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Knowing When to Stop: Expectations for a Satisfying Ending

Categories: Craft & Technique, Excerpts, Haven't Written Anything Yet, Writing for Beginners, How to Improve Writing Skills, There Are No Rules Blog by the Editors of Writer's Digest, Writing Editor Blogs.

Everyone struggles with how to write an ending, regardless of whether it’s a novel or a short story. Sometimes our perfect endings come to us in a dream-like vision, and other times we are left staring at the taunting, flashing cursor on our Word document, daring us to type. But your ending doesn’t have to be perfect. You might just need to let the story naturally end, and it will definitely tell you when it’s over. In an excerpt from the Novelist’s Essential Guide to Creating Plot by J. Madison Davis, the author shows ways that you should not end your story. If you hit any moments like these, it might be time to call it quits, or even just make a few tweaks, as suggested below. Either way, you have to be careful to live up to your readers’ expectations for a satisfying ending.

THE ENDING
As the beginning of a plot is the point at which the struggle commences; the end, of course, is the point at which the chain of causal events reaches a resolution. When the anger of Achilles is finally assuaged and he takes pity on the old king Priam begging for his son’s body, the plotline has ended. When the murderer confesses his crime or the lovers fall into each other’s arms or the hero dies of his wounds, the struggle has resolved. Failing to end their novels when the struggles are over is another mistake beginning novelists often make.

How many novels have you read that didn’t seem to know when to quit? The writer seemed to feel obligated to explain what happened to every character after the big event that brought everything to a close. When thinking of this problem I am always reminded of a routine Andy Griffith recorded when he was a stand-up comedian. He was pretending to be a hillbilly who had seen Romeo and Juliet. At the end of his recounting he said, “And seeing as how they was all dead, they brung down the curtain.” A lot of authors just don’t know when to bring down the curtain.

It is sometimes necessary to provide an anticlimax or dénouement to tie up loose ends. Commonly in a mystery story there was a short scene in which the sleuth explained how he arrived at the solution. “Elementary, my dear Watson!” On the old Perry Mason television series, the guilty party usually broke down in court and admitted committing the murder. That was the climax, to be promptly followed by a commercial. After the commercial, Perry usually explained to Paul Drake or Della Street how he knew the guilty party was guilty. In romance stories there might be an anticlimax showing the couple living happily ever after. In war or historical stories, frequently we are transported to many years later, when the survivor gives us a brief summing up.

The anticlimax, however, should be brief. Although the information in it comes from the plot, it has little to do with the single thing that makes the plot engaging: the struggle. Anticlimaxes are afterthoughts, which may or may not add to the stories. You can usually end more abruptly than you know, simply because the ending (the climax) is usually sufficient. Many beginning novelists indulge the temptation to put prologues at the front of their novels and epilogues at the ends, thereby beginning before the beginnings and continuing after the endings. Having a prologue and an epilogue won’t make you a “real writer.” Usually they show you don’t know how to start or when to quit.

Ambiguous Endings
Another common mistake of the beginning novelist is not resolving the conflict presented to the characters. The book starts fast, problems become huge, but at the point at which the ending should occur, things just taper off. Amateurs like to excuse this fundamental flaw by saying they are “leaving it up to the reader.” Well, know what? The reader isn’t there to write your novel. The reader is there to read your novel.

The reader expects your ending to end the primary conflict, not waffle about. Yes, life’s stories are often inconclusive. A suspect is caught and charged with a horrible crime. The evidence against him is rarely totally damning. Some hair and fiber, some circumstantial behavior, some partial DNA and a myopic witness might get him the electric chair. He may get a jury of “select morons” as Raymond Chandler writes, or scrupulously honest people. His lawyer might be more interested in the publicity she’s getting than working the case. Because of procedural errors the guilty verdict is appealed and a jailhouse witness comes forward who claims a now-dead inmate confessed to the crime. Is he believable or not?

