That’s the End? Are You Kidding Me?

How could I go wrong, right? It was a New York Times bestseller, written by a popular author, published by a company similar to one using a logo of a flightless aquatic bird. Took five weeks to get it on inter-library loan. It started well enough. A woman in a dull but dependable marriage finds herself drawn to a handsome stranger with blinding white teeth and spurs. Not the most original of plots, but good writing. The conflict builds. The author raises the stakes. The heroine digs herself in deeper. I was led to believe that the ending required a choice: stay with Mr. Hot Stuff, or go home to Mr. Dependable. Even if she chooses Plan C and walks off alone into the sunset, she MUST ACTIVELY MAKE A CHOICE. The credibility of the story depends on it. And then… fate intervenes. Mr. Hot Stuff dies in a random accident. The choice is gone. The author has blown it. The book flies across the room. I make many apologies to Marion the Librarian and slip her a sizable fine.

That’s just one way to ruin an otherwise good story and put a nice little dent in your wall, depending on the size of the book. Even if you have the most original plot ever crafted, characters so compelling you want to bake birthday cakes for them and bear their children, if you punt on the ending you risk alienating readers. Because this is the last thing they see. Remember the Olympics? Who remembers the lovely double-flip-back-handstand-with-a-twist-of-lemon if the gymnast falls on her tiny behind during the landing? Yes, that’s the picture we’ll remember. A little girl with sparkles in her hair, crying her eyes out. And nobody wants to see that. Well, if you do, maybe there’s something wrong with you, but that’s between you and your therapist.

Here are some other endings that can tick off your readers:

1. Bring in the ninjas! The bad guy, guns drawn, has our heroine cornered. Certainly, this is the end of her. But wait! What’s that rumbling underneath our feet? An earthquake! And we’re not even in a fault zone! It opens up a crevasse in the earth and swallows the bad guy whole. Uh…no. Unless you’ve planted the possibility of this somewhere along the way, the reader isn’t going to buy it. Or you, ever again.

2. The unsupported twist. You’ve read them. Endings you never saw coming. But wait…did you? Our own Stephen Hise’s novel, Upgrade, has a very well executed twist-style ending. Yet little clues are seeded in throughout, so ultimately, if you’ve been paying attention, you might not know exactly how it’s going to play out, but you might think, “Of course, it had to end that way.” But putting in a twist for the sake of a twist, with no other supporting plot elements, comes off as manipulative and a little desperate.

3. Author must have gotten tired. I get annoyed when a good story feels too rushed at the end. Even if it’s been done intentionally, I can’t help feeling that the author got bored and wanted to wind it up. Take a breath. Put the project away for a while if you need to. But come back and make the ending fit the tone of the rest of the story.

4. Abandoned plot threads. I love a complex read with a number of subplots. You don’t have to tie them all up in a neat bow at the end—depending on your genre, this could end up looking a little too perfect—but don’t leave the reader hanging. Point us in a direction. The runaway teen calls home. The warring young couple finds the key to common ground. The innocent prisoner sees the first glimmer of justice. Let the reader meet you halfway. Don’t leave me thinking, “What happened with the old dude and penguin?” It just makes me bitter. Because I like penguins, and that’s just not right.

5. The easy out. Romance and romantic comedies are particularly guilty of this egregious sort of book ending. Everybody magically happens to be in the right place at the right time. The about-to-be-dumped love interest merely steps out of the way with a wistful smile. Right. Like that happens in real life.

Have you paid any extra-large library fines lately? Have any endings ruined an otherwise good read for you?

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

31 thoughts on “That’s the End? Are You Kidding Me?”

  1. I wonder sometimes how much the editorial process interferes with endings. My first editor chopped my ending so severely that I felt it had taken a nose dive off a cliff. And I wondered…was SHE tired of reading it? Then an acquisitions editor for a major publishing house gave me some good advice…put it back in! But I’m with you. Thanks for the article. Good read and I passed it around 🙂

  2. Love it! I’ve read all of those endings and they drive me nuts! I have to add one to your list though . . . leaving the ends as cliff hangers for the sequels. Yeah. I do that. I have many readers who aren’t happy about it.

  3. Great essay. Endings are the most important aspect of stories. They’re why you don’t stop reading, right?

    All writers think about them in one way or another, but few of us write much about them. For me the question in fiction that ultimately governs my endings is whether I’m writing a story to depict life as it is or life as I wish it was. Endings with a realistic, life as it is approach, probably can’t be cut that clean, and even plot twists can be ambiguous if done properly. In the life as I wish it was approach, ambiguity and non-closure are usually essential, one way or the other.

    More simply put, is fiction to you as a writer about raising questions and different perspectives, or is it about answers and definition?

    Thanks for getting me to think about this stuff. Now maybe this novel I’ve been working on will be a bit better. I know my ending. Just want to be careful how we get there.

