Endings. No one favors them. No one. Not the writer, not the reader. The writer will always wonder if they could have ended it better. The reader will always wonder, “What happens next?”
The same way endings in real life are confusing and mysterious in their own way, so should the endings of books. There are endings that break us, endings that fill us, even endings that anger us. Perhaps there is no right way to end a novel. But there are ways to do so ineffectively. Because the ending of a book – a true ending, not the end of a book in a series for our purposes today – unlike the ending of a chapter in our lives, should be left up to interpretation.
So. How should you not end a novel?
Tell the reader exactly what she is supposed to have learned
I have a bad habit of crafting one-liners at the ends of my stories that do this, and I’m working on training myself not to do it. People will read between the lines – or they won’t, and that’s fine. The thing about writing books is that not everyone will get the exact same messages out of them. That doesn’t mean we have to tell them exactly what they should have gathered from reading our stories.
Let them figure it out for themselves. You are not an English teacher (at least, while writing your book: maybe teaching is your ‘side job,’ hahaha). It’s not up to you to say, “This is what this meant.” You have to learn to be okay with the fact that releasing your story into the world means you have to give up your control over its messaging. Wouldn’t you rather people discuss their thoughts than feed pre-determined thoughts to them in your closing paragraphs?
Answer all the questions your future readers might ask
Hank Green was asked via Tumblr this week what happens to Hazel after TFIOS ends (let that sink in for a moment). There are going to be people out there who want to know what happens to their favorite characters after the story comes to a close. Does that mean you should pull a Deathly Hallows and craft an epilogue so tightly woven there are far fewer questions left to be asked? Only if you have written six other books, over the course of almost a decade, that have produced a following worthy of this kind of ending.
They do not need to know everything that happens after the ending of the story you set out to tell. You are not required to disclose that information. You are allowed to let people make inferences for themselves: it does not change the story you have already written. Fan theories can be fun! Even if you don’t agree with them. At least people are engaging with your story in their own way.
Give the reader exactly what she is hoping for
You don’t have to be a total dream-crusher, but don’t spoil your readers, either. Books are not always going to end the way we expect or hope. I had a friend who was surprised that TFIOS did not end in the middle of an unfinished sentence (if you’ve read it, you know why that would make sense). He never would have done that. Even I guessed it might end that way, but when it didn’t, I applauded him for it.
Though many probably disagree with me, I stand firm in the belief that it is not a writer’s job to please a reader. I can give you a good story to read, but I can’t promise you a fairytale unless I want to write one. Until it is in your hands, it is my book. It is my decision. One of my favorite books that I’ve ever written, the two main characters did not get together at the end. They were never intended to. Yet it was not a waste of time, writing an entire story that could have ended in their romance. That was the point. Sometimes I feel like readers get so caught up in their own fantasies that they miss the writer’s point.
I love my future readers (if you’re out there). But come on. We have to work together here.
A story will always have a central conflict, and that central conflict, in one way or another, will always be resolved. A main character will always (hopefully) learn a lesson. How an author chooses to end her book, however, is unpredictable. And that is what I love about endings. If I can predict it, if I am told everything I I didn’t want to know, if I am given exactly what I want – I’m sorry. I just can’t call it great. It might be a good book. But the ending cannot measure up.
What do you consider to be a ‘great’ ending to a novel? Do you have anything to add to this list of novel ending don’ts? Do you completely disagree with me (it’s ok if you do)? :)
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter.
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