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10 Problems with Story Endings
by Marg McAlister
Here's a subject that is bound to generate plenty of discussion in any group of writers: "What kind of endings do you hate?"
We've all been there. We've read a book that hooks us from the very beginning, and keeps us engaged all the way through with interesting characters, believable conflict and unpredictable plot twists. Then... we reach the end. And the author has, unbelievably, let us down. We close the book with a sense of disappointment that things ended as they did.
What causes this feeling?
Let's examine the main causes of 'reader deflation' at the end of a book. These are not in any particular order.
1. The story fizzles out.
The 'fizzer' is a real disappointment to the reader. This happens when the reader is presented with an intriguing mystery, or an opening situation that promises plenty of challenges and excitement - only to find that the answer to the mystery, or the goal that the main character has been striving to reach, is not worth the build-up. (I remember a child once complaining to me about a story he had read because he hated the ending. It was all about a huge mystery in the pond at the bottom of the garden. The main character was fearful about what lay in the depths of the pond, and had to screw his courage to the sticking point to find out. What was it? A turtle. No real threat at all.)
2. The ending goes on too long.
It's as though the author can't bear to let go of the characters. The story question has been answered; all loose ends tied up... and yet the story goes on for another scene or another chapter. Once the story has been resolved - get out of there! (It's a bit like a guest that stays too long when the party's over.)
3. The story ends abruptly.
We've all been there: reading a novel that solves all the problems that have been created for the characters... but then just stops. Dead.
We sit there thinking "Huh? Is that it?"
Sometimes this happens because the author has worked so long on the story that he's just plain sick of it. Once the main action is over, he has no energy left to round it off in a way that satisfies the reader. It's easier to say something trite like "Mandy took Tony's arm and they walked away. At last it was over." If you DO feel tired and unable to give the ending the attention it deserves, then by all means write something like the sentences above, and leave your story alone for a few days. But never, never send it away like that. Spend just as much time on the ending as you did on the beginning.
4. The ending is illogical.
Usually an illogical ending can be tracked back to poor character motivation or lack of cause and effect.
- Why did the character do B? Because A happened, so he had no choice but to take Action B.
- Why did C happen? Because B happened first.
Cause and effect. It's not rocket science.
The ending needs to grow out of what has come before. You can't just come up with an ending that suits your purposes as the author, so you can finish the story in the way you wanted. It has to make sense. It has to be a logical outcome of all the action so far.
5. The author ends the book with a tedious explanation (usually in the voice of the main character) of how things played out as they did.
To keep readers in suspense, authors have to be careful not to give too much away too early. At the same time, they need to tie up all minor loose ends before the novel's climax. If they don't... they can end up with those looooong explanations of who did what, when they did it, and why. All too often this is crammed into the last chapter, and is carried out in a tedious scene of dialogue that just doesn't ring true. (Especially if the hero is being held at gunpoint, and keeps the Bad Guy talking at length - supposedly to allow help to arrive, or to grab a chance to turn the tables.) During this extended conversation, all is explained. Sometimes it's so stilted it almost sounds like a lecture. Avoid this at all costs. Go back over your novel and decide how you can satisfactorily let the reader know the whys and wherefores without dumping it all in at the end.
7. The ending is too predictable or too "Hollywood Perfect".
Does the "Hollywood ending" really need any explanation? The kid wins the competition AND is voted the best ever. The guy not only gets the girl, but is cleared of all charges, wins back his house and property, and lands a highly-paid job. It's all too neat. A better ending sees the main characters win through, but after having suffered some kind of loss that is irreversible. This need not be in the form of possessions... it can be a loss of innocence, or a permanent injury, or the loss of a friend. Your ending will be stronger if not everything works out for the best.
Beware of making your ending too predictable, too. Sure, we expect that the hero will win through - but try to add a twist, or make it such a challenge that the reader wants to find out HOW he will triumph in the end.
8. There are loose ends.
If you have lots of action scenes, or a complex plot, you might miss a few loose ends that are not very important - but some readers like an explanation for everything that happens. Check your finished story carefully to make sure that you haven't forgotten to resolve a minor issue, or to explain how someone was able to overcome an obstacle. It goes without saying that you should never leave one of the major plot points unresolved.
If you write a book that is part of a series, you need to be especially careful that you have answered the main story question. (The story question is what the reader is wondering at the outset of the story: Who is the killer? How did this happen? How will the perpetrator be caught? Will Jason earn a place on the football team? Will Melanie overcome Mark's hostility so they can be reunited? and so on.)
I read a book recently in which the opening scene showed the plight of the victim of a serial killer (told in her viewpoint as she died). Naturally I wanted to know who the killer was and how he was going to be caught. The book ended not only with the serial killer still at large, but with his capturing one of the detectives on the investigating team. The reader had to wait for the next book to learn the outcome. To me, this was a HUGE loose end - because I had assumed I was buying a complete story. Don't do this! Even if a book has a sequel, or is part of a trilogy, it should be contained within itself. By all means foreshadow further challenges or threats - but don't finish the book with a cliffhanger. This will annoy a great many of your readers.
9. Readers are left to decide for themselves what might have happened.
Why would you do this? Because you don't know how the story should come out? Because it's too much work to craft a satisfying ending? Because you are feeling in a philosophical mood and you are thinking "Well, there are no absolutes; who knows how this might have come out? I'll let the reader decide..."
If you're telling a story, then TELL THE WHOLE STORY. Even if the story could end in two different ways (or six different ways) pick one of them and run with it. You need to give the reader a sense of closure.
10. The cavalry arrives to save the day.
Also known as the cop-out ending. If the reader has spent hours of time with the main character, experiencing his fear, fighting his battles, and cheering him on... then she wants him to solve his own problems. It's okay to have some help, but the lead character should be the one most responsible for the triumphant ending. Even if he needs to have someone else help in the rescue, he should be the one to set it up or make it possible. And he should fight to the end.
The ending of your novel can help to sell your book just as much as the beginning. Furthermore, the ending of your book, if done well, will leave readers satisfied and looking forward to your next book. And so a writing career is built...
copyright © Marg McAlister 2009
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