Thursday 21 January 2010


I recently tackled how to begin your story and now blog-reader Sleepycatt wants me to tackle endings. What you all don't realise is that middles are the really tricky bit: we must work very hard to avoid saggy middles. I think it's the chocolate and sitting down all day hunched over our keyboards what does it.

Telling you about endings is easy. Writing them is easy too. You just put "THE END" and go and lie down in a darkened room to prepare for the party.

Obviously, it's the bit just before you write those magic words, THE END, that's so fraught with worry. There are two reasons for this:
  1. Readers are most annoying. Some of them want happy endings; others aren't satisfied if there's even one character left alive. Some want everything neatly tied up; others want to wonder. Some like mystery; others wanted it crystal-clear. Some aren't even satisfied with an ending: they want an epilogue too, greedy sods. 
  2. If you've written a good book, your reader is seriously narked that it's finished. Especially if your bloody publisher has gone and filled the last few pages with adverts for other books, some of which may not even be yours, and your reader had thought there was at least another chapter to go. So, your pissed off reader is going to be pissed off whatever ending you do.
In view of both these things, there is only one sensible general point to make about endings:
Do what feels right for your book - someone's going to hate you, whatever you do, so just do it, shut your eyes and get over it. Stay loyal to your book and, for once, sod the readers. Normally, I say think of your readers first, but in relation to endings there is no point in thinking of them. Every book I've written has had people who loved the book but wished the ending had been different. And others who loved the ending. What you don't usually get is people who hated the book and loved the ending: so, do it for your book, not your readers.
However, you wouldn't want me to stop there, so let me offer some specific points to consider. Please file them away in your head and consider them only if you are genuinely having a problem with your ending, and then only obey them in as far as they help your book. Your book is the boss.

Certain types of book tend to require different types of ending. Books for children [as opposed to YA] require greater optimism, clarity and resolution. Books for teenagers are more open to a variety of endings but you'd still be unlikely to get away with a very gloomy ending. With adult genres, as well as children's writing, you must be an expert in your genre so that you know what type of ending is usual in that genre. [Break rules if you want to, but know the rules first.] More "literary" fiction is, by its nature, much more open to esoteric and risky approaches, but any lit fic writer who needs general advice on endings probably isn't ready to write the middle either!

Although not every thread has to be tied up neatly, you can't leave strands completely flailing in the wind. The reader needs to know that you haven't forgotten a character on the edge of a cliff. So, let's say you don't need a neat ending, but you do need the reader to feel that at least some good degree of resolution and partial closure has been reached. Even if you are leaving the way for a sequel, it should be apparent that the sequel will involve new adventures for the characters, not simply a completion of the ones you should have completed here. After all, your sequel may be a couple of years away, or never happen at all.

Your book deserves a proper ending, even if your readers disagree what that ending is.

An ending should round the book off. When it comes, it should feel as though this is where the book was leading all the time, even if the reader didn't see it coming until a little while before. It has to feel like part of the book, rounding it off as though it's what you, the writer, intended all along in a controlled planning kind of a way, even if your planning is no more controlled than mine [which is not very].

By the time the reader reaches the end, big surprises are not necessary, though twists in the tail are fun if handled correctly. There should be a sense of things coming to an ending, of threads being pulled together in advance and not all at the same time. Your book does not end in the last chapter: it has begun to end before then, which is all part of shape and structure.

Second-endings are a bit like epilogues and are sometimes offered as such. They feel something like a sigh of relief, a bow at the end of a performance, a wave goodbye, the follow-through of a golf swing, even an encore after a well-received concert. The work is done, the threads are tied as much as they're going to be, but there's something else you'd like to say, something that you think the book and the reader deserve. An example of a book where I did this and which seemed to hit the mark with readers was Deathwatch. It may make you cry, because you'd forgotten about this minor character, but there he is, and you're glad to see him again, and how he says goodbye seems very fitting. Thinking about it, I've done second-endings in Fleshmarket, The Highwayman's Curse, The Passionflower Massacre and Sleepwalking, too. This could be a habit.

Your readers have expectations. That's why they've spent hours following your characters. Although some of them won't like the ending, and may hate you, I don't think it's fair to cheat them, if for no other reason that you might quite like them to read your next book. Waking up and finding it's all a dream is a cheat [and a cliché] and there are many other ways in which I hope you won't cheat your reader. But do it if you want to - if it's right for your book.

I have just done the ultimate cop-out. My next book, Wasted, which is about risk and chance, has two endings. The difference between the two is enormous - life or death, though it's not as simple as that - but the difference hangs on the thinnest knife-edge, the equivalent of Schrodinger's Cat, which is another theme of the book. But, before you get to read them, you have to toss a coin to determine which is the actual ending. So, if you don't like the ending, don't blame me: blame the coin...

