Leave your audience satisfied, yet wanting more — simultaneously
There are three critical points in your novel where you CAN’T be wrong: The hook, the beginning, and the ending. The hook draws the reader in (why should I read this book?). The beginning places questions in the reader’s head (what’s happening here and should I care?). The end closes-out the emotional roller-coaster you just sent your reader through.
There’s wiggle-room in the middle, not that you should ever slack-off in your novel, but the middle leaves room to take risk. But not the end, my friend. You try to take bold, original risks with your ending and you’ve got yourself one pissed-off reader if you missed her expectations.
The ending is a calculated surprise.
As readers we expect certain things from our genre. There are tropes each writer must hit, or the book may flop. When you write commercial fiction you’ve got to deliver what the reader expects. We don’t want to bite an apple if we expected a banana.
We want both control and mystery as readers.
Simultaneously, the reader wants to be both surprised and vindicated. Although she’s got certain expectations, your execution on those expectations must be original. We don’t want to read the same story twice, only with a different cover. Where’s the fun in that?
You can do everything right — hit all the tropes, but if you end your book with the wrong finish the reader walks away feeling bad or unfulfilled. This is the part where she tells her friends how terrible your ending was and not to bother reading the rest. Or worse, she leaves a public review on Amazon.
As a writer you’re buying the reader’s time. The book is a cheap investment, but the time investment is priceless. You don’t want to disappoint your reader after he’s made a ten-hour investment in your work, only to find your ending is a wet blanket covered in dog hair.
Fear not. Bad endings are NOT limited to new writers.
There’s a very famous (I mean, REAL famous) writer out there who can’t write the end of a novel to save his life. It’s like watching your favorite football team, knowing they’ll never win a championship. You keep buying those season tickets year after year, hoping this is the one. This famous writer is the exception. People buy his books for the amazing stories leading up to his terrible endings. You won’t be so lucky.
Here’s a collection of seven ways to end your novel.
These aren’t the only ways to end a novel, but if you pick one of these, you’re on the right path towards a smiling reader. I gave them silly names to help you remember. These aren’t the official trade names or anything. They’ve got nothing to do with names of the places associated with them. I liked the alliteration.
Seven ways to end your novel
(1) The Tennessee Twist — This is your standard, thriller ending. The twist is expected and if you write thrillers you’ve got to deliver. With the Tennessee Twist our protagonist goes through a journey of sorts. The reader is led to believe the end will happen a certain way through a series of Red Herrings (false antagonists and phony diversions). Do your best to hide this final ending. Part of the joy of thrillers is guessing who did it. Make your reader guess wrong and say NO WAY! at the end.
(2) The Hamptons Hanger — If you write a series, where the books are written in order, you may want to end with a cliffhanger. Here, you’ll end the book right before the gun goes off, or literally, as the protagonists jumps, but before she hits the ground. You flip on the lights before the end of the mental movie. The Hamptons Hanger is controversial. You will make a certain percentage of your readership angry, because you didn’t end the book nicely. It’s a gamble. If the reader loved the book a cliffhanger is a great way to get her to read the next one — same way serialized TV works.
(3) The Cincinnati Cut-off — I use this method a lot with my short stories. With the Cincinnati Cut-off you literally stop the story — brick wall-style. The cut-off takes calculation. If done poorly you’re sure to make more than a few angry readers. I don’t recommend using this method for a first-time novel. You see this a lot in literary fiction, where the rules are loose. The cut-off is a bold statement. Like a giant punctuation mark at the end of the book. There isn’t much stress-relief for the reader, so it’s a card to be played with care.
(4) The Boston Bow-tie — Here’s a method you can use for a standalone novel. There’s no series to follow. No character in the next book. The novel stands by itself, has a beginning, middle, and strong ending that leaves a big impression. The Boston Bow-tie packages the story and wraps it with a nice bow. All the major plot holes are filled. No question remains unanswered. The reader can close the book, put it on her shelf, and walk away knowing all the answers are satisfied.
(5) The Pennsylvania Page-turner — This is a hybrid between the Hanger and the Twist. I prefer this method to a full-blown cliffhanger. This is a hybrid, because you’ll end the story with the story closed, but the moment before you roll the credits you write a small cliffhanger that segways into the next book. This is a great method for series writers. Not only do you satisfy the reader in case she doesn’t pick up your next book, but you also tease the fan with a tiny preview of what’s to come in the follow-up novel.
(6) The Charleston Collective — The collective ends the novel like a re-ordered scrapbook. Some novels are written piecemeal, where you get multiple perspective, written through a series of flashbacks, all converging on a single incident. This method is confusing to read, but very satisfying if done well. When you hit the Charleston Collective, you re-order all the chaos over the course of the story. You deliver the missing pieces. You pull back the curtain to reveal the final masterpiece. This is an advanced method — not for the faint-of-pen.
(7) The Chattanooga Chin-Scratcher — This method is last for a reason. It’s here for the true artist — the no-one-tells-me-how-to-write-I’ll-show-them type. The Chattanooga Chin-Scratcher leaves the reader with a what the hell? moment. This is art for art’s sake. No holds barred. No rules. Up is down and down is somewhere near Montana. This is the Philip Glass equivalent of the book world. The Mark Rothko’s orange square of fiction. Good luck selling more than a handful of copies, but you’ll scratch your creative itch like none other… worked for Glass and Rothko.
I hope these help you with your next novel
Over the course of my writing education I wish I had these tools when I started. There are many ways to end a novel, but only a few make sense for your genre.
Read well and read often.
To ensure you’ve got the write ending for your genre, look at the top authors. Buy their books. Study how they tied it all together. Keep the parts you liked and drop the parts you don’t. Even the big-name authors screw up their endings. Use their work as your training ground.
Here’s a quick tip to help design an ending that works
Don’t wait until the end of your manuscript to write the end. This is where you’re most-tired. Instead, use a tip I learned from John Irving. Write the end first, then write the book towards that ending. You can’t veer off target, because you’ll know exactly where you end up.
Here’s a valuable post I wrote about creating your ending first:
August Birch (AKA the Book Mechanic) is both a fiction and non-fiction author from Michigan, USA. A self-proclaimed guardian of writers and creators, August teaches indie authors how to write books that sell and how to sell more of those books once they’re written. When he’s not writing or thinking about writing August carries a pocket knife and shaves his head with a safety razor.