Two of the most difficult things to get right for a novel are the beginning and the ending.
The right beginning is important, which should jump in at a significant moment or start with action, but the ending – something that seems far off when we’re writing the story – is just as important.
An ending has to accomplish several things: it has to complete the story, it must offer resolution, it should tie up all loose ends and, finally, it should provide an ending that is logical and satisfactory.
It’s worth noting that not all stories need to end in one explosive, violent event - and there is nothing wrong with that – because many novels don’t. Some novels – literary ones in particular – have more of a gentle ‘unveiling’ at the end, whether that’s the unravelling life-journey of a character, or the answer to a particular plot twist or a simple revelation etc – as long as the story is resolved.
And, of course, not all stories have happy endings. But how do you go about formulating the climax of a novel?
Firstly, think of the story as having three sections – the beginning, the middle and the end. Secondly, know where your story is heading because writers often approach the end of the story with no clear thoughts to how it might end. Writers might come unstuck by using contrived or forced endings (because the writer hasn’t taken the time to plan), which tend to weaken the story considerably. The beginning and the middle might be exciting and fast paced, but the ending might turn into a bit of a whimper.
If you don’t know where you are heading, how can you find your way? A little planning goes a long way. Know roughly where your story is heading and how it should end. It doesn’t have to be precise, it might only be an idea, but it’s wise to have something to work to because you have a better chance of finding the right ending, rather than creating the wrong one.
Your ending section should have four main components:
· The build up
· The set up
· The Endgame
· The Resolution
The Build Up
This is where the pace of the story changes – it tends to move faster, the tension builds and the action increases, and it usually does so after a significant event or when the main character has discovered some sort of information or truth that will put them on the path towards a showdown with the antagonist.
Think of a pressure cooker slowly building up the pressure – that’s how your story should unfold. Pressure, pace, excitement and tension should take a front seat as you race towards the climax.
The idea of the build up is to create momentum and anticipation for the reader.
The Set Up
This means your character takes measured action prior to the endgame and the final moment of the story. For instance, your hero might get his hands on a gun, ready to confront the villain. Or maybe he or she gets into the car and races towards the final confrontation – perhaps the car is part of the conflict, part of a chase scene. The main character might board a train, or a plane, heading directly into trouble. Or it might simply be a character appears at a particular, significant location.
The set up places your character in a final situation and pulls together all the strands of the story, so all the twists and turns you’ve created since the start of the story lead up to that moment when your protagonist finally confronts the antagonist – what he or she decides to do next affects how they will behave in the endgame.
The moment your character faces the antagonist, the culmination of the story and it is, in effect, that final confrontation that forms the denouement.
How your character deals with this moment will directly impact on the ending, and the story itself. At this moment, the inner journey of your character and the journey they have undertaken to get to that moment are unified.
If it’s a thriller, will your character win the day and defeat the villain? If you’re writing a crime novel, will the truth come out, will the killer be found? If it’s romance, will the hero finally get his girl (or vice versa)? You get the idea.
The ending should always be appropriate for the story, too – try not to fall into the movie trap, i.e. the climactic ending always takes place in a large factory or warehouse which, for some strange reason lacks any other people working there. Or the action takes place in a quarry. Or a construction site – again with no people. Movies do this all the time. It’s boring, predictable and contrived, so avoid clichéd locations wherever possible.
The endgame allows the writer to ramp up the excitement, tension and action. That might mean explosions and fights, gunfire or chases, or it might not. Whatever the character does, he or she will be in a state of heightened desperation, anxiety or fear perhaps, or maybe facing the odds, and whatever obstacles the character has overcome throughout the story, this moment might be the worst moment of the story – a culmination of the pressure and excitement and pace into one defining moment.
The idea of the resolution is to give the reader closure. It’s optional – some novels don’t have one and simply end with a bang, but the first moments after the final conflict is when writers tie up those subplots and loose ends with a brief scene or chapter just to explain things.
The thing to remember with the resolution, however, is not to let it drag on. Keep it brief and to the point. If a writer spends another seven pages explaining things to the reader, the impact and excitement of the endgame will be lost.
Make your ending count, make the words effective and don’t make the reader feel cheated out of a good ending. They‘re not easy, but the more you write, the easier it becomes.