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The importance of endings

book traumaThe current mantra for writers and wannabe writers is ‘If you want to people to buy your book then you need a great opening.’ And yes that’s true, the first few pages are crucial. If you don’t hook your reader straight away as they browse in the book shop or online then you’ve pretty much missed the boat. The early introduction of empathetic characters, an alluring setting, an enticing hook – all these things definitely help to sell books. But there is another reason people buy books and that is because they have recently finished a book by a particular author and they want to read another. So, getting readers to want to read more of your novels is clearly a ‘good thing’.

But what makes them want to read more? Well, all the usual suspects … a compelling idea, a well constructed plot and story structure, characters that live on beyond the page, and, I would suggest, a really good ending.

I often hear people say ‘oh yes, I enjoyed that novel but it tailed off at the end,’ or ‘the ending was bizarre,’ or ‘it had a really disappointing ending’. First impressions are important for attracting readers but it’s the final impression that brings readers back for more (or not).

My least favourite endings are a) when there’s a huge explanation at the end about why everything has happened, b) when the author clearly has run out of steam and it all just peters out, c) when it’s so enigmatic you don’t quite know what’s happened d) when the characters suddenly start acting ‘out of character’ just to get it all finished. There are lots of other examples – I’m sure you can think of plenty too!

So, what is a good ending? It doesn’t have to be happy, it doesn’t have to be dramatic, but it does have to leave the reader with a sense of emotional satisfaction, of completion, of growth and resolution.

And how do you create a good ending? I believe it all comes back to planning, if the author knows exactly where the book is headed before starting to write then the character motivations can be set up right from the start, the clues can be layered in and the theme and purpose of the novel can be focussed and consistent.

As my regular blog readers will already know I am not a fan of the ‘I’m just going to start and see where it goes’ school of writing. For one thing these writers (like Nick Clegg) often never reach the end at all, and for another it doesn’t bode well for creating a coherent whole with a satisfying ending. Writing is a craft – I’m quite sure Michelangelo didn’t walk up to his block of marble and think to himself ‘ah yes, I’ll chip away a bit and see what happens.’

People sometimes say authors are only as good as their last book, I might say they are only as good as their last ending!

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14 thoughts on “The importance of endings

  1. Pingback: The importance of endings | Joe's Geek Fest

  2. I enjoyed the post and I agree with you that the “just jump in and start swimming” method of novel-writing is for amateurs who want to remain amateurs.

    • Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Yes indeed, of course everyone works in different ways but I certainly believe that knowing where you are headed makes for a tighter read and saves the writer time on edits too!

  3. So much good sense – as always!

  4. Maria McCarthy on said:

    The ‘ahh!’ is so important! There have been loads of books I’ve felt like that about – just a few off the top of my head, The Ballad of The Sad Café by Carson McCullers, The Pursuit of Love/Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford, A Chance to Sit Down by Meredith Daneman (a now out-of-print book from the 1970s about a ballet dancer) and of course Slick Deals and each of the Lavender Road trilogy.
    Disappointing ones have been Norah Lofts The Town House trilogy (the final book lets the series down) and Forever Amber
    I think it’s interesting when writers create a trilogy – I’ve read the first instalment of The Hunger Games and am moving onto the second. Makes me aware of how much work the writer has to do ‘setting up’ subsequent books for readers who might not have read earlier ones or read them some time ago – and to find not just one ‘aah’ book ending, but 3! And the first two have the job of not only making the reader go ‘aah’, but also make them go on to read the next book! How do you do it?

    • Thanks for this and for kind words about my novels too! Yes, setting up the ending for s follow on is another skill, plus, as you say, making the opening of next in series is tricky too. It needs to be clear for new readers at the same time as not being boring for people who have read the previous novel – I can see another blog post coming up!!

  5. I heartily agree about starting with a plan. I can never finish any project without knowing the end before I start, or at least having some rough plan in place. And you make an excellent point about the importance of endings. That *is* the part the reader remembers afterwards. Nice post.

  6. Mmmmm, just getting to this bit – ‘the ending’. Quite impressed that I’ve got remotely near to an ‘end’ at all! Couple thousand words more then that’s ‘it’. Just got to get it as good as I can….. wish me luck!

  7. I’m reluctant to admit just how long it has taken me to grasp that an ending should not only be emotionally satisfying (with an ahh! from the reader not an owh!) but also that the writer should know what it is right from the start. I think the journey towards that point can evolve as you write but the goal posts have to be in a place, otherwise it’s a ramble…Thanks for the post!

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