The ending of a novel is much like the final inning of a baseball game: The fans are on their feet, cheering you on, hoping for a satisfying outcome. The emotional investment is high, and they expect you to deliver in the clutch. You've given yourself a chance to win the game, and you now need to know how to finish strong.
The reader's emotions are important. You have to know what you want the reader to be feeling when she reads the final line, leaves the final page and puts the book down. You want her to believe wholeheartedly that your story was worth the time and emotional commitment she made.
For writers of popular fiction, I've identified eight guidelines for writing a satisfying ending.
1. Consider your genre
In a literary novel, you're free in your ending options. Your story resolution may be ambiguous, with little or nothing resolved. The characters, and the reader, are left up in the air. This is, of course, an unsettling experience, but readers of literary fiction are accustomed to being unsettled. In fact, the protagonist can fail altogether in a literary novel. The only real rule in this kind of writing is that the ending must conform to the author's vision of the story.
In popular fiction, however, the parameters of a satisfying ending are much more restrictive. If you create a strong protagonist who's decent, decisive, active, hard-working and generally admirable, you'll inspire the reader to care about this character. Will your reader be satisfied if you drag that protagonist down to defeat?
2. Be conclusive—but not completely
In popular fiction, the ending must be conclusive. The reader wants to know exactly what's what, particularly with the protagonist. How has this situation been resolved for her? What will her reality be, vis-à-vis this story situation, after the last page of the book has been turned? From the beginning to the end of the story, a change has been wrought, especially upon the protagonist. A circle that began on Page 1 is now closed. These aren't arbitrary circumstances. They're concrete, defined and visible, and that's satisfying for the reader.
If there's any room for the arbitrary here, it's in the fates of the secondary characters. One of these, most effectively a prominent character, can suffer an ambiguous or even tragic ending. Perhaps this can enhance the protagonist's triumph by contrasting with it.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribner) And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther ... . And one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. I recently bought and read, in one sitting, F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece. I wasn't prepared for the riches I encountered in this book. The real drama that pervades it is subtle and understated. At the end, Nick Carraway, the narrator, draws the reader's attention to "Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock." Gatsby's dream, "the power of his romantic imagination"—which is the same as that of his creator—remains even when all else is lost. What follows in the last two short paragraphs of the novel with the reference to an "orgastic future" is truly poetic and unforgettable. A superb ending. —Migel Jayasinghe Croydon, Surrey, England
3. Make a lasting impression
Here's a tried-and-true idea to entangle your reader's emotions even more inextricably with the fate of your protagonist: Cause the character to struggle valiantly in the climactic scene against great odds and obstacles—and nearly be defeated. Her well-being, perhaps her life, hangs in the balance. Then, in the nick of time, she triumphs by being the best, the strongest, the boldest, the smartest and the most courageous she can possibly be. Not only has she won, but she's also proven herself, despite formidable odds against her. She becomes the heroine the reader always believed her to be. The reader feels the additional satisfaction of being vindicated in his judgment, of having backed the right team in the conflict of this story situation.
Your hero should never turn out to be the villain of your story. There are rare stories in which an author can violate this dictum and still leave the reader satisfied. You pose yourself a difficult challenge if you make this choice. You're better off avoiding this, particularly with your early stories, if you hope to satisfy readers and, more immediately, attract an editor to your work.
4. Get in the contemporary mindset
The hero (male protagonist) used to be expected to step in and save the heroine (female protagonist) from peril at the end of the story. This is no longer the expectation. The heroine is expected to save herself, especially in the popular fiction novel directed toward a female readership.
A strong protagonist doesn't need to be rescued. She has mental, spiritual and moral strength. She'll rely on these to bring about her own triumph, and the reader will feel pleased and vindicated by this conclusion. In some stories, the heroine may even save the hero.
