I’m a believer in the theory that there’s no “right” way to do things in creative projects. Just think about it, if all artists followed tradition, we’d still be looking at stick-figure-like paintings or images of people only in profile. If all musicians stuck to the rules, we’d only be listening to chamber music… or probably not even that. The point is innovation and risk are a part of the creative process. However, in music, art, and writing, there are rules that are good guidelines to follow and others to avoid.
Writer’s Digest recently posted an article compiling some Dos and Don’ts to creating a compelling and successful novel ending. According to the author of the article James V. Smith, Jr., they are as follows:
Don’t introduce any new characters or subplots. Any appearances within the last 50 pages should have been foreshadowed earlier, even if mysteriously.
Don’t describe, muse, explain or philosophize. Keep description to a minimum, but maximize action and conflict. You have placed all your charges. Now, light the fuse and run.
Do create that sense of Oh, wow! Your best novelties and biggest surprises should go here. Readers love it when some early, trivial detail plays a part in the finale. One or more of those things need to show up here as decisive elements.
Do enmesh your reader deeply in the outcome. Get her so involved that she cannot put down your novel to go to bed, to work or even to the bathroom until she sees how it turns out.
Do resolve the central conflict. You don’t have to provide a happily-ever-after ending, but do try to uplift. Readers want to be uplifted, and editors try to give readers what they want.
Do afford redemption to your heroic character. No matter how many mistakes she has made along the way, allow the reader—and the character—to realize that, in the end, she has done the right thing.
Do tie up loose ends of significance. Every question you planted in a reader’s mind should be addressed, even if the answer is to say that a character will address that issue later, after the book ends.
Do mirror your final words to events in your opener. When you begin a journey of writing a novel, already having established a destination, it’s much easier to make calculated detours, twists and turns in your storytelling tactics. When you reach the ending, go back to ensure some element in each of your complications will point to it. It’s the tie-back tactic. You don’t have to telegraph the finish. Merely create a feeling that the final words hearken to an earlier moment in the story.
Don’t change voice, tone or attitude. An ending will feel tacked on if the voice of the narrator suddenly sounds alien to the voice that’s been consistent for the previous 80,000 words.
Don’t resort to gimmicks. No quirky twists or trick endings. You’re at the end of your story, and if your reader has stuck with you the whole time, it’s because you’ve engaged her, because she has participated. The final impression you want to create is a positive one. Don’t leave your reader feeling tricked or cheated.
I agree with that last rule especially. One trick that always pisses me off is getting to the end and finding out something ridiculous like, “It was all a dream” or “He’s actually crazy!” Learning that the story you just invested hours in never actually happened, or was all a lie, isn’t intriguing. It’s annoying. It makes the time feel wasted. At least, it does to me.
Are there ways to disobey every single rule on this list and still create a fantastic ending? Of course there is. Will most people who try to do that be successful? Nope. In fact, they’ll probably only succeed in creating a story that makes people roll their eyes and mutter, “You have got to be kidding me.” People remember endings in more detail than the rest of the story. Even if a reader enjoyed 90% of your book, you can turn them off of every buying another if you leave them with a sour taste in their mouth. So what’s the best advice to follow? Write the kind of ending you like to see when you’re reading someone else’s book.