Jill Hedgecock is the author of four suspense novels and writes monthly book reviews and pet columns for a Bay Area newspaper, The Diablo Gazette. Her work has appeared in Bark Magazine, Books N’ Pieces Magazine, and American West. Jill twice received the Distinguished Service Award from the Mount Diablo branch of the California Writers Club and has been selected by the Club to receive the 2023 Jack London Award. Her novels include the award-winning Rhino in the Room, Queen of the Rhino, and Between Shadow’s Eyes. When Jill isn’t writing, she dabbles in the fine arts and competes in dog agility. To learn more about her books and her developmental editing services, visit www.jillhedgecock.com. Jill lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with three rescue dogs.
Finding the perfect ending to a novel is hard. Just ask Hemingway, who wrote 40 different endings to A Farewell to Arms. Readers will often overlook slow pacing, lackluster characters, and seemingly endless descriptions. They will sometimes tolerate purple prose and melodrama. However, their patience will evaporate if, when they turn the final page, the author fails to deliver a gratifying ending. In this post, I will discuss:
- the importance of endings,
- six different types of endings,
- some dos and don’ts, and
- when the writer should know the ending
The Importance of Endings
Readers are more likely to take issue with a novel’s conclusion than any other part of the story. They have invested hours of their time and want the time spent to be worthwhile. If the ending delivers, fans will sing their praises about the brilliance of the novel. But if the ending disappoints, readers will consider all their hard work to get to that final page was all for naught. But not all reader’s expectations are the same. Some readers are content to allow the author to leave the conclusion open-ended. Others are interested only in the author’s version of events and feel cheated if a character’s fate isn’t revealed.
Dickens learned first-hand how failure to deliver a suitable ending can incite outrage. Because of public outcry, Dickens reworked the ending of Great Expectations. To this day, most readers only know the second ending. Dickens wrote of the revised ending: “I have put in as pretty a little piece of writing as I could, and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration.” Even with the rewrite, the controversy continued, though. George Bernard Shaw said of Dicken’s chosen ending for Great Expectations: The novel “is too serious a book to be a trivially happy one. Its beginning is unhappy; its middle is unhappy; and the conventional happy ending is an outrage on it.”
Six Ways to End a Novel
- Full Circle. In general, all beginnings in novels should link to the ending. But in this type of ending, the opening and closing similarities can be literal. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton opens and closes with the same sentence.
Hemingway used the same setting to employ a circular technique in For Whom the Bell Tolls:
Beginning Line: “He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.”
Ending: “He was waiting until the officer reached the sunlit place where the first trees of the pine forest joined the green slope of the meadow. He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.”
Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie comes close to a nearly verbatim conclusion:
Beginning Line: “The last class of my old professor’s life took place once a week in his house, by a window in the study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant shed its pink leaves.”
Ending (in the Conclusion): “The last class of my old professor’s life took place once a week in his house, by a window in the study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant shed its pink leaves. The class met on Tuesdays. No books were required. The subject was the meaning of life. It was taught from experience. The teaching goes on.”
- Open-Ended. Vague endings are often used in series to allow for stories to continue or in standalone novels to allow readers to fill in the blanks. This approach is also frequently utilized in literary novels. The extreme version of this option, the cliffhanger, isn’t usually advisable because readers hate cliffhanger endings, especially in a series where they feel manipulated into having to purchase the next book.
Some novelists have taken this approach so far as to conclude their books with an incomplete last sentence. The Castle by Kafka ends mid-sentence. However, this wasn’t the author’s intention—Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1922 before the book was finished. But there are other books where the unfinished sentence is intentional, such as in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, where the ending suggests the grandfather composing a letter to his grandsons has died before he completed writing his letter.
- Metaphorical. If done with finesse, metaphorical endings can be brilliant. Richard Wright employed a shining example of this method with his metaphorical and circular ending to Native Son using the sense of sound. In the opening scene of this novel, Bigger Thomas, a poor, uneducated, twenty-year-old black man in 1930s Chicago, is startled awake by an alarm ringing (“Brrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinng!”). The book concludes with a metal door clanging shut, another jarring sound. These opening and closing lines are in complete balance with the violent nature of this novel.
- Thematic Conclusion. Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild, which chronicles her journey hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail, provides a great example of a thematic conclusion. In the beginning, the narrator admires the view from a mountaintop and describes herself as taller than the trees, setting up the idea of a “human versus nature” theme. The novel closes with the sense that she is at peace with the wild nature of the world.
- Revelation/Surprise. Character-driven books often end with a revelation about themselves or the human condition. Mysteries and thriller genres are conducive to surprise endings. But literary fiction has also employed this technique. In Sara Gruen’s. Water for Elephants, the novel opens with an elderly man trying to remember his age and closes with a more confident man who knows that he’s 93 and that his age doesn’t matter. Twists must always be set up throughout the novel and well-executed to work.
- Ironic/Rhetorical. Rhetorical or ironic endings, especially those that end in questions, are usually aligned with an open-ended approach. However, a writer that relies on rhetoric should be aware that this approach can result in two-dimensional characters and weak plots. Just like ending a novel with a twist, using rhetoric to wrap up a book can be a slippery slope unless done exceptionally well. Humorous novels, such as Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where the main characters ironically head toward the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, have successfully pulled off this type of ending.
Dos and Don’ts
While there can be exceptions, there are general dos and don’ts a writer should abide by when drafting the conclusion of a chapter. A writer should also be aware of expectations specific to their genre. For example, romance novels must end with a happily ever after or happy-for-now scenario. A humorous novel can end with the punchline of a joke. Still, that approach would most likely be an inappropriate concluding line in the murder mystery genre, especially if the narrator is a somber detective.
- Tie up loose ends and resolve the main conflict
- Keep description to a minimum
- Show how characters have changed or not changed
- Include trivial details early that will play a role in the finale
- Continue the story after the climax
- Introduce a new character or subplot in the last 50 pages
- Create an Improbable Ending (don’t leave the reader with an eye roll)
- End with “It was all a dream.”
When Should a Writer Know the Ending?
It’s best to have a solid sense of your novel ending at the outset, but don’t be afraid to shift directions and allow yourself to trust the process. It’s worth repeating that finding the perfect ending to a book is hard. A great exercise is brainstorming ten different endings to your novel and then selecting the best one. If you’re stuck, try writing ten endings that wouldn’t work. Regardless of what type of ending you ultimately choose to wrap up your book, make sure that you resolve the main plot and tie up the loose ends of your subplots.
As I said at the beginning of this post, finding the perfect ending to a book is hard. But with a little bit of brainstorming and by understanding the various ways to wrap up your prose, writers can find that killer ending that will leave their readers happy, satisfied, and searching for your next book.
A similar version of the content in this blog post appeared as an article in the May edition of Books N Pieces Magazine.