I’ve often felt that your first chapter is what sells your novel, but the ending is what sells you as an author. I’m not saying a rollicking start isn’t important—as are characters, voice, plot, and theme—but a great ending is what will leave your reader satisfied, enthusiastic, and wanting more.
It’s certainly not easy. Endings have to do a lot of things. They have to give your reader the most exciting, gripping moment of the journey; they must uncover, explain, or wrap up plot lines; and they must be calibrated so perfectly that they don’t feel tacked on, contrived, or out-sized. Oh, and all the while, they must stay true to the characters, tone, and themes of the book.
A tall order, but not impossible, especially if you ask yourself the right questions. Here are some that helped me:
Does the ending feel inevitable… but also unexpected?
The idea that a novel’s ending must be “inevitable yet unexpected” is probably the best piece of advice you could follow. As Oscar winning screenwriter and bestselling novelist William Goldman put it: “The key to all story endings is to give the audience what it wants, but not in the way it expects.”
What he means is that you need to worry less about where or with whom the characters end up but how and why they got there. Let’s face it; readers know what kind of book they are buying. It’s what gets them to the end, and the unexpected way it unfolds, that matters.
Take The Great Gatsby. There is no other way for that novel to end: it’s perfect, both emotionally and thematically. And yet, the randomness of the car accident, Myrtle’s death, and Tom’s revenge are still shocking, even on the tenth read. Ditto for The Age of Innocence. Of course Newland doesn’t run off with the Countess and live happily ever after, but who knew May was as devious as she was? It makes complete sense and yet we’re still in awe of the twist, even a century later.
Does your climax answer the question posed at the beginning of the book?
The climax is where the events of the book inevitably lead, and presents the reader with the answer to the question posed at the beginning of the book. (Screenwriting guru Blake Snyder calls this delivering on “the promise of the premise.”) Sometimes it’s clear what needs to be resolved: an affair is finally exposed, two estranged siblings reunite, a murder is solved, or two lovers separate but our hero learns something anyway. Sometimes, it’s not as obvious, and the resolution is neither A or B, but C. Whatever the case, the ending has to make sense for the “math” of the book. In other words, don’t answer a question you never asked, and or write new equations to be solved as you go along.
If you don’t like my math analogy, think of your novel as a cake. No matter how many ingredients or techniques you use, you better make sure what comes out of that oven is what you went to grocery store for. It’s sounds simple but it’s not, especially when it’s midnight and you’re exhausted… you might do something crazy like throw some Tobasco into that batter. Resist the urge, though, or you’ll end up with a mess and have to start over anyway.
Can you sum up the ending in one line—or do you find yourself having to overly explain it?
In “The One That Got Away,” the pages that gave me the most trouble were the two that explained why Abbey makes her final tough decision. I revised them for months. I argued with my agent about them. I passionately defended them to my publisher. And then, in the midst of revising other parts of the book, I finally understood.
If I had done my job up to that point, the ending would be effortless, with no two-page inner monologue required. The reader would innately understand and feel Abbey’s decision. So, I went back and revised the manuscript (again!), and, this time, when I came to the crucial moment, I could sum it up in one line. My point is this: if you have to over-explain the ending, it might be the entire manuscript that needs more work, not the ending itself.
Are you confusing climax with resolution?
The climax of your novel is the most intense, gripping, and exciting pages of your novel, and it brings together what needs to be brought together and answers unanswered questions. The resolution is what comes after the climax, and is usually more slowly paced and less heart pounding, but still important.
Imagine how the The Nightingale would feel if we didn’t have the final coda? Or if we didn’t know what happened to Louisa Clark in Me Before You? Both books do a great job of letting us know what’s happened to our heroes without taking us too far away from the drama that’s just unfolded. Most readers don’t ever think in these terms (to them, it’s just “the end”) but if you can’t differentiate between the climax and the resolution, you might want to revisit both.
Is “deus ex machina” doing the dirty work?
Deus ex machina (or “God in the machine”) refers to the way Ancient Greek writers would often wrap up a play by having a God swoop in (usually on a crane, hence the machine) and solve the problem—either punishing the bad guys, saving the hero, or both. This device usually always feels contrived, even in the most foreshadowed of situations because, ultimately, an outside force or character can be a catalyst to the solution, but neither should do your hero’s work for him or her.
You can find examples of deus ex machina in Victorian novels and 17th century French farces, when a wealthy benefactor or a long-lost relative steps in at the last possible moment, and everyone ends up happily married and wealthy. Today, this rarely ever flies and even the most thought-out of coincidences can be a hard sell. Be careful.
(That said, that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with this device. In “The One That Got Away,” I tip my hat to a modern-day deus. Think you found it? Email me!)
If you are stuck on the ending, are you over-thinking it?
I’m a big believer that the right ending is hiding in the pages you’ve already written. But if you’re really stuck, the first thing you should do is step away from it for at least two weeks. Learn how to bake a blueberry pie, take your daughter camping, or become a Soul Cycle enthusiast. Then, when you’re ready, re-read your first three chapters and remember back to those early days. Why did you want to write this book? What does your hero really need to learn?
Eventually, the perfect ending will come to you from between the lines of what you’ve already written. And, like me, you’ll probably laugh and say: “Of course! That’s exactly right.” It was there all along.
Leigh Himes’ debut novel, “The One That Got Away,” is the story of a struggling working mother who gets the chance to live the life she always wanted with a man she almost dated years before. Called “brilliantly realized” by Booklist and a “clever, thought-provoking love story” by best-selling author Elin Hilderbrand, The One That Got Away is available in bookstores and online. (Hachette, 376 pgs.).
About THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY
In this irresistible debut novel, a freak accident allows a wife and mother to explore the alluring road not taken.
Meet Abbey Lahey . . .
Overworked mom. Underappreciated publicist. Frazzled wife of an out-of-work landscaper. A woman desperately in need of a vacation from life–and who is about to get one, thanks to an unexpected tumble down a Nordstrom escalator.
Meet Abbey van Holt . . .
The woman whose life Abbey suddenly finds herself inhabiting when she wakes up. Married to handsome congressional candidate Alex van Holt. Living in a lavish penthouse. Wearing ball gowns and being feted by the crème of Philadelphia society. Luxuriating in the kind of fourteen-karat lifestyle she’s only read about in the pages of Town & Country.
The woman Abbey might have been . . . if she had said yes to a date with Alex van Holt all those years ago.
In the tradition of the romantic comedy Sliding Doors and Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, Leigh Himes’s irresistible debut novel tells the funny and touching story of an ordinary woman offered an extraordinary opportunity to reboot her life, explore the road not taken, and ultimately, find her true self–whoever that may be.
Category: How To and Tips