Author’s Corner: How to End your Novel

The Ending of a Story

There are three parts of a story that are difficult to write: the beginning, the middle, and the end. I don’t say that to be funny. Each part has its own special set of challenges, but today I want to talk specifically about the function of a story’s ending.

Whether or not a story works depends on how well its beginning, middle, and ending hang together. When viewed in this manner, it is quite clear that all three parts are equally important.

Indeed, the ending, and particularly the climactic moment that decides the plot conflict, can function as a confused writer’s guiding light in figuring out just what the story is about and how to wrangle its unwieldy earlier sections. 

Herron sits at a table with his books displayed
Author R.L. Herron

This is because we never really know what a story is about until we reach the ending. Regardless of what has come before, the ending provides the final commentary. The ending is what indicates whether the author finds the story’s series of events to be tragic, comedic, triumphant, or ironic.

Of course, this is one of the reasons it can be helpful to have a good idea of the ending before you start writing. If you know what you’re building toward, it’s much easier to construct a resonant path toward that ending.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that this view of the ending is the writer’s view. This is not the view of the reader or the characters. For them, the ending is less a destination they are moving toward and more an emergent of the story’s many travails.

This is an important distinction.

Recognizing it presents a more accurate reflection of how life actually works. Even if our characters are working toward a specific end, that ending is less the final triumph (or failure) of a goal and more the inevitable emergent of all the many scenes and events that have unfolded leading up to it.

It’s easy to view the climax as being the moment when everything changes for the protagonist. However, although the climax enacts a final causal change, it is itself the result of the story, triggered by earlier events.

The Destination Is Not the Point

Here’s an interesting question to ask yourself – At the beginning of your story is your protagonist capable of performing the story’s climactic action?

The answer is probably yes.

Of course, the ending is not the point. Even when readers are uncertain how a story will end, even when they are hoping to be surprised, they are not reading for the ending.

This is because skipping to the end, without the journey in between, is deeply unsatisfactory, because this is not how life works. 

The hero is not a hero just because he reaches the end, but because of everything, he did to get there.

It is important to remember that, although a story must reach an ending, that ending is only important in the context of the protagonist having earned it through the journey.

In short, don’t rely simply on the events of your climax to prove that your protagonist has changed. The climax is merely there to give the protagonist a stage to embody the change fully, which he or she has already earned.

The importance of an ending is not its ability to surprise us, but rather its ability to satisfy us.

About R.L. Herron

R.L. Herron, the author of multiple works of fiction, including several Readers' Favorite medal winners, lives and writes in Michigan with his lovely wife, and a finally-paid mortgage. His books are all available on Amazon and online with Barnes & Noble. Visit Author R.L. Herron's Website, Broken Glass.

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