The God Out of the Machine
On the other hand, some stories are so tidy we reject them. It’s rather like the cliché in mysteries in which the detective says, “I don’t like it. It’s just too neat.” She then goes on to discover it’s all a frame-up. The trouble with too-neat endings is that they appear contrived. All plots are contrived to some extent, but endings that are a bit too contrived appear unrealistic and lose their believability. In certain situations it seems impossible that everyone could live happily ever after as a conclusion to a plot. Could Elaine Robinson really run away with Benjamin after he had an affair with Elaine’s mother? These characters from Charles Webb’s The Graduate don’t seem the Jerry Springer type. However, The Graduate is satirical and funny, with many exaggerated situations, so we accept this ending. In another story it wouldn’t seem likely that a woman could forgive such a thing, and the ending would seem contrived.

A particular form of contrived resolution that even Aristotle criticizes in playwrights of his own time is called the deus ex machina, or “the god out of a machine.” It seems that the actors who played gods in ancient drama were lowered from a crane or some kind of scaffold when they “came to earth.” This was the machine. It was quite a bit more primitive than making Peter Pan fly in the musical but was basically the same thing.

The objection to the god out of the machine, however, was that it was often used as a plot device. The plot began with a problem. It became more and more intense and complicated, as it should, but then the writer couldn’t sort it all out. A resolution eluded him. So, the god or gods intervened like concerned parents. “You go to your room right now!” “Kiss your sister and make up!” “Shake hands and stop fighting or I’ll give you such a walloping!”

Divinity need not intervene for what we call the deus ex machina. Anything introduced at the end to resolve the central conflict that does not logically follow from the substance of the plot qualifies. If the surrounded wagon train in our story is down to its last box of bullets and a cavalry regiment accidentally stumbles upon the impending massacre, that’s a deus ex machina. But if the cavalry has been notified earlier in the plot and has been desperately riding to the rescue, it is not. If the wagon master of the train suddenly recognizes that the enemy chief is his brother-in-law (the woman now lives on the reservation) and that ends the attack, that plot twist would be a deus ex machina. But if we’ve known about the woman all along and she shoots her husband to stop the attack, that would be a logical progression of events.

Expectations for the Ending
What then are readers’ expectations of the ending? First of all, they expect the ending to derive logically (causally, if you prefer) from the events that came before. Aristotle says that the events in a plot must have a necessary and probable relationship to one another. The ending must be a necessary and probable outcome of the chain of events that has gone before. When the readers look back over the plot, it should seem as if it could have ended in only one way. If readers refuse to accept your resolution as being either necessary or probable, they will be disappointed. They will feel you have let them down, as if you’d gone through a long joke and the punch line wasn’t funny. Or, as if you’d worked out a beautiful puzzle that had no solution, a maze without an exit.

The second thing that delights readers is the unexpected. Curiously, surprises might seem to contradict the principle that the ending should derive from the plotline, but this is another of the terrible tightrope walks that all writers face. A misstep and down goes your plot. When the ending appears, it must seem like it had to happen, but before it appears, the readers shouldn’t already know what it is going to be. When the reader can see what’s coming, the story turns dull very rapidly.

When authors allow details to give away where their plots are going to end, they become magicians who pull hatbands out of hats instead of rabbits. Where’s the magic in that? Sometimes we have a pretty good idea that the couple who despise each other at the beginning of a story will end up in love at the end, so the question of how this love is going to come about becomes more important than the fact they’ll be in love. Nonetheless, if we seem to anticipate each move toward the inevitable conclusion, the story will be nothing but a yawner.

If your plot has begun well and risen in intensity, you have created a lot of anticipation for your ending. To let it seem too easy, too obvious or too outlandish may disappoint your readers in a way that will destroy their positive feelings for the entire novel.

Creating PlotFor more insights into creating plot, check out the Novelist’s Essential Guide to Creating Plot by J. Madison Davis.

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5 Responses to Knowing When to Stop: Expectations for a Satisfying Ending

  1. Roseoro says:

    I can’t explain how much this article actually helped me in the writing process. I thank you greatly for writing this so I won’t spend any more useless hours twiddling my thumbs and tossing around my pen and paper, waiting for the whole story to wrap up, or end in a cliff hanger.

  2. Christina K says:

    Great article. Thanks!

  3. This article is gold. Thank you very much!

  4. ali c says:

    What a great idea! Why didn’t I think of this before I wrote so many thousands of words/stared at the screen for so many thousands of hours?

  5. jevon says:

    Great article. The God out of the Machine point is a real eye-opener. I always hated movies where things happened too conveniently. As for endings, I like all questions answered, no ambiguity.

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