(by the way, it’s not actually good manuscript formatting to type “The End” at the end of your manuscript. Yeah. Really.)
“How do I end my book?” “Is this a good ending?” “Should I use an epilogue?” I’ve heard these in my writing group numerous times. I’ve heard this from developmental editing clients. And yes, I’ve also heard this from authors who have published multiple books.
Is it really that hard to find the end of a story? It really shouldn’t be.
There’s a whole angle I could discuss about plotting versus pantsing, but I’ll get to that in another post. This post is going to ask you to focus on the best method to answer your question with the story you have written in front of you:
Have you answered the story’s central question
or gotten past the ultimate solution/failure point in the main character’s goal?
Starting with the end in mind
EVEN IF you are pantsing your story, you almost certainly began writing about a character with a problem or a goal, something (tangible or intangible) they really want to achieve or find. The character probably has told you achieving this would make them happy, feel fulfilled, etc. This is called a goal. And you’ve centered your story around it, so we call that the story goal.
Bottom line: You’ve reached the end of the story when your character has either achieved/found their story goal, or if they have utterly failed. Either way, life will be unavoidably different going forward.
EVEN IF you are pantsing your story, you almost certainly began writing with a trope or type of plot in mind that has a particular resolution that is expected by readers.
Bottom line: You’ve reached the end of the story when the trope has played out to its expected conclusion. If you say, “oh but I planned a twist!” then the end is when that twist had play out to its conclusion.
Don’t overcook the plot
Once you’ve written that scene where the bottom line occurs, you’re done. You have at most one, maybe two, chapters left. And I don’t mean writing an epilogue.
Going beyond the appropriate cook time burns your dinner. Going beyond the appropriate end time in your story arc will take your story from something sumptuous and satisfying to overdone, dry and tasteless. So don’t do it.
Story Structure basics
To understand why this matters, let’s take a look at some story structure basics. And no, I’m not telling you pantsers that you can’t write off the cuff. Every writer, however, should learn what makes a good solid plot. Once you internalize that and can feel a story for its full shape, you will begin to quickly recognize when the particular story you have currently in hand, is ready to be pulled from the oven and served up.
In a typical story the tension builds and builds as each scene is a step toward the main character trying, increasingly desperately, to reach some goal. The main character wants to achieve some thing or acquire some item, even something intangible like accolades for a job well done or an apology from someone who they feel wronged them.
- In the beginning of the story (exposition), we meet the main character.
- Something happens that sets them in motion (inciting incident), pursuing their goal.
- They try and try, and meet some failures, some successes, some setbacks, etc (rising action). Maybe they even shift their goal because of new information, or a change in circumstance, but they are always, always in pursuit of happiness. And they think this thing they want will bring them that.
- At some point in the story they’re pretty sure the next action they take is their bottom line, their last shot at happiness. They gamble, fight for it (climax), and achieve it. Or not.
- At the close of that moment, that realization that they’ve won – or they’ve lost, they have to come to terms with it (falling action).
- Then they figure out what they’re going to do next (resolution).
The simple ending
Once you’ve written that narrative, or dialogue, where the main character has figured out what they’re going to do next, that’s the end of your story.
“After all, tomorrow is another day.” (Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell)
Ending books in a series
The series is set up so that there are multiple events the characters have to go through before ultimate happiness is achieved. Book 1 ends when that first outcome has been achieved (or it utterly failed and the next step is to move on to a modified ultimate happiness goal) – and the character decides to start pursuing the next event that is needed for ultimate happiness.
“Oh I will, ” said Harry, and they were surprised at the grin that was spreading over his face. “They don’t know we’re not allowed to use magic at home. I’m going to have a lot of fun with Dudley this summer…” (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling)
What about subplots?
Fair point. Here’s what I’ll say about that. Subplots DO NOT have to neatly tie up by the end of a book, only the plot that centered around the main character’s goal has to reach a “tidy” conclusion. Tidiness is somewhat subjective. A character whose main goal has been achieved can being using the final scene celebration party to get drunk enough to forget the love interest who dumped them.
What you defined as the main plot or subplot is actually how you will know whether you have a book that should be labeled “fantasy with romance elements” or a “fantasy romance.”
Romance readers expect storylines that are primarily centered around the story goal “main character gets together with the love interest” to end with an HEA (happily ever after) or HFN (happy for now).
Stories that set the story goal as something else “main character must lead rebellion to stop the evil empire” (for example), EVEN IF there is a romance subplot DO NOT have to have the HEA/HFN ending. This is why we could have “The Empire Strikes Back” (ESB) end with the lovers parted by carbonite. Getting Han and Leia together was a subplot. ESB’s story goal was Luke confronting Vader for what he did to his father (we started with the question asked, we ended with the question answered).
Still think you need help ending your story? There’s an editor for that. Called substantive or developmental editors, we focus on finding the central story goal, subplots, and sorting out one from the other. Then we give you advice on how to organize the other story elements to properly raise and lower the tension and temperature so you can serve up a deliciously cooked story in The End.
Drop me a line if you want to discuss bringing a satisfying end to your story.