We talk about beginnings and opening lines in fiction frequently. I’ve written about it many times myself1, as well as participating in panels at conventions on the topic. We spend less time talking about endings. One reason why is because it’s a more complicated topic, because for the ending to work all of the stuff in the middle of the story needs to come together in a satisfying way, and ideally the ending will tie back to the opening. So it’s easier to give advice about moving character arcs along, making them work with the external conflict, and so forth, and assume that the ending will take care of itself if we get all the rest right. I’ve been thinking a lot about endings lately in part because I’ve been seeing the topic talked about a lot on various social media—but also because over the course of the last week I’ve watched season finales of three shows that I’ve been following for years2.
First, an ending doesn’t have to be a happy ending to be satisfying to the reader. Tragedies have been around for a long, long time. But most readers do want a character they can root for throughout the story, and if the character fails in the end, the reader still wants to feel that they were right to root for that character. Maybe the protagonist’s death allows others to escape a terrible fate. Maybe the cause was worth the sacrifice and the way the protagonist failed leaves the reader with a glimmer of hope that someone else will succeed where they failed. Maybe all the reader needs is to know that the protagonist believe their sacrifice was worth it—making an effort against the forces of darkness is better than not trying at all.
Even happy endings have to feel earned. The reader isn’t going to be satisfied if it doesn’t feel as if the struggle was real.
And surprise endings? Surprise endings can’t feel as if they came from nowhere. You can surprise the reader at the end, sure, but a second after the surprise is revealed, the reader should go, “Dang! I should have seen that coming!” The surprise has to make sense within the narrative frame and the character arc(s) you’ve already led the reader through.
I’ve written about that particular phenomenon once before, specifically in the context of murder mysteries and similar stories, so I’m just going to quote myself:
For me, part of the fun of a good mystery is finding the puzzle pieces in the storyline and admiring how well they are constructed, or how good a job the author does of putting them in plain sight while not making them obvious.
Sometimes I am completely blindsided, and if that happens without the author cheating, that is just as much fun as figuring it out before the reveal.
Bad mysteries aren’t bad simply because they are predictable. They’re bad when they are too predictable. When the author (or author and director, in the case of a movie or show) clumsily gives things away or relies on cliches, there is no delight in the reveal. If the author cheats by simply withholding information, or otherwise pulling something bizarre and shocking out of nowhere, that also spoils the fun.
And, as in all stories, if the author makes us care about the characters, even if the puzzle isn’t terribly difficult, we can still enjoy the battle of wits between the detective and the puzzle.
Getting the ending right isn’t easy. And if you get it wrong, the reader doesn’t just dislike the ending, they feel as if all the time they have spent on the story was a waste. And remember, it is a sin to waste the reader’s time. This doesn’t mean that you have to give the reader the ending they want—it means your ending has to make sense, it has to pay off any questions or themes you teased the reader with before, and it has to feel earned. It has to be the best ending you could deliver, not a prank you pulled on the reader to show how clever you are.
It isn’t easy, but nothing worthwile is.
1. The Night Was Sultry, part 1—adventures in opening lines, The Night Was Sultry, part 2 — more adventures in opening lines, The Night Was Sultry, part 3 — finding the emotional hook, The Night Was Sultry, part 4 — fitting the opening to the tale, The Night Was Sultry, part 5 — closing the circle, openings and endings, and Begin at the beginning, not before for instance.
2. Specifically Lucifer, Arrow, and The Flash. Which I feel I need to mention, because I know that one reason so many others are talking about this topic is because of the final season of Game of Thrones which is not a show I have ever watched—so none of this is intentionally about that topic.