Story endings are a minefield for writers. They get people fired up, and not always in a good way. Diehard fans can get apoplectic about the finale of their favorite television show. Readers feel betrayed when they invest hours in a book only to finish the last page thinking “wait, that’s the end?” People love a good story, but if that story serves them a bad ending? Watch out.
Unfortunately for us writers, the definition of a bad ending varies from person to person. Sometimes I hate the way an ending makes me feel, but I understand and respect it as a writer. The ending we want isn’t always the ending the story needs.
I won’t claim authority on something so subjective as story endings. Like everyone else, though, I do have strong feelings about them. The wrong ending can leave me feeling suddenly unsatisfied after a thrilling story, or personally affronted by a lingering moral imbalance. Here are my four least-favorite last-page scenarios:
Too ambiguous for me to understand the protagonist’s evolution/journey
From the first page to the last, we accompany a book’s protagonist on a journey. That journey should leave us feeling changed somehow, and that requires your main character to change as well. Without this, why does your story matter?
Characters can change in many ways throughout a story. Some don’t appear to change on the outside, yet something crystallizes on the inside. It can be subtle, but we should conclude the story in a different place than where we started.
One surefire way to sabotage this journey is an ambiguous final scene where the protagonist makes a choice we don’t fully understand. I don’t always care that it’s a good choice, but I very much want to know how much of an active choice it really was and what the protagonist’s motivations were. The final pages require plenty of emotional exposition. Readers should understand what’s happening in your protagonist’s heart and mind and what these last events truly mean to them.
I keep turning the last page over to confirm that’s it
The end of a book is something I expect to feel in my bones. I don’t need every thread tied up neatly, but I do need to feel the train slowing down and realize this is my stop. Sometimes I read a book and flip through the final pages several times to confirm I didn’t miss anything: none stuck together, I didn’t fall asleep without realizing there was still a whole chapter remaining, etc. Listen to your beta readers and critique group on this one: if your story leaves them asking, “that’s it? That’s the end?” you need to change something.
Happily ever after…yes we promise…really…we’ll show you just to be safe…
Reading is an act of imagination. The best writers trust their readers’ imaginations and leave their endings open-ended enough to keep their beloved characters alive. Perhaps the most unfortunate ending for me is one that clubs me over the head with happily-ever-after.
The worst offenders are books with epilogues that skip ahead several years to show us exactly how everything turns out. It’s not that I mind a happy ending, but I want to be the one to imagine it. A truly satisfying ending will give us enough closure to feel secure leaving that last page behind, but not so much that we have nothing left to think about.
Memorable characters can live on in readers’ minds forever. They feel like real people who we might be able to catch up with like old friends several years from now. Strive for endings that place your characters on a definite path toward the future, but stop short of explaining every detail of what that future holds.
But what about [insert big subplot here]?
Don’t get me wrong: I do expect closure at the end of a book, and that includes subplots. If a tangential plot thread felt important enough to include at all, it’s important enough to warrant some sort of conclusion. If you leave those threads hanging, you risk looking like you simply forgot about them.
There you have it: my biggest story ending gripes. Since endings are highly subjective, I’d love to hear what you look for in an ending and what drives you crazy.