I have trouble with endings. Coming up with the climactic finale is fine but ensuring there’s enough of a cool-down period after is an issue for me. Endings are second only to beginnings in their challenge. You need to wrap up all the plots and sub-plots, get the tension spike and aforementioned cool-down at the right pitch, and ensure you finish with ‘resonance’.
It’s the last impression, what psychologists call the recency effect. Your audience will judge your book largely by the feeling they have most recently, namely, the end. Leave a lasting impression and you will build a readership. ~ Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell
You can basically have either a positive ending or a negative. Positive is when the protagonist achieves their goal and negative… well, yeah. Both are obviously perfectly acceptable, but will leave the book with a very different feel. There are those – including fairly prominent authors like William F Nolan – who think positive endings are better but, with respect to Mr. Nolan, I disagree. In Gone With The Wind Scarlett doesn’t get Ashley; in Robin Hobb’s Royal Assassin, Fitz dies; in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, Sandoz is crippled, disgraced and hates God. These are all good books.
There’s also the positive ending with a negative aspect, and vice versa. This is more complex and therefore has the potential to be more powerful – it also has the potential to weaken or confuse things, so treat it carefully. Casablanca has the lead sacrificing his desire for the greater good (the war effort and the morality of marriage) and gaining a friend. He loses – a negative ending – but with a positive aspect that produced one of the most famous ending lines in cinema history. That aspect of sacrifice is a very important one. It’s a climax of the reader’s emotional engagement with the protagonist, really plucking the heartstrings. Scott Bell claims that this is because the theme of sacrifice is wired into our cultural consciousness, giving up selfish priorities for the sake of community. If the finale is a battle/action situation, the protagonist sacrifices his safety; if the finale is a moral quandary or choice (as with Casablanca), the protagonist sacrifices his goal.
The +ve with -ve aspect is NOT what counts as a twist ending. Twist endings are subversions of the plot, with things coming from the side unexpectedly. Scott Bell’s suggestion for coming up with twist endings is as follows:
As you get close to the end of your first draft, come up with ten alternative endings. Take the [best] four and deepen them a little bit. Finally, choose the one that seems to work best as a twist – not an alternative ending at all, but an added surprise. Figure out how to work that into your ending, and then go back into your novel and justify it.
M Night Shyamalan has done a lot of damage to the reputation of twist endings, despite the fact that I still think Unbreakable and The Village are awesome films. Twist endings have a higher than average potential to be weak or to piss off your reader – if you don’t seed the book with signposts that make the twist plausible the reader feels cheated, and if you make those signposts obvious then the twist will be spotted before it happens which makes the ending weak. On the other hand, if you can pull it off, you will definitely create resonance.
The language you use on the final page is crucial to creating resonance. One of the most common and effective methods is to echo an important phrase that’s cropped up earlier. It serves to tie the whole book together and is something that’s already emotionally weighted for the reader. Poetic license is also okay – this is a good place to indulge in a bit of purple prose, winding down the tension and action with beautiful words. The point is to achieve something that lingers in the reader’s mind long after they’ve put the book down, whether it’s a line of dialogue or an image or an emotion. This is what brings them back to your work, what makes them recommend you to others.
It’s easy to rush writing the ending. You’re so close to finishing that you just want to get there. But if you rush, your readers will feel rushed. They won’t get the time to breathe out and relax that’s so important to proper closure. Take your time. Take as much time as you took over the beginning.