SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for Big Little Lies and The Giver.
What better way to start a series on storytelling than by focusing on the ending? After all, it’s what most people read for, anyway. Readers want to know who the killer is, if the main character will get their love interest, or if the world can be saved from zombies. They may be happy to enjoy the ride as you take them on a journey through your writing, but you need to satisfy them with a well-thought-out ending.
As far as the writing process is concerned, it’s up to you to decide when you will write the ending. Some writers know exactly how their story will end the second they sit down to write it while others may need more time to explore their options. It doesn’t matter when, where, or how you write your ending as long as it's good! Here are two things to keep in mind when writing your ending.
Understand Just Deserts
This point is for those who will have the main villain(s) in their story lose in the end. If this is not the case for you, move on to the next point.
Many popular novels have a hero fighting against a villain. After going through the many trials and tribulations with the hero, the reader is looking forward to that sweet, sweet moment when we witness the villain’s demise. If this moment is either rushed or doesn’t fully give the villain his comeuppance then you might be at risk for an unsatisfying ending.
An example of both a rushed and an unsatisfying ending can be found in Lane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. Now, I’m a big fan of this book; I love the characterization and intricate plots that Moriarty created. But I still couldn’t help but feel that the ending was rushed and that the bad guy didn’t get his just deserts.
At the end of the novel, we learn that one character’s abusive husband assaulted her friend and is the father of that friend’s child. As soon as this is revealed, the abusive husband is pushed to his death. While I’m glad that such a terrible man did suffer this fate, I don’t think he was punished enough. The assault left the character, Jane, with cripplingly low self-esteem, an eating disorder, and a child to care for. A quick topple over a balcony is too easy a punishment for this man as he never learned how he traumatized Jane or that he is the father of her child. I wanted to see him feel remorse for his actions or at least be made to face the consequences and know he can no longer hold up his reputation as a loving family man. After reading almost 500 pages of this book, I felt like the ending was rushed by just to get to the villain’s demise.
If the aim of your story is to show the downfall of an unlikable or evil character, make sure they get what they deserve. As the writer, you should know what is valued by this character other than their life. They could be consumed by a desire to have power, to be the most attractive, to keep up their reputation, or to ascend the ranks in their evil organization. After you find what they value, take it away from them at the end of the story. It’s not enough to have the baddie simply die in the end. To give the reader a truly satisfying ending, have the villain lose in a way that is specific to them.
Make Sure There is a Point to Your Open Ending
Indeterminacy has been around in Literature for ages. It simply refers to parts of the text which leave the reader to fill in the gaps. There is absolutely nothing wrong with leaving your ending open for interpretation if there is a point to it.
The Giver by Lois Lowry does indeterminacy right. The main character, Jonas, saves the baby, Gabriel, from being “released” (a.k.a killed) and escapes from the ultra-controlled community in which they lived. The book leaves the fate of the two boys unresolved as the reader is not sure if they will survive their escape or die from exposure to the elements. The ambiguity of this ending holds up a mirror to the reader. Does the reader believe that it is possible to escape the clutches of authoritarian society or does the reader believe Jonas’ efforts are fruitless up against such a powerful organization?
The ambiguity in The Giver has a deep philosophical point and involves the main theme of the novel (and yes, lit geeks, I know ambiguity and indeterminacy are not completely the same thing). If you leave your ending open for interpretation, ask yourself if there is a reason behind it. Don’t do it just to make it seem like you’re a deep, compelling writer. Don’t create an elaborate labyrinth of a book with mysteries and hidden clues only to leave the ending open to interpretation. That’s just wasting the reader’s time. Any unanswered questions in your writing should play into the central point you’re trying to make in the novel as a whole.
Takeaway: Make sure the reader is as satisfied reading your ending as you are.