That's the end from me. So, to round off, say good-bye and prepare you nicely for THE END:
There are so many vocal and widely-read people who read this blog that I'm sure there will be a plethora of comments and views of "endings I have loved and hated". I think that would be great - it will point you all in the directions of endings to inspire or warn you. But remember: it's your book and really only you should decide the best ending for it. It's your privilege and your power. Use it wisely!



Rosalind Adam said...

It's interesting to isolate and think about these things, beginning, endings... Thank you for another helpful post.

In my book group we often disagree quite vocally about whether the ending of our book for that month was good or not. We're a group of friends. You'd think we'd like the same sort of thing but not when it comes to endings.

Jo Treggiari said...

God, I love you! Thank goodness I live 3000 miles away otherwise I could embarass myself and you with too much adoration (although it could involve lots of chocolate and wine).
What great timing!
I am struggling with the ending of my current WIP. I know how I want to end, it;s just getting it there without taking short cuts or straying from the direction the book has been heading towards.
Not to sound like a hippy, but this book has been a very organic process. The plot arc has been clear from the beginning. But it is a personal subject which makes it messy and hard to step back from. I'm trying to get to an endpoint by approaching it sideways rather than head-on. Normally I wouldn't say that was the best way, but in this case I think it works best.
Thanks for giving me lots to think about.

emma darwin said...

Great post as ever, Nicola.

I'm about to perpetrate a second ending for the first time (following?), and I'm nervous of it, because there's all the difference in the world between the kind you describe (and which I hope I'm doing - a sort-of flourish or farewell wave as the cast troop off stage), and the kind I see in students' work.

There, the novel comes to a good end, as you say, a resolution but not (as my editor once described it) one tied up with ribbons and bows. And it's all satisfyingly tearful/happy/intriguing or whatever. And then the actual last chapter is a whistle-stop tour of births, marriages, deaths, careers, emigrations... and it's such a let down. It seems to supply the satisfactions of an ending, but because it's all so superficial all it actually does is pull the reader out of the emotional intensity and identification with the characters and their fate, and throw bald facts at them.

I often ask the student: 'Did you put this in after someone read read the real last chapter, and said they wanted to know what happened to everyone afterwards?' And nine times out of ten the student says 'Yes'. And I say, 'That's a tribute to how much they cared about the characters. But it doesn't work as an ending. Let them close the book still caring about afterwards, and wondering; don't tell them

steeleweed said...

I've seen books with alternate endings, presumably to keep everyone happy.

Actually, it irritated me - but I've considered it myself :-)

Debra Harris-Johnson said...

I like surprise endings but love it when everything isn't just spelled out in a tidy conclusion. I say leave room for the reader's imagination and interpretation. I want to ponder and think about the ending long after the read. I guess I like the ending to tease me a bit as to drawing some of my own conclusions. Is this making sense? I guess I better end this why you are still thinking, what does she mean by this.

Marisa Birns said...

Another thoughtful, helpful post.

I, too, love to read second endings.

The best books for me, of course, are the ones where I wished "The End" hadn't happened at all, since I wanted to spend just a little more time in that world.

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

Another great post, thanks.

I enjoy second endings too, but haven't come across alternate endings before.

Rebecca Knight said...

Emma: I loved your comment! That is some great food for thought for our own WIPs :).

Nicola, thank you for the tips & insight! I am a lover of 2nd endings, simply because I don't want the story to be over yet. Great example of this is Lord of the Rings (SPOILER!!!) where they go to the Grey Havens to see everyone off, but then we still wonder what will become of Sam, and get to see him going home to start living his life. Yay :).

That ending always makes me tear up a bit.

Anonymous said...

I've never written an ending that I am happy with. I don't like things to be too neatly tied up but it's difficult to get the balance right and often there's not enough of a sense of resolution. You've given me some interesting things to think about, thanks Nicola!
When I was a child I used to love "choose your own adventure" books where there were not only alternate endings but alternate outcomes to pretty much every scenario the characters faced. It was fun to explore all the options. I imagine with Wasted a lot of people will read both the endings anyway and decide which one they like best.

Jo Franklin said...

Thanks Nicola for your reassuring thoughts as ever.

Do you know - I don't anguish over my endings. A triumph for me as I anguish over everything else.
I like to have reconcilliation but hope that the reader has been enthralled enough with the premise that they wonder how the characters will continue in the next phase of their life.

