Approaching the end of a novel can be quite exciting, especially coming out of the bog that is the middle. You’re checking off scenes from your outline, if you did one. Those of us who don’t outline, can now see ways the book might end. (I’m typically 2-4 chapters from the climax when I can see my ending.)
A lot of workshops, classes, and how-to book focus on beginnings and character development. Endings are no easier to understand than the rest of the craft.
What makes an end satisfying for the reader?
Always consider the reader when creating a story. Your first priority is to make her feel welcome in your story, which you did in the opening. Now the reader needs satisfaction from the book. Meaning: the major mystery must solved, and the big conflicts resolved. A smaller mystery can remain—such as What does the hero do now?—but never give your reader a reason to throw the book across the room.
But there’s something you should consider long before the dust of the final battle has settled. The writer must tighten the plot by forcing the hero of the story to throw everything on the line.
This is simple in concept, difficult to actually do.
What I mean is this… Remember the try/fail cycles? The hero tries something, fails, tries again, fails but gets closer, etc. There comes a point when the hero has nothing left to lose, has given everything he’s got to defeat the menace, and now risks whatever little he has left. You’ll know you’re near the end of the book when you’ve reached this point, whether you’ve outlined or not.
You get to the dramatic height of the story by layering try/fail cycles, one right after another. So keep the characters floundering, and never make it easy on them to solve their predicament. The ending will be much sweeter when they finally do figure out how to solve the mystery.
As for the end itself, the final confrontation should not take up only one page. Perhaps more try/fail cycles are needed to flesh out the final try. You’ve built up to this point, make it as big and flashy as needed.
The big questions posed by the opening pages of your novel are now answered in the last pages. Be sure to answer them clearly. Satisfy the reader, and reward her for going along on the journey.
Once the plot is resolved, you’re not quite done yet. You have to show the characters’ lives go on (or the world goes on, if the characters die). Give the story a validation. The classic validation is the last minute of the original Star Wars movie, with the awards ceremony. Study that scene to know a nifty way to end a story.
Not necessary, but a useful trick in storytelling, is to loop the end back to the beginning. For example, was it snowing in chapter one? Make it snow in the final chapter, if you can. This is a simple and powerful technique to give the reader that warm feeling. So when nearing the final chapters, it may be wise to look back over your opening scene for clues on how to end the novel. You may be surprised what your subconscious layered in the first chapter without you even realizing it.
Most importantly, have fun.
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