After putting so much work into your story, it’s natural to want a perfect ending. Your ending solidifies the reader’s interpretation of everything that came before it. It’s also the part most likely to make readers feel disappointed or betrayed. You can write a perfect story only to have it ruined by the wrong ending.
Despite all that, there’s no reason to fear your ending any more than the beginning or the middle. It just needs to follow naturally from the rest of the book and sufficiently resolve major plot threads. Keep these tips in mind as you write:
Resolve your story (including major subplots)…
While you needn’t — and shouldn’t — wrap up every last detail, readers need enough resolution to imagine what happens next. They need to feel certain that this is, and should be, the end of your book. Don’t leave them on the last page saying, “Wait? That’s it?”
Don’t forget your subplots, either. If you’ve spent your and your readers’ time developing a subplot, you owe everyone at least an implied resolution. Otherwise readers will reflect on your story and wonder, “But what about _______?” This gives the impression that you either forgot about that storyline or didn’t bother to connect it to your main story. Either way, it’s a waste of words.
…but don’t resolve it too thoroughly.
That said, your ending shouldn’t provide complete closure and resolution. Like a friend who keeps butting in and stealing the punch line every time you tell a story, a too-tidy ending cuts off readers’ imagination.
Lead your characters right up to the first stages of the story’s resolution, but stop short of tying up every loose end. Trust your readers to imagine how things pan out months or years in the future. This will keep your characters alive in their minds and help them maintain a connection to your story long after they read the last page.
Try to balance the karmic equations.
This is a somewhat controversial belief, but I stand by it: your story should feel balanced.
That doesn’t mean every character has to get exactly what’s coming to them. Real life is messy and unfair and your fiction should reflect that. However, readers do want to see characters experience consequences for their actions — even if those consequences are 100 percent internal. Real people have to grapple with the effects of their choices even if no one else sees it. Showing your characters going through this process will make them more interesting and believable.
Also, be careful who becomes collateral damage in your story. Social media recently exploded over the cult favorite TV show Veronica Mars’ Season Four finale. Fans were irate over the death of a secondary character in the show’s final moments. This character had become a fan favorite with a complex arc and their death felt meaningless and unearned. While such decisions may set you up for planned sequels, those sequels need an audience. Readers who feel angry or betrayed by your ending may decide not to read more of your work.
Remember the stakes you established in the beginning.
Back in your opening chapters, you focused on stakes: who was your main character? What did they want? What were they afraid to lose? Those stakes carried you through the book and helped you stay focused. Don’t lose sight of them now. They’re the key to a complex and satisfying ending.
The middle of your novel likely threw a few curveballs at your protagonist. The landscape has shifted since that first chapter. So have the stakes.
Your main character either got (or kept) what they wanted or they didn’t, but you have unlimited ways to show readers what that means. Maybe your protagonist got what they wanted, but it no longer feels like a victory. Or maybe the worst happened and they learned they could survive it after all. Whatever happens, it should connect to the stakes that have driven your plot and character development throughout the book.