I love that feeling when the ending is close. When I'm on the final chapter and I know what note I'm going to end on and I write another sentence and then another and then suddenly I feel like I have written the last sentence. I take the pen off the paper and look at those last words, I read the sentence to myself again. Put the pen down and I'm done.

The satisfaction is immense. I've created something.

Many rounds of editing and drafts are still to come but my last sentence usually remains unscathed.

And although my books have been written to stand alone, I hope there's enough story left to whip up another intrigue if I was asked for a sequel.

For me the worst ending of all time has to be the Epilogue of the last Harry Potter book. To me it seemed to repeat what we already knew was likely to happen and what I really wanted to know was did Harry ever become an Auror? JKR, please let me know if you are reading this.

JamieKate said...

Oh, this post helped so much. Thank you. I've written an ending to my book, and I haven't been entirely satisfied with it, and now I think I know why. :D

Thank you!

Suzie F. said...

I'm chuckling to myself, Jo, because I knew the Harry Potter Epilogue would make an appearance.

There was a great divide amongst fans whether the Epilogue was a nice closer for the series or if it was just too neat and tidy. I think there would have been a big backlash if JKR hadn't included a chapter like the one she did. The HP fandom has always wanted to know every last detail of every character, and Rowling was always willing to give them in interviews.

Personally, I liked it - not so much because I, as an adult had to know the future of Harry et al, but the kids who followed the series needed to see that Harry was able to move on, especially after some heavy chapters before the ending.

Thomas Taylor said...

The first reader to come back to me after finishing my WIP said, 'Great story, but I don't like the ending.' This post has helped put that in perspective, so thank you! I might even get up tomorrow.

Theresa Milstein said...

This is a great post.

I had to admit that I was nervous about the ending of the last Harry Potter book. To keep myself from cheating by reading the ending in advance, I read the book from beginning to end, on and off for about seventeen hours, until I completed it. That was a satisfying ending to a wonderful series.

Sarah said...

I liked hearing the perspectives on second endings! It's nice to know it can be done well. Emma, your comments about why the second ending is written were quite helpful.

Right now, my MS has a second ending. I'd been concentrating on getting the ending right, and not paying attention to what I'd done. The ending (endings?) need to be edited like crazy, but perhaps I can make it work.

D.J. Morel said...

I often find my endings take a lot less space than I plan, not the build up to them, but the actual finale. I get to a certain point, then realize I don't need to add any more. It's done.

Not to get all fancy schmancy, but you don’t mention the dénouement. I think you mean something slightly different with second ending, which seems to be more about bringing supporting parts of the story to a conclusion. The dénouement is more of an exhale, life returning to normal for the characters.

Oh, and love the idea of two endings and a coin toss. In ebook form, the novel could threaten to zap the ending not meant to be… along with poor Schrodinger's Cat.

CC MacKenzie said...


Great post about second endings.

Emma, great thinking and absolutely right.

You can't please all of the people all of the time. So, why not please yourself? Harry Potter is a case in point. Did she really need to draw such a hard line under THE END? But it does help the younger readers move on.

Being true to the story is the key I think, even if it upsets some readers. After all, none of us is perfect, why should our characters be any different?


Nicola Morgan said...

Rosalind - I'm not surprised that you don't all like the same ending! I'd be surprised if you all liked the same books, to be honest. It's such personal taste, isn't it?

Jo - well, if it involved chocolate...

Emma - you make such a good point about absolutely the wrong way and reason for a "second ending". No, readers really will have to do without the list of births, marriages and deaths etc! All we need to know is whether and what our characters have learnt, how they've changed and what sort of life they may have ahead of them now, if any. The reader needs to be able to let them go off and live their lives.

Steeleweed - the endings of Wasted are not like that at all, fear not! They are not actually alternate endings. The whole book is predicated on the consequences of the philosophies of chance and determinism. One of the two main characters lives his life by obeying the coin, taking risks in order to sacrifice to luck (as he sees it, and he has good reason for seeing it like that.) So, when the reader has to toss a coin to determine Jack's fate, it's entirely within the story for that to happen and by then the reader knows exactly what the stakes are and why this is the point. So, I have every confidence that the two possible endings of Wasted won't irritate you - I think they will make you think, and I hope they will shed some human light on the Copenhagen question and Schrodinger's Cat!

Debra, Marisa, Debs, Rebecca and others - thanks for your comments. See, no ending will please everyone, will it?!

helen - I've been happy with some of my endings and not others. I'm not happy with the Fleshmarket ending, though I like the atmosphere of the second ending, but I was very happy with the ending of Passionflower.

Jo - good for you!

Nicola Morgan said...

Jo and Thomas - glad it helped.

