre, every book is different. That’s because each writer has their own style and approach to story-writing. So even if a group of writers was given the same writing prompt there’s many different directions you can take the plot. Ultimately as the writer, you have the right to end your book as it suits your story. When it comes to endings there’s no one-size-fit-all approach that will work for every story. However there are a number of key components I expect in an ending and it’s a safe bet that most readers and writers would agree with the following points.
Along with the rest of the plot, does the ending fit this particular story? Unless you’re writing fantasy (which can give you a creative license to make up fantastical things), the ending needs to be somewhat plausible to readers. Does the ending flow organically with the events just after the climax or does it come off forced or contrived?
This one can be tricky especially if you’re planning on writing a series. But generally almost all fiction plots have a problem or conflict that’s raised. So naturally readers expect that by the time they get to the end the main conflict is resolved. There could be other smaller conflicts or new questions that arise which can be answered in the next series (if that’s your intent) but the main conflict should have at least been addressed and dealt with. Having the main conflict or any plot points for that matter unaddressed, may leave readers feeling dissatisfied or worse, cheated. This can be challenging especially if your story is a little more complicated with multiple subplots or many characters. But the fewer loose ends your plot has, the better.
This one is easy to overlook but in my personal opinion is one of the most important things that makes an ending successful. Just like the beginning hooked you into the story, the ending is what you take away from the story. What was the lesson that the character learned? What is the moral of the story? What was the overall impression the story left you? If you had a particular lesson you wanted your readers to take away, this is the best time to reiterate it in the minds of the readers. No, that doesn’t mean lecturing the reader. It’s much more effective if you show the lesson. For example what are some ways the character grew over the course of the story? Let his/her actions or words speak to that effect.
One of the strongest, lasting impressions a book can leave on a reader is the emotional impact. We may forget the final words the character spoke or his/her last actions but it’s harder to forget how the story made us feel. This is true especially if it was a strong emotion we felt. Did the story make you smile? Or laugh? Gasp? Cry? The fact that you felt something means the writer did something right. Even the negative emotions.
Sometimes readers may find themselves upset at the ending of the book. I’ve seen my share of reviews on Goodreads on books I enjoyed but the reader disliked or outright hated it because of the ending. Is it because the ending was truly bad (poorly written)? Or was it because it didn’t end the way they (the reader) envisioned it should? Usually it’s the latter of the two. We don’t naturally want bad things to happen to our characters unless they’re the villain. Yet whether we admit it or not we want conflict in our stories. Otherwise our stories would be very boring and pointless if everything was perfect. You want a story to engage your senses and emotions. Depending on the nature of the story that may include more painful emotions. However if we took an objective look at our reaction to a book we may find that it’s not so much the ending we didn’t like; we just didn’t like the way it made us feel.
When it comes to the end, you should feel something for the plight of the characters. If your plot and characters weren’t compelling to begin with, there’s a high chance the reader is going to be indifferent about your book as a whole. And when you get to the end of the book and didn’t care anyways what was going to happen, more than likely that book is going to join the forgettable pile. As a writer, I should be more worried about an ending that evokes an indifferent response than something that made me sad. If I can make the characters and scene come alive then I’m doing my job as a writer. If I can pull at your heartstrings then I really got you.
So what about that question I raised earlier: does ending on a depressing note, ruin the whole book? If you’ve gotten this far, I think you know my answer by now. Even then each person is different so you may find varying responses to that question. In conclusion, we’re not all going to have the same beginnings let alone endings. Each writer has to write an ending that suits their story and feels right to them, not necessarily to please the most people. Happy endings aren’t bad. After all, reading woe upon woe can be exhausting after a while. Sometime you do need a touch of happiness to counteract the bitter and make it sweet. If you’re a writer going for a realistic ending, it requires finding the right balance of good and bad, failures and victories. Seeing the characters make those tough sacrifices and overcome challenges can make a happy ending all the more rewarding.
So while there is no one formula to follow as a writer your end goal is to keep readers thinking about your story long after the last page is turned. So the choice is yours. What’s your ending going to be?