I recently spent a brilliant day at Mountbatten School in Romsey talking to groups of children about my book and writing in general. Much of that time was spent taking questions and trying to present some semblance of a useful answer, especially to the group of young creative writers. I failed to answer one question in a way I felt was adequate and so I’m going to try to do so here.
As you may have guessed, the question was How do you create a satisfactory ending? It’s something I’ve found at the front or back of my mind since I left the school. I felt bad for failing to give a good answer at the time, but I was also kind of curious as to what the correct answer is.
As with so many things in writing, the answer is (at least partially) that there is no correct answer. Every rule you can come up with there will be a story that breaks it somehow, and besides, if there were hard and fast rules the audience would know the ending early on because the rules say that is how the ending must be.
That said, there are two types of ending: the closed ending and the open ending. Most stories will feature some kind of combination of the two because, unless your story ends with the destruction of the universe, there will always be some things that aren’t wrapped up in a nice little bow. However, the two can be summed up as [closed ending] the hero is triumphant and the bad guys are punished or “and they lived happily ever after”, or [open ending] our lead character(s) is/are left with a dilemna, the resolution of which is left up to the audience to decide upon, or a character is left to think about and understand their situation and how they came to be the authors of it, while life continues around them.
The former is clearly more typical of genre fiction while the latter would be more likely considered either literary fiction (in the book world) or arthouse (in cinema). As an aside, some notable examples of the latter would be No Country For Old Men and The Long Good Friday, but also more mainstream fair like The Italian Job and the TV series The Shield.
Now, if you are working within a genre, there will be some conventions to uphold or subvert. A detective will always get his man (unless he doesn’t – see Sherlock Holmes and Moriaty). Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back, or vice versa (unless he or she fails to do so). So to a certain extent your ending will be defined by the genre you are working in. You know that in a detective story you must have some red-herrings but also must have a suitable ending with enough clues dotted throughout the story that the resolution will make sense to your audience when they look back. However, this could be subverted by casting some doubt over the veracity of the arrest – this would perhaps be effective in an ongoing series of detective novels, adding a nagging doubt or guilt to a detective that s/he may have done the wrong thing.
But whatever you do in a genre novel, there is clearly some kind of finishing point that you are aiming for, and even a subversion of the conventions will still be referencing those conventions in some way or another. In, for wont of a better all-encompassing term, literary fiction you have a broader canvass to play with and your ending can go in any direction you like.
But then, that’s not strictly true, is it? Your ending can’t go in any way you like because, if it is well written, your characters won’t allow it to go in just any direction. Your characters, who must come alive to your audience, will behave in certain ways and will direct the story in a certain direction, and this is key to creating a satisfactory ending. The first and most important thing is that whatever happens at the end must be true to your characters and so be believable to your audience. The most unsatisfactory way for a story to end is to be left saying “But s/he wouldn’t do that!”
However, that still doesn’t tell you how the story should end. Well, there are two keys here, to my mind – and again, as with every other rule, they are there to be broken. The first is that, generally speaking, there will be a unity of theme flowing throughout the piece, something which is reflected in your characters and the through-line of the story, something which supplies some semblance of an answer to the question “What was that about?”. In a genre piece this will typically be just “a jewel heist”/”a murder”/”a blossoming affair between two rival cheese-merchants”/whatever. In literary fiction (again, used as a generic term), this might be “the class rivalries in rural England”/”the way that power can corrupt even the most innocent”/”the ethics of modern meat production as told through the eyes of star-crossed cheese-makers”/whatever. The point is, in this more open type of story you are looking to put a cap not on your plot but on your theme. Your resolution could instead be considered akin to the conclusion of an essay – you are looking for a sequence in which your characters can embody the sum parts of the argument you are constructing about your theme earlier in the story.
But, and here’s perhaps the most crucial part, there should be a sense of dramatic resolution to it. You don’t want your resolution to be didactic. If you end up just telling the audience what the point of everything that went before was, that’s not satisfying for anyone. Instead, your summary needs to shine through in the actions of your characters.
Of course, there’s a second part to this question, and that’s the more immediate How do you end a story? By which I would take a more literal reading – literally how do you write the final page, the final full stop? How do you make that last sentence work? And the answer to that is… I don’t know. It it will completely depend on what has gone before. You may want to leave your reader/viewer in the seat of your protagonist by ending on their final thought on all that has gone before. You may want to leave them more abruptly at the culmination of all that has gone before – when the girl is swept off her feet by the boy, when the detective announces the villain to the room, when the white-hatted cowboy shoots the black-hatted cowboy – it is, after all, the most dramatic moment of the story and could send your reader out on a high.
But at the end of the day, as I said, it is particular to what has already transpired in your story and it is something that will probably come from a combination of instinct and trial and error. If you’re not sure, write an ending, leave it for a week and then come back to it. Re-read what you have written – if it works, keep it, if not change it.
And now I am just left with the puzzle of how to end this piece. Erm…