Wednesday, March 18, 2015

How to Write the Perfect Ending

Photo Courtesy - Photo modified
One of my all around favorite series to read as a kid was the Choose Your Own Adventure. Stories came in all sorts of genres. I loved the concept so much I wrote one for my third grade students using them as the characters! 

I split the class into halves then quarters then eighths and so on until only groups of two took adventures to each location we'd studied: deserts, oceans, mountains, etc. 

We read the story on the last day of school breaking into the groups for each student's character. They loved moving around the room with their own copy of the book, splitting into smaller groups as their story progressed. They had a blast. And in the last hour of the party, instead of playing games, the kids sat in corners reading each other's adventures. How awesome is that?

Readers enjoy participating in a story.

While reading the Choose Your Own Adventure stories, I thought I'd picked the best route at every turn. I flipped pages back and forth through the maze of the most adventurous, thrilling, believe-it-or-not choices. What I didn't realize, is that the intelligent author knew which ending kids would most likely choose. How do I know, now? It had the longer ending. The easy solutions had short endings. I was hooked by the most satisfying story conclusion and loved reading the longer version.

As an adult writer, and now a smart person, I understand the HUGE importance of a perfect ending.

Here is what I've learned:

There are are three basic endings that can be morphed, tailored to your story:

Photo Courtesy-
Frozen with Hans of the Southern Isles and Anna
1. The neat and tidy...happily ever after story. These stories are sweet reads. All the issues are resolved. The characters are content in the end--at least the main character is. The reader is content. He/she closes the back cover and sighs. "What a nice story."

Think of Disney stories. She chooses the nerd over the rich guy, he is intrigued with the fun-loving gal behind the counter of the general store instead of the home coming queen. And they all live happily ever after....the end.

There have been some books written to answer the question: What happened next? Like: What was life like for Cinderella in the palace. What did the dwarves do after Snow White left with the prince? Was Beast accepted in the community after Belle saved him? What happened to Prince Hans of the Southern Isles after he was sent home? But none of these stories have stood the test of time. Why? Because we the readers were satisfied with the first story and its ending.

2. The expected ending. Terrible events have happened during the story. Some favorite characters have been injured, killed, or put in other dire straights. The story has basically let the reader know this would be. The reader's tissue is soaking wet at the beginning of the last chapter. And although it saddens her, she read the last pages, consoling herself through the expected ending. She closes the back cover and sniffs. Satisfied.

Think of Titanic, Cast Away, Poseidon Adventure, etc. There is no happily ever after ending, but we are satisfied. We've been prepared throughout the story, and although we held a glimmer of hope--the ending still came. In a way, we hope for a sequel that undoes the unfortunate events, after all, soap operas can get away with it. But deep down we know to add or undo would take away the satisfying ending.

On the flip side, romance and other stories can have expected endings. In The Fault in Our Stars Augustus, the wonderful, sweet, heroic Augustus, still dies.  We knew he would, but we cried when Hazel got the phone call that her love had, in fact, died before she did.  Romeo and Juliet both die. We knew this would happen. A well crafted story will lead the reader to expect the ending even if she hopes it doesn't. This produces a satisfied ending.

3.  What readers know in their heart to be the right ending but assume the author does not have the guts to really end the book that way. This is the type of ending I love to read. I'm a radical. I love to push the envelope. 

Remember when Rhett from Gone With the Wind said his famous line then walked away from Scarlett? Oh, yeah. I snickered and closed the book--SO satisfied. 

In the True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, on the very last page, Charlotte tells her wealthy parents she is leaving, giving up her proper Victorian upbringing to become a deck scrubbing, ratline climbing, and if necessary, mutiny siding seaman. Oh yes. Another unsuspecting-immensely satisfying ending. 

And one last example, from the Batman movie series: Dark Knight Rises. My daughter warned me to wait for the end. She promised I would be satisfied, and she was right. Bruce Wayne lives.

This type of ending works only for some books. I don't think I would have liked Tom Hank's character in Cast Away to have found a way to win back his girl, Kelly Frears. The expected ending had to be. Or, can you imagine, how the ending of Titanic would have been diminished if Leonard DiCaprio's character, Jack Dawson hadn't died? Again, the expected ending had to be. 

I also would not have liked to see Beast from Beauty and the Beast kill Gaston when he had a chance. The neat ending was necessary.

Each story needs the perfect ending. Only you, as the author, can know for sure which ending is appropriate.  But you must satisfy your readers. Insure that the ending of your story is the one and only one that best fits. 

Take a moment and consider your WIP. You probably have an ending in mind. What would happen if--you changed it? 

Would the ending be better with everything neat and tidy? 
Should the ending be the expected one? 
Or do you need to pull the rug out from under the readers feet and go for the gutsy ending?

What would happen if you changed your ending? 

This whole topic came up at our recent Writer's Alley Retreat. I shared my WIP with the group. Julia came to me later and said, "I've been thinking about the ending. What if you did something different?" She had an amazing gutsy ending idea that I totally loved. It took a little time to adjust a few things in the manuscript to allow for the new ending, but it was worth the time.


If you found any typos in today's post...sorry about that. 

Mary has moved to Michigan with her husband, closer to her three college kids. She misses the mountains of Montana, but loves seeing family more often. She writes young adult mystery/adventure Christian fiction, is honing marketing and writing skills, and loves to pen missionary and Bible adventure stories on her ministry blog, God Loves Kids.

Visit Mary at her website and her ministry blog to families: God Loves Kids. Or chat on Facebook or Twitter


Jeanne Takenaka said...

Mary, I loved this post. I always have trouble nailing my endings. I like the way you showed how each of these three ending ideas are perfect for the type of story it's a part of. I also like that the author can determine and make changes if they do a little footwork earlier in the novel.

Great post!

Jessica Lynne Martin said...

Great suggestions; I love the idea of pulling the rug out from under the reader's feet and going for the gutsy ending!

Mary Vee Writer said...

Thank you Jeanne.

I love when ideas spawn from helpful comments from our friends. That's what happened here. The more I thought about it, the more the different endings just made sense.

Mary Vee Writer said...

Thank you, Jessica.
Somehow I have a feeling you like the gutsy endings, too. :)

Julia M. Reffner said...

I'll bet you can guess which kind I like ;) but I sure don't nail them in my own writing. LOVE Margaret Mitchell's way of ending! Also, sometimes I think it depends on WHY we read. Some of us read purely for escape so we're going to want those HEA endings.

Mary Vee Writer said...

A valid point, Julia. So, once again, we need to stay true to our readers and simply know the reason why they enjoy reading.