Another option is that the hero may assist the heroine in this confrontation scene. They struggle together as a team. They're nearly defeated together, and together they succeed. This is a particularly effective ending for a story where the heroine and hero are romantically involved, and the reader hopes for them to be together after the story ends.
5. Give your antagonist what's coming to him
This is what I call comeuppance time. Just as the reader feels satisfied and vindicated by yourprotagonist's triumph, she'll feel satisfied and vindicated by your antagonist's defeat. At the satisfying ending of a popular fiction novel, good wins and bad loses. By the same token, retribution follows defeat. There must be promise, if not on-the-page imposition, of proper punishment for the misdeeds of the story's evildoer. It's important that the specifics and severity of that punishment should be commensurate with the specifics and severity of the villain's misdeeds.
What if your antagonist suffers inwardly and spiritually for what she's done. What if she will be haunted by it for the rest of her life? What if your villain is simply a sociopath without conscience? This is sticky territory where reader satisfaction is concerned and will be hard for the reader—andeditor—to accept.
6. Show, don't tell
The "here's how he did it" ending is a classic formula for some mystery authors, but it's generally too passive to satisfy the reader. Agatha Christie, for example, ended many of her novels with a parlor explanation scene. One of her sleuth protagonists gathers all of the story principals, including the suspects, in a parlor or some similar venue and explains to them, and to us, what's happened in the story. The sleuth runs us through the workings of his mind—how the murder happened, his steps in searching out the murderer, who that murderer might be and the specifics of the motive. This may be OK with Christie fans, but it's a good bad example of the author telling what she should be showing.
The same principle holds true of final confrontations in which the villain gets the upper hand and uses that opportunity to brag about his nefarious accomplishments—clarifying his actions and motives. This is a tough device to make original, since it's been resorted to so many times. Even worse is the spontaneous confession, where the adversary simply admits her guilt and blurts out her reasons for what she did. Where's the satisfaction of confrontation, the struggle against terrible odds, the fate in the balance and the hard-won victory in any of these scenarios?
7. Consider the false ending
This is a favorite of some thriller filmmakers. The primary conflict situation in the story is resolved, and the sole villain is unmasked—or so we think. But there's another danger—a subtler, more sinister threat yet to be confronted. The storytelling advantage here is that the protagonist is no longer alert. Her support systems, believing the danger to have passed, have usually retired from the scene.
Dramatic irony is intensified to ultimate pitch as we, the audience, see this new and more potent danger, even though the protagonist doesn't. We long to leap into the screen or onto the page and warn this character we care so much about. That frustration maximizes our emotional involvement in the story, and then, the second confrontation—the most perilous one for the protagonist—is upon us. Imagine our high degree of satisfaction when this conflict squeaks to a nick-of-time triumph for the protagonist.
8. Be true to your characters
Satisfy reader expectations by keeping your characters "in character." You should have your protagonist evolve, but if he drinks coffee at 8:15 a.m. every morning at the beginning, he should be drinking coffee at 8:15 a.m. at the end. Don't change their main traits.
Also, your ending should come as a surprise but not as an improbability. Your reader has been subtly prepared, by both character and plot, for what happens in the climactic scene. These behav-iors and events strike your reader as logical in terms of previous behaviors and events. Your reader thinks, "Of course! I should've seen that coming."
Having accomplished the above, are you certain you've satisfied reader expectations of the specific genre category in which you're writing? If you're writing mystery or suspense, has the offense of the antagonist turned out to be as heinous as originally portrayed? Was this, in fact, a murder story after all? Don't have the death turn out to be a suicideor an accident. There's much less satisfaction when there's no antagonist other than the victim himself. Consequently, no fitting retribution occurs. Reader satisfaction is diminished significantly when an established convention of a genre has been ignored.
A reader comes to these genres, and others, assuming that certain basic ground rules will be adhered to. These ground rules vary with each genre category, and you must find out what they are for the one you choose. Otherwise, you're in peril of seriously disappointing reader expectations.