Act III: How to write the End

act III: end

A character always knows what he wants, but not what he needs. In the end, the character gets close to what he wants but chooses what he needs instead.

At this point, the reader has felt and seen the forces gather against the protagonist. Absolute disaster is just around the corner. The way you set up the story up to this point, determines the expectation readers have about  how it will end. For them, it’s more than an expectation, it’s a silent promise you made. A noisy action packed story promised a big bang at the end. A subtle story promised a quiet ending. The ending must use some characters, conflicts, problems and tensions that the reader got to know along the way to show them the collision (the climax). These elements consist the silent promise you made and you must deliver.

The ending depends on the type of story.

Ending 1- Resolution.

A story of conflict ends by resolution. The conflict doesn’t necessarily lead to an ultimate face-off battle. The conflict can simply be a way to expose the character while keeping the reader interested.

Ending 2 – Revelation.

If this story started with conflict, then it is a story of misdirection. The reader expects one or two specific outcomes but the writer gives a third, unexpected, ending instead. If this story started by tension then it rises gradually. The choices are gradually narrowed down without knowing exactly what happens when the choice is made. The reader gradually discovers the answers to a mystery. For example, this story can be about a lottery that nobody wants to win. The ending reveals what happens to the one selected.

Ending 3 – Decision.

This story is about divided interests and loyalties. The trick is making the choice truly difficult. Keep the reader from knowing which path will be chosen.

Ending 4 – Explanation.

This story started with a mystery and ends when this mystery has been fully explained. Mysteries are usually explained through events, not characters.

Ending 5 – Solution.

This one is for the puzzle stories. These are usually solved by characters rather than events. The solution is often given in the very last lines and must be surprising to the reader.

Ending 6 – Illumination.

These are the stories that move the reader. These stories simply show what life is like. It’s about the inner meaning of human existence. This meaning becomes clear in the ending.

How to set up a satisfying ending

Step 1, Be aware of the silent promises made to the reader both emotionally and intellectually. Try to word it in a few sentences to remind yourself which promises you must deliver on.

Step 2, Look at the chess-pieces of your board at the end of act 2. Now brings those pieces together into the worst possible scenario.

Step 3, Make the ending inevitable by making sure every page leading to the ending supports it with resonance and foreshadowing.

Step 4, Make the ending unexpected by throwing in misleading paths to alternative endings. Backtrack and add a few points towards those paths to throw the reader off.

Step 5, Double check if your chosen ending fulfils the promises listed in step 1.

The climax

The climax is whatever ultimate big event you have built towards with act II. This is where the protagonist exhibits change. This is where the problems will get resolved. The villain has his big fight. The lovers are united. The quest reaches its goal. To be successful, a climax must do five things:

  1. The climax must conform to the view of life implied by your story.
  2. It must deliver emotion.
  3. Climax must deliver an appropriate level of emotion, higher than the level of drama in the rest of the story.
  4. It must make sense and fit your plot.
  5. Climax length must be in proportion with your story length.
    Usually a novel climax is one chapter (at least).

Common mistake made on the climax scene is to fail to establish setting, character and detail enough for the reader to visualize the scene. Lengthy sentences make the action sluggish, so use short simple and direct forceful sentences that are easy to process. By avoiding commas and connectors (and/or/but/etc) you automatically avoid overly lengthy sentences.

The Denouement

The denouement is everything that follows after the climax, with one purpose: to wrap up the story. It shows us the consequences of the plot and the fate of the characters. If your ending does leave questions unanswered or characters unaccounted for, consider adding a denouement to satisfy your reader’s curiosity.

A successful denouement offers three things:

  1. Closure: gives your readers information about the fate of the characters so they feel the book is truly over.
  2. Brevity: do not deflate the emotion from the climax by going on too long.
  3. Dramatization: make the denouement still feel like part of the story, not just a dump of exposition.

The very last lines

Opening the story was hard enough, having to hook the reader within one sentence, but now it’s your job to leave them gasping. Getting out of the story is just as difficult as getting into it. It should leave the reader satisfied that all has been said that needed to be said. It should stand its ground.

Most last lines subtly imply that the story continues even after the author stops telling it. It leaves you speculating and imagining the lives the characters lead now it’s all said and done.

The last sentences of a story imply the theme of the entire work, without using abstract language to underline the theme. This is the punch line. The last word is the punch. The punch makes the point clear in a precise and dramatic way.


The epilogue.

The story ends, but life goes on. How many times have you wondered,  after the house lights come back on, what happened next to the characters in a movie?  Readers come to care about characters in stories. An epilogue helps satisfy their curiosity.

Different methods for endings

There are endless ways to begin or end stories, but writers rely on a small toolbox of  strategies. In musical compositions, songs can build to a crescendo, or fade out, or stop short, or echo the opening. In written compositions, the author can choose from among these:

1. Closing the circle. The ending reminds us of the beginning by returning to an important  place or reintroducing us to a key character.

2. The tie-back. Keith Woods says he enjoys how humorist Dave Barry ties his ending to  some odd or off-beat element in the body of the story.

3. The time frame. The writer creates a tick-tock structure with time advancing  relentlessly. To end the story, the writer decides what should happen last.

4. The space frame. The writer is less concerned with time than with place or geography.  The hurricane reporter moves us from location to location, revealing the terrible damage  from the storm. To end, the writer decides our final destination.

How to know if your ending is successful?

To check if if you have the right ending, you can perform the Litmus test. You simply ask yourself; if  my protagonist were an entirely different person, would the story still have ended in the same way? If yes, you wrote the  wrong ending. The events cannot be resolved by just any random person, only your protagonist can bring it all home.

Knight, D. (1981) Creating Short Fiction.
Kress, N. (1993) Beginnings, middles and ends
Haven (1999) Wright Right; Creative Writing Using Storytelling Techniques