Here's the thing: Endings. Endings are the thing. Endings are Every Thing.
At least when you are writing. Or reading.
Ending is not the cherry on top. Ending is so integral to your plot, you can't separate them. At least, not if you want to write anything anybody wants to read. The Ending is what you've been selling the whole time you planned, plotted, backstoried, character developed, and wrote your Great American Novel.
A good ending won't save a wretched story. But a bad ending will unfailingly kill a good story. The ending is why the reader just invested their valuable time reading your story, and if it stinks, then they've wasted that time. Your ending has to be good, or your story is doomed.
So what do I mean by a Good Ending? Does every story have to end with Happily Ever After?
No. Of course not. Good does not necessarily mean happy. But it should be satisfying. It should resolve the conflict, and tie up the main storyline and any secondary storylines you had. The ending should grow organically out of the plot and the action of the story, not come screaming out of left field at the reader, who can find no other justification for it than the whim of the author.
So...what makes a good ending?
What makes a good ending hinges on the same things that make a good story. And the most important thing that makes a good story is change. If nothing changes, nothing happens. And if nothing happens, you've got no story.
So during your story, things changed. And your ending should help demonstrate this change, or illustrate its consequences, or highlight how things are different now, or show why the change was necessary, or...
You get the idea. The ending should deal with the changes that happened during your story.
Can the ending, and indeed the story, avoid change altogether and deposit the reader right back where they started? Well, sure. If done well, this could be effective. It could also be gimmicky, and leave a reader feeling cheated. And this is all assuming that it was done deliberately, with reasons behind the choice. I recently read a novel where the ending could be summed up as "and they decided to continue the status quo." When you thought over it and compared things at the beginning of the novel to how things stood at the end of the novel, even though there had been action and talk--lots of talk; long, deep conversations where people said important things--at the end things were just as they were in the beginning. The deep things these people had said, and then failed to act or deliver on, made them all look shallow, and untruthful. And you could have taken the whole of the novel that just happened, and tacked it on at the end to start all over again--and it would have made sense. At least as much sense as it made the first time.
The disaster was that it didn't seem to be intentional, or even planned. Everything in the story led the reader to expect one type of ending, and then what happened was not an ending at all--the story just sort of stopped. You could tell the author tried very hard to sell it as a real ending, a grand ending, and meaningful ending--but it didn't feel like an ending.
Don't do that.
Didn't I just tell you not to do this? Well, no. This part ties into making your ending grow organically out of your story.
This is difficult to explain, but when you write, you make promises to the reader. From the very first paragraph of the very first page of your story, you are sending signals to your reader about what type of story you are telling.
Don't believe me? Consider these possible opening lines. Same situation; girl spies boy across crowded room.
He was tall, he was dark, he was handsome. And as I later told the police, when I first saw him he had neither a 7 inch kitchen knife in his belly nor a chalk form around his body.
I had never believed in love at first sight. Then one evening his electric blue eyes met mine across a crowded dance floor, and all of the sudden I could not remember the name of the man I danced with, the man I was to marry in six weeks' time.
I don't know why I couldn't stop staring at the man--I didn't know him from Adam. Maybe it was his height, or his arresting nature. Or maybe it was his burning red eyes and pointed fangs.
Each one of these lines tells you something about the story you are reading. They set your expectations for the things to come, and the ending to follow. The murder mystery will have a different type of ending than the romance, or the vampire story. Put the wrong ending on the wrong story, and you will have frustrated readers.
I know this seems obvious. But the mistake is more common than you think--ending a different story than you began. Look at your beginning, and look at your ending, and make sure they match.
Your readers have spent all the time of your novel learning about your characters, caring about them, feeling them. If your ending wouldn't satisfy your characters, it won't satisfy your reader, either.
Remember the novel I told you about earlier, with no change? Another problem with that ending was this: two-thirds of the way through, our main character described, quite plainly, want it was she wanted.
And at the end of the novel, she was with a man who plainly stated he would offer none of those things.
It might have worked, if this was a story fundamentally about her and how she changed to be a person who would be happy with this sort of man. But as we already settled, there was no change. She was the same person at the end as she was when she described her dreams, only now she was involved with a man who would never consider living those dreams.
Given that, we the readers could not imagine her to be happy. And if she wasn't happy, how could we be happy?
Look at your characters, at who they are, at what they want. If your ending is to be a happy one, those needs must be met. If your ending is to be a satisfying one, those needs must at least be considered, addressed--even if not necessarily fulfilled.
One of the first things you probably decided about your ending, without even giving it conscious thought, was the mood. Think back to when you first conceived of your story. How did you envision it leaving the reader? Happy? Sad? Angry? Now sit down and read your ending as it currently exists. Think about how you felt when you finished writing it. Does it leave you the way you wanted to leave your reader?
I actually ran into this myself, with a story I wanted to have a happy ending. The first time I wrote the ending, though, it was a real downer. A death happens near the end of the book, and that death dominated my character's thoughts and actions. There were lots of happy things happening, including a wedding, but somehow the sadness of the death overshadowed all of it.
And of course the problem was entirely in my handling of it. When I rewrote it, all the same events happen. But this time the ending is happy and hopeful, even with the recent death.
The lesson here is that even if the events of your ending are just right, the tone of it could still be wrong. You may not need to change the action at all, just your telling of it.
So, with all of this information in hand, what can you do to make sure your ending matches your story?
Continue on to Endings--Practical Exercises to find out!