Many writers won't even begin a project unless they have a strong ending in mind. And many people who write by the seats of their pants abandon stories – even novels and screenplays – because they can't get the pieces to come together when they come to the big finale.
Every ending is a little different, and one of the most useful exercises I found is simply documenting endings that I'm most passionate about and trying to understand why they succeeded. This isn't so the ending will be copied in any real way. It's more a way to increase my range of options and models for comparison. Whatever ending I draft out gets looked at very closely. This is even more true if I start with an ending because it becomes the foundation on which everything is built.
With this in mind, I'll conclude this 20 question series with questions you might use to explore your own endings.
- Is the ending clear? Yes, it is fair to have an intentional level of ambiguity. My favorite example of this (spoiler alert) is the spinning top at the end of inception. Does it continue to spin – demonstrating the protagonist has not returned to reality? Or does it fall over? To me, that was fun. To others, it was frustrating. So imagine how frustrating it must be when you're ending has less clarity because it is written sloppily or you yourself don't know what happened. Readers make investments in your work – of time and sometimes of money. Don't annoy them.
- Is the ending fair? This is easy to answer for most mysteries. If the clues are there when the reader looks back at the work, it feels like a cheat. When lovers are shoved together in a romance without a change in (at least) one of them, there is a falseness about the story that's hard to overcome, no matter how happy the characters are in the final scene. Worst of all, is it a deus ex machina, a tossed in settling of affairs based on the effort of someone other than the main character.
- Is the ending earned? Does the hero overcome the villain without luck or a change in the rules that were set at the beginning of the story? As the writer justify any surprises near or at the end? Do the obstacles reaching toward the ending get more difficult? Does the power of opposing forces increase rather than diminish? Has the protagonist made a sacrifice that mattered?
- Is the story at the ending the same story the reader started with? If it began as a comedy, did it end that way? If it began as a romance, did shift into a thriller? Combining genres is fine, as long as you don't pull a switcheroo on the readers. Beyond genre, one teacher of mine made a good suggestion: Expose your (story's) "color palette" in the first chapter or two. And don't deviate from it.
- Is the story question answered? By the end of the first act, there should be a question that keeps the reader turning the pages until the very end. While smaller questions may occur at the beginning to hook readers, one question (Will Luke destroy the Death Star?) should dominate the story. This actually constitutes a promise to the reader. Breaking that promise will wreck the ending.
- Does the story end too early? Are there too many loose ends? Does the reader have time to experience the emotion before putting down the book or leaving the movie theater? Is it unintentionally abrupt?
- Does the story end too late? Can any of the verbiage after the story question is answered be reasonably cut? Does it have a real purpose? (One story I hate to this day spent a dozen pages after it should've stopped tying up loose ends that I couldn't make myself care about. It undercut everything that was positive about the book.)
- Is the pacing right? Obviously, the pacing of the whole book needs to be right, fit for the genre and designed to keep the reader engaged. Usually this means that scenes and chapters are shorter near the end. But the main elements of the ending should be laid out not just with a sense of increasing tension, but with a real sense that revelations are not too crowded together and there is room for an emotional response. (How this works is often directly related to who the reader is.)
- Are all the important loose ends tied up? This is especially important if there are engaging supporting characters and subplots. I've seen writers, so happy to have dealt with the meat of their stories effectively, neglects to give appropriate finishes to these "minor" elements.
- Is the ending sticky? Does it resonate with the reader? You want the ending to be memorable and provocative. Both readers and writers benefit when the ending captures the imagination or leaves the reader just enough work to do so that people can't resist talking about it.
- Is the ending expected? Obviously, surprises are good. But if nothing of what is expected is delivered, that's perilous. Readers need to have some level of anticipation that's valid. While, for instance, the most obvious suspect in a murder mystery getting arrested at the end can be flat, exposing the real murderer should include an element of "I should have known that" or "that makes sense."
- Is the ending unexpected? Does it include, without cheating, a twist not anticipated.
- Is the last sentence as powerful and memorable as it can be? While it is not good idea to have a last sentence that doesn't feel organic, it's a shame to waste the opportunity to give the reader one more gift. Do this even if you have to rewrite the last few pages to set up that one sentence appropriately.
- Is the ending thematic? This may be a difficult thing for those who begin their work with an ending to answer. Often, the themes the stories emerge with the writing. But the main message or the story proposition needs to fit neatly with whatever ending is in the final draft. So, however you work, save this question for the time when you think you're finished.
- Is there a roll in the ditch? That is, to the hero and the villain face each other directly in the ending? This can't be done by proxies. It must be personal.
- Does the entity include a legitimate revelation or surprise? Did you give the reader one more important insight at the end that adds a dimension to the story?
- To all the important surviving major characters get to play a part in the final few scenes? Comedies almost always do this. In fact, classically, comedies and with a party, wedding, or some sort of celebration that pulls together everyone. It's less important in a drama, but it still can add power to the conclusion of your story.
- Does the ending include difficult action by the protagonist that makes a difference? The main character needs not only to act in the end, but to personally bring about the ending.
- When a reader finishes, are there unintentional doubts created that distract from the story’s conclusion? An ending is much less satisfying if the reader can think of one that is equally (or more) satisfying while being equally (or more) logical and likely.
- Does the ending create a memorable picture? Is it visually striking? Is there an image that sticks in the reader’s head?