Most novels have three parts: beginning, middle, and end. At least, that’s what Aristotle said, and who am I to argue with a guy whose writing advice has been taken seriously by folks for the last 2000+ years? Today I want to talk about the end.
First off, let me point out that the end part is a whole section of a story or novel, not just the Big Story Climax or the final confrontation scene. The Big Climax or Grande Finale is the thing that gets the most attention in most how-to-write books, because it’s clearly critical to the whole book – mess up the scene where the main problem gets solved, and everything else falls apart. But really, there’s a lot more to it than that.
The first bit of the ending section is the transition from the middle part to the end part. Often, it’s a gradual transition, like heading for a mountain and not really being able to pinpoint the spot where the foothills end and the mountain range begins. Other times, there’s a sharp demarcation – a character suddenly sits up straight and says “I know how to steal the sword!” and we’re clearly off into the endgame. Sometimes, it’s even sharper, with the author dividing the story into sections or parts or books in a way that makes it obvious that the characters have reached the point of no return, and one way or another are about to take their final swing at solving the central story problem.
The second part of the ending section is the specific setup for the Big Climax. The general setup, where the reader works out what the central story problem is and why it matters, usually takes place in the middle of the book; the specific setup is the point where they settle their affairs the night before the battle, or the hero agrees to marry the villainess as the last possible way of saving the family farm, or the prince announces he’s going to be coming around tomorrow with this glass slipper for all the unmarried girls to try on.
Right before the Big Climax, the characters hit bottom in as many ways as the writer can make work at once. The heroine’s True Love appears to have abandoned her just before the battle in which the army is outnumbered five to one; the villainess locks the church doors as the wedding march starts; Cinderella is locked in her room while the stepsisters try on the shoe.
And then comes the climax – the big scene in which the heroine’s True Love shows up with reinforcements just in the nick of time; the organist reveals herself as the hero’s mother who’s brought the paid-off mortgage so her son won’t have to marry the villainess after all; Cinderella escapes in the nick of time and not only can wear the shoe, but has the other half of the pair.
In a straightforward story, the author has been promising and building up this particular conflict for chapters and chapters. The climax is the payoff – the point where the central story problem gets faced and solved once and for all…or where the problem overwhelms the characters for good. It’s very difficult to pull a bait-and-switch in the climax scene – to have an entire novel in which the problem appears to be returning the rightful king to the throne, for instance, and then have the climax be the establishment of a parliamentary democracy. It can be done, but only by a) carefully planting clues in the beginning and middle, and b) having the “switch” (the unexpected solution) be a more satisfying solution to the problem than the one the readers thought they were going to get. Not a better solution: a more satisfying one, in the context of the story.
Finally, there’s the denouement or validation, where any remaining loose ends get tied up, awards and weddings and funerals take place, and the characters are poised to move off into the sunset and the rest of their lives, for good or ill. There are three common, closely related mistakes that writers make here: 1) trying to tie up every single subplot and loose end, 2) running on for too long, and 3) overwriting the ending in a desperate attempt to find a killer last sentence.
Mind you, a killer last sentence is an excellent thing, if you can in fact find one. It is not, however, a necessity. (Given a choice, you’re much better off spending all that time looking for a killer opening sentence…but that’d be a different post.) Also, sometimes things that don’t look like killer ending lines, like “He walked out and closed the door gently behind him” or “Well, I’m home,” he said,” can become killer ending lines in context.
That whole last-sentence thing is a lot harder to recognize than you’d think. When you’ve been immersed in a novel for months, it’s hard to let go. Sometimes, even with a short story. When I was writing “Stronger Than Time,” an editor friend asked to see it. I sent a rough draft, with the comment “I know it needs about another half page, but this is what I got,” to which the editor wrote back “Don’t you dare add anything. It’s perfect right where it is.” And it is, and I can see that…now. Then, I was quite taken aback, as at the time I was really sure I needed to get my remaining characters actually out of the castle, instead of just talking about it.
Really abrupt endings, where the validation or denouement is cut to a sentence or two, are not my favorite things, but on the whole I’d say they’re better than the ones that go on and on even after the main problem has been solved. There’s a balance point that feels right – the longer the story, the longer the validation sequence. A short story may be fine with a few sentences or a paragraph; a novel may need anywhere from a paragraph to a chapter or so; a multi-book series may need several chapters of wrap-up to really feel finished.