Jo, Susie, Christine and Theresa - re the HP book: I did have to write an imaginary ending for it for a newspaper, the day before the book came out, and that was FUN!

Christine - yes, it's that being "true to the story" that's the main thing. We have to have confidence in what we've done up to that point.

DJ Moore - I see the denouement as pretty much another word for "ending" to be honest, incorporating all the aspects of resolution etc. (It's the unravelling, the untangling and the tying up of necessary ends, the completing of the pattern and the meeting of sufficient expectation, don't you think?

By second ending I mean a short chapter / epilogue / snippet a bit later than the "real" ending, a bit that takes the reader forward slightly and gives him or her a satisfying glance ahead or back. Like drawing a line under the words "The End" and decorating it a bit? As a reader, I like it, when it's done well and for good reason.

I LOVE your idea of what could happen in the ebook form of Wasted!! And I'm glad you like the sound of the coin-flipping ending. It's not rreally a cop-out, as I called it - it's exactly what must happen in that particular book. I hope readers like it!

K M Kelly said...

That's really interesting - and I have to say Emma's point about second endings was particularly pertinant to me - I've been fretting about my endings (children's books) because I feel they go on too long after the big climax, tying things up but with no more major action scenes. I don't want to leave the ends hanging and I can't work out how to wind them up before the climax either cos there's too much happening. I've tried to get round it by having my baddy put in a final appearence. Not sure if it works though.
So you see, this is a very timely post.
Thank you Nichola.

Dan Holloway said...

This is a great piece, Nicola. I noticed, a few years back, there was a tendency for some thriller writers to leave things just dangling - I think it was part of a movement to reflect the fact that in life things are left dangling - but as a reader of the genre I felt cheated.

I'm also glad you made the point about starting endings earlier than the final chapter - one of the biggest complaints I have with books is that the pacing suddenly changes in the last 10 pages - and with it the assured voice and careful plotting go down the swannee.

now I've had a fair sample of reviews in for Songs, I can fairly say that what they all have in common is that they focus on the ending. I had two in particular who didn't like it - I think they wanted a happy ending (it IS a happy ending - just not a twee one). What was pleasing was that both reviewers said although they didn't like the ending it was integral to the story - that's the key. You will always cheat some of your readers - but you must never cheat your characters.

Fascinated to hear what you say about saggy middles. I struggled like buggery with them for years. What I learned when writing my thriller (a bloody awful book but a bloody good writing exercise), which helped immensely with songs, was the double climax technique (er, forgive the expression). Rather than using subplots to stuff your middle (rather like grazing on crisps all day), why not have a good lunch? Start the novel with two main storylines, one of which climaxes in the middle, that climax then feeding into the resolution of the second storyline? For example, with Songs, we start with a dysfunctional relationship between Sandrine and her father; and a mother she hasn't seen all her life. Rather than tie it all at the end, the meeting with the mother acts as a midway resolution to which the opening half leads (in tempo terms there are two things happening in the opening half - an adagio with her father and an allegro building to the meeting with her mother - the double-pacing is another way to avoid drag), and the meeting doubly functions as a complication to the other plotline.

Jo Franklin said...

Nicola, you absolutely have to tell us your HP ending.
I think that if you know your book is going to be turned into a Hollywood blockbuster it must influence the degree of sentimentality you lash onto the ending. Because if you don't do it - they will.

David John Griffin said...

There have been some books that I've read and upon reaching the end, gasped with admiration at how the authors have "tied it all up". Some have resonated for years after. So thinking out loud as it were (and agreeing with you Nicola!) the ending is just as important as the beginning as well as a strong middle. If a novel falters in between these points, hopefully you've grabbed the readers' attention enough for them to give you "the benefit of doubt"; for them to read on.

Personally, for interest: my first novel ends on a relatively high note just after a chase and a traumatic scene. My second is utterly tragic, and my third will be echoes of horror (nightmare). I try not to write overt horror but imply it; also this is the first time that I have written the final six or seven paragraphs of a novel first, before even starting the first chapter. I guess I'm not the only one to write a novel this way i.e knowing the beginning, the end, with vague middle, then writing to "fill in the gaps" or "create the jigsaw puzzle", depending on which analogy you prefer!


Edith Sitwell said...

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sheilamcperry said...

Thanks for a really useful post - I am editing the last chapter of something at the moment. I wouldn't have known what I'd written was a 'second ending' without reading this! I just got to the exciting bit I thought was the ending, where somebody was saved at the last minute from being thrown down a disused mineshaft near Auchterderran, then realised there were lots of loose ends still to tidy up, and another ending I had only just thought of as well.
I'm glad this kind of double ending has a name and official status.