    1. Thanks, David. Something we all have to answer for ourselves. I like a little mess, not so much that I can’t figure out how it actually ended, enough so I know we’re walking toward resolution. And every project is different!

  4. Thanks for this insightful post. I’ll have to think very carefully about my next ending. I, too, left a cliff hanger for a sequel and heard about it from my readers. Maybe there’s hope – it’s only my first book. lol Your post gives me food for thought!

  5. I think its always a very tough call to get the ending to be kind of a resolution, something the reader can take away with him/ her. I agree with the article. Great advice, helps a lot!

  6. As much as I love Stephen King, the final third of his novels tends to disappoint. I’ve never been able to figure out why. Perhaps it’s the “too neat” thing. That said, I’ve noticed an improvement lately, and certainly that monster JFK time travel book is strongest at the beginning and the end (this time, it’s the middle that sags a little). Anyway, good stuff, Laurie.

    1. Thank you, Sir Antrobus! The only King book I’ve read was Carrie, so I don’t have much to go on, and I only remember the ending because they changed it a bit in the movie. Sounds like I must get the new book on my list, though. 😀

  7. Great stuff, Laurie. I have been thinking a lot about that very thing with this last book. It’s supposed to wrap up my trilogy but I’m beginning to wonder if I don’t need a fourth book.

    And I think what you say is true of series, as well. Each book needs to leave the reader satisfied with this one but still wanting the next. Sometimes that’s a tall order.

  8. Back in the heyday of National Lampoon, they ran a satire called “How To Write Good”
    It suggested that the best way to end a book is to have everybody get run over by a truck. Be flexible, though. If in UK, they get run over by a lorry. If the story is about ants, they can get run over by a grasshopper.

    1. Ha! The ninja reference came from a friend who’d get bored with a book or movie and say, “Bring in the ninjas!” Akin to getting run over by a truck, lorry, or massive incongruous chaos, a la Monty Python. 😉

  9. I struggle with endings in my series books. Each book leads to the next, but I feel like I can’t leave too much hanging. Any advice on this is welcome. Thanks for the post.

  10. Laurie: I agree wholeheartedly with all of it, especially #3. I’m towards the end of a MS I’ve been working on for over a year, and it’s like the horse seeing the barn door. I had to walk away for it for awhile and do other non-writing things. I go back and write a chapter at a time. I see the end as The Castle, and the way to it as a bridge from Where I Am. Take your time, build a firm bridge, and everyone will want to go to The Castle–not just once, but many times. @Eva, I’m thinking the climax location depends on the build-up and the allover descriptiveness of the story. But definitely within the last four chapters, or the audience will just yawn and walk away. Think of the best movies–if there was a lot of yadda-yadda at the end, the entire theater would empty out, and everyone will be seated at Starbucks before the final credits roll.

  11. Just like the advice to comedy improv rookies, ‘never introduce a gun’ because then there is only one ending and no choices. Great advice, thank you. I’m bookmarking this one for when I venture into fiction. lol

    1. Thank you, Carolyn! I think they stole that from Chekov, that if you introduce a gun in the first act, it has to go off by the end? Or something like that. Just like any time a pool is shown in a comedy, someone is going into it, most likely while wearing fancy clothes. Or in a drama, if you see a plate glass window, someone will get tossed through it, or (inaccurately) get blasted through it backward by a bullet.

  12. I love this post, Laurie: many questions, no real answers, very thought provoking. I also agree with David insofar as Stephen Kings writing, in general, and his latest offering; for my money, by the way, Stephen King’s best book is ‘The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon’, if you haven’t already it’s well worth a read.

  13. This post reminded me of a short story I read not long ago. It was ok until I reached the end. The obvious things were explained but the question of why any of the events in the story happened in the first place was not even broached. I don’t mind filling in the blanks so long as I have enough to work with, but this one left me feeling cheated.

    In my own writing I don’t outline so I don’t ‘know’ what the ending will be, until it suddenly hits me in the eye. There is a moment of surprised satisfaction as all the important things seem to fall into place. And then there is a sad realization that the only words I need to add are ‘the end’.

    As a reader I need that same sense of closure, even in a series. Otherwise I feel as if I’ve been left hanging in mid-sentence while the speaker shuffles off, stage right.

  14. I could have sworn I posted earlier. Maybe I hallucinated it….

    Re series, I’m finding it helpful to consider each book as a stand-alone story in a larger narrative arc. I set up the major conflict in the first book, but it won’t be resolved ’til book 5. The books in between each have their own part of the story to tell, and they each add a little bit (I hope!) to the resolution of the major conflict. In the meantime, as I’m resolving the story line in, say, book 2, I’m also bringing in something new that the characters will have to work on in book 3 — the theory being that the reader will then be *dying* to get their hands on book 3 in order to find out what happens next. But then I’m a plotter. I dunno how you’d manage it as a pantser.

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