And man, I’m with her. Endings are a bite to get right.
We all want to know how to write a good ending to a story. Don’t we?
Clearly, every story has to end. Even if you just stop writing, the story ends. Thing is, a real ending, a true ending, is more than just the brick wall you hit going 100 MPH. The ending is the capstone — or, hell, the keystone — to the story. If your story is a circle — trust me on this, it’s not a line, it’s a circle — then the ending is the closing of that circle. It’s more than just the dead-ending of your plot. It’s a culmination. It’s a knot tying together all the threads. Yes, every story is a journey, blah blah blah, but if your journey ends on an unsatisfying note (you’re left alone in a field of gray mud, or worse, you’re attacked by a pack of rabid marmots), then that journey is forever remembered as, “Hey, do you recall that trip we took? The one where we were left crawling in mud just before we were given rabies by a bunch of angry polecats? Fuck that trip. Fuck that journey right in its ear.”
A lame or shitty ending of a story runs the risk of ruining the entire story. Doesn’t matter how much someone loved it. If the end leaves them flat, or worse, betrays the reader in some way, that’s it. Might as well put a bullet in the back of the story’s head and leave its body in a ditch somewhere.
For example (and I won’t spoil): the movie, Up in the Air.
I love the first 2/3rds of that movie. Love it.
And then comes the ending.
And the ending is a terrible ending. It’s a cheat. It’s a false flag.
And now the film makes me angry.Like, vibrantly, vividly angry.
It makes me want to throw things at George Clooney. Cats. Babies. Shuriken. It’s not even his fault. It’s just a movie. But that’s how invested we get in stories. Better you fuck up the beginning of a story, really — at least I can either choose to get out early or try to muscle through. But you dick up the ending? You fail to stick the landing? Man, I was in it. I read or watched all the way through. And now you do me like that?
That’s cold. Cold as ice.
Bad endings are story-killers, plain and simple.
So. Here’s how not to fuck it up.
Define: The End
Let me quick define my terms, here. Just so we’re all on the same boat.
The end is not the very end. That’s not what I mean. The very end is part of this, yes, but I don’t mean like, the last five minutes or five pages.
In terms of narrative structure, I consider the whole of the third act to be “the end.” It’s the final turn. It’s the final sequence of events (or close to it). That third act, when everything comes to a head and must be dealt with on the page and in the character’s lives, is a big deal. That whole act needs to work. Look at a film like Batman Begins. Your mileage may vary, but it seems in wide agreement that the third act is when the wheels come off the train on that story. It fails to live up to the rest. It doesn’t tie anything together. It doesn’t really carry the themes and ideas forward. It fails to bring the story circle to a close.
We All Deserve A Good End
I’ve seen the occasional comment that pairs the notion of one’s life with the idea of a story — so, because our lives are often subject to dissatisfying ends, that makes the lives we live the important part, and so it is that stories should be allowed to follow the same pattern. Once more, succinctly put: “It is the journey that matters, not the destination.”
Bzzt! No! Nuh-huh! Someone hook a car battery up to his scrotum.
Life and fiction do not have parity. Yes, if you’re writing James Joyce’s Ulysses, you might go ahead and make a case. This isn’t that. This is a day and an age where we are trying to write fiction that sells; we must seek to tell stories that “mean something,” yes, but novels that also are capable of serving as popular entertainment. (At least, that’s what I’m trying to do. You can have it both ways. No false dichotomies here, or once more you shall find your nuts strapped up to a car battery, because that’s how I roll.)
We must then ask: what makes a good ending?
A good ending is satisfying. It resolves the threads of the story. A story has many threads: character arcs, themes, ideas, plots, and so forth. A good ending ties up most of these. The best ending ties them all.
A good ending is unexpected. An ending that tumbles ineluctably toward an expected end is dull, listless, lifeless. This isn’t universal, and some case could be made for the way a tragedy plays out exactly as we expect (which is to say, with the hero damning himself full circle), but for the most part, we don’t strap ourselves in for two hours or 400 pages only to be led by the nose toward the place we always imaged. A good ending subverts our expectations. A good ending allows the storyteller to be the storyteller — meaning, she is who she is, and that’s why we trust her. We trust her to take us to a new place. It is important, however, not to conflate “unexpected” with “surprise.” Not that surprise endings are bad; I only mean to say that we don’t all need to be Hitchcock or M. Night Shyamalan.
A good ending does not betray the audience. An ending can resolve the threads and deliver the unexpected and still be a poor ending. An ending that betrays the audience is an ending that drags us kicking and screaming into a place not only unexpected, but a place we as the audience didn’t want to go. No hard and fast rules exist here, because every story is different, and every story features its own rules. But some examples are worth looking at: a story whose characters betray themselves and act against what we know will feel like a betrayal. A mystery story whose mystery is answered by elements we could have never seen coming (“It was the monkey butler that killed the starlet! Even though this story never had a monkey butler until right now!”) can be a betrayal. The needless death of a protagonist can feel like a betrayal. The goal posts shift; the rules stand on uncertain ground. Even still, you must know the tenor of your tale, and know when the turn of your story becomes an unnecessary turn of the knife.
A good ending does not go on without end. The end is a resolution. It is a finish line. Do not dangle a carrot on a stick and then pull it back, back, back. Yes, if the audience is enjoying the story, you have some leeway. But don’t get cocky, kid. Everybody has a limit. Every tale can grow tiresome. Tell only the ending you need to tell. Do not cram. Do not drag it out.
A good ending makes the audience sad that it’s over. That’s a good thing. You want to leave them hungry for more — not “more” as in “this feels unfinished,” but “more” as in “I love these characters and this world so much I want to be a part of it forever.” Good. Great. That means you left them at the top of the game, rather than at its nadir. You went out strong. That’s where you stop.
What else makes a good ending?
Stick The Landing… Or Fall Flat On Your Facemeats
In a gymnastics, how you land — meaning, how you end your routine — matters. You can do all kinds of awesome shit, flipping and back-flipping and pirouetting on your tongue and making dolphin noises, but if you dick up that landing, if you step wrong and twist the ankle and fall flat on your smug, smirking face, then that is what everyone will remember about that routine. Always and forever.
Same thing goes for writing.
You have to stick the landing.
How, you ask?
Plan for the ending. It’s like estate planning. You live a life, and while you cannot control what happens to you (run over by a bus driven by drunken wombats!), you do have a measure of control over what happens in and around your demise. The casket. The DNR (do not resuscitate). The will where all your estate money goes to your Labradoodle. Whatever. Plan for the ending in your story. It helps to know the ending before you begin, and this is again and again why I advocate some measure of planning and plotting: your ending is the biggest tentpole of them all. If you know your end, you know what you’re working toward. Even if you don’t know the exact end, try to have a hazy notion of what can, should, and must occur. Build toward it. Seed details. Include only those threads you know can be bound together.
And yet, be versatile. Your story will sometimes buck the ropes and bite the bit. Let it. Let it do what it must. You’re still in control, yes, but if the story feels like it’s straining against your preconceived notions, it just means you’re working against yourself. A natural ending may arise that is far better than the one you planned. Or, you may find that the end you planned suddenly feels bitter in your mouth: a betrayal of some ilk. Fine. Good. The proper ending has made itself known. Go with the right ending, not the planned ending. Planning the ending was still a good idea, though, because it got you this far. It prevented you from writing yourself into a dark hole or an endless hallway.
An ending is about characters. Yes, certainly some part of an end is about the world you’ve built and the lofty ideas contained within, but at the end of the day what we most want as an audience is a satisfying ending for the characters. This, by the way, is because we are all characters in our own stories. We relate to characters, and so characters are your priority.
Try multiple endings. Endings for the storyteller are like pairs of shoes; slip some on, kick others off. You’ll find the right fit. The storyteller has multiple endings, but the audience sees only one. Play the what if game. Keep playing it until you find the way out, until the circle closes.
Know your conflicts. A story is driven by its conflicts, because the conflicts are what prevent the characters from getting what they want. If you know your conflicts, you know your ending. You may not know that you know it, but if you really have your conflicts in hand (and a story has many), then you know the questions that must be answered.
Do not confuse “happy” with “satisfying.” Not every ending needs to be happy. Not every story calls for it. You’re aiming for satisfaction for the audience, not happiness for the characters. They may coincide. They may not. The victory may be Pyrrhic: conflicts resolved, but at what cost for the characters?
What else? What else constitutes a good ending?
What endings of what stories work for you?
What endings failed you? Betrayed you? Made you feel ehhh?
How is this complicated by episodic storytelling? TV? Comic books?
And don’t think you’re not allowed to talk about games. Games are a troubling transgressor, often committing the crime of “Crappy Ending in the First Degree.” What games have had good, or great, endings? Oh, and spoiler warnings if you’re going to go that far with it.