How to Write Endings that "Wow!"
Once again, I invited blogger and copywriter Alex Limberg to spread his nuggets of wisdom amongst us. Today, he is closing in on closings. He is showing us several “typical closing styles” you can use as templates for your own stories. Yes, just rip them off mercilessly. Alex brings in a few famous authors like Agatha Christie, George Orwell and Bret Easton Ellis, so you can see one brilliant practical example for each closing. Make sure to download Alex’s free checklist of “44 Key Questions” to make your own stories awesome. And here is the beginning of the end…:
The beginning, so they say, is the most important part of your story. And that might very well be true. Or how do you think your reader will get to experience your genius climax, if a sleep-inducing beginning has put her into a coma long ago…?
However, the end is what your readers will take with them from your book. It’s your closing argument and the last thing they read. It’s what they will remember when they think back to your story in a couple of years, if they remember anything at all.
So you better make your ending count.
Story endings also have some special kind of magic to them. That feeling when you finish a great book you really enjoy, isn’t it… epicness? A grand feeling that stays with you for a while?
Here is the good news: A story ending to remember isn’t even that hard to write. You will now see five typical endings that will leave your reader in delight. Authors use these five endings all the time, and that’s because they work really well.
If all else fails, just use these examples as templates for your own story. That’s not very creative, but no harm done.
Also, if you want to thoroughly check your plot structures, including beginnings and endings, characters, dialogues, and much more, you can download my free checklist about “44 Key Questions” to test your story. It will help you make every part of your story tight and awesome.
Here are five archetypical closures that work astonishingly well, with one famous example for each:
1. Get Them by Surprise
Surprise works every single time. That’s because us humans are just curious creatures. You could uncover a surprising fact or give the action a surprising twist. Anyways, your readers will appreciate being astonished; after all, that’s what they are reading stories for.
Your readers will have certain expectations. They depend on the genre, the protagonists, the language, and so on… Be aware of your readers’ expectations. Put yourself in their shoes. Then give them something they don’t expect, but still makes sense for your story.
Maybe the thief turns out to be the narrator’s own husband or even the narrator herself. Maybe the girl doesn’t pick between her two suitors, but instead marries their uncle. Or plumber.
Agatha Christie, the master of plausible surprise, shows us perfectly how it’s done in And Then There Were None. Ten visitors are trapped on a small island and murdered one by one. As nobody else is on the island, it’s clear one of them must be the murderer… but who?
One suspect after another is snuffed, until only one person is left alive. It’s now clear she must be the murderer, until… the highly unexpected closure reveals she is not. The novel ranks amongst the bestselling books of all time.
2. Play Their Sentiments with an Elegiac Fade Out
Milan Kundera takes a very different approach when he wraps up his The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “Up out of the lampshade, startled by the overhead light, flew a large nocturnal butterfly that began circling the room. The strains of the piano and violin rose up weakly from below.”
Kundera’s classic novel fades into the distance like a piece of music. The ending doesn’t want to bring suspense, puzzle or get you to think. It’s all about mood. It’s a slow ending.
Try to make your reader really feel the power of the moment, be it terrified, happy, sad, or sentimental.
Think of little symbols, like the butterfly above; with Kundera, it might stand for lightness, repeating the theme in the novel’s title. You could zoom in on a tapping finger or a dew drop, or zoom out to show wooded hills or a rural mansion. Landscapes and weather make very memorable finishing moments (“…and great shaggy flakes of snow began to fall.”).
Leave the reader with a unique vibe, and she will appreciate it. Sometimes, it’s all your closure needs.
3. Throw Them a Punchline
With this one, you have to be careful. Do you know that situation when Uncle Albert at the holiday lunch table makes a big fuss about his upcoming joke, but the punchline is almost non-existent? You don’t want to be like that. You could tell a joke or describe surprising action, but make it count.
Your punchline doesn’t have to be funny. It could be an action or a simple observation. In any case, it should connect to the stories topic, even if it’s just a symbolic hint. Otherwise it will be up in the air and look arbitrary.
George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm is one big parable on how totalitarian systems arise and thrive. It’s told in an animal world. Look at the clever, indirect and also depicting note Orwell ends on:
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
4. Leave Open Questions and Create Suspense
If you want to tickle your reader with suspense, cue an open ending: Ok, the Apaches are defeated, but will they be back again? Got it, the starship has escaped the pudding-like aliens, but will it ever make its way home to planet earth?
These kind of endings will keep your readers on their toes and make them long for more. But be aware that they can also be very unsatisfying. After all, your reader bought your book so he can hear from you what happened. “Just imagine the rest yourself,” can be a little unsatisfactory. But if you have delivered a great deal of action beforehand and if the question is rather vague, it might be worth it.
Let’s showcase another one of the most successful novels of all time, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. It ends with Scarlett O’Hara longing to be together with Rhett Butler again – but can she? Also pay attention to the nice rhythm that keeps these phrases flowing: “I’ll think of it all tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”
5. Repeat the Theme of the Opening Scene
Whatever your story is about, it probably circles around one specific topic: Be it the struggles of love, the rewards of honesty, or whatever else. It’s what keeps your readers breathless throughout the story. Now give them one last reminder of what they came for, one condensed moment of your topic, a big final exclamation mark!
You have many options to repeat your main theme in the closure. Think of people, actions, details.
Maybe your story is about the importance of friendship, and you wrap up with one friend putting a patch on the other friend’s abrasion. Or you end on one friend smilingly watching the other friend’s bag while she is away. Or a close up on the yin and yang badge on that very bag. It might be very simple, but it automatically gains meaning because it’s the last part.
Bret Easton Ellis’ nihilistic novel American Psycho starts by describing a graffiti with the text “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”
The novel fittingly ends with a nihilistic paragraph as well. Large parts of the following text read arbitrary in content and form. In the end the very last words of the novel spell it out clearly: NOT AN EXIT.
“[…]this is, uh, how life presents itself in a bar or in a club in New York, maybe anywhere, at the end of the century and how people, you know, me, behave, and this is what being Patrick means to me, I guess, so, well, yup, uh…” and this is followed by a sigh, then a slight shrug and another sigh, and above one of the doors covered by red velvet drapes in Harry’s is a sign and on the sign in letters that match the drapes’ color are the words THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.”
You can end your stories in an infinite number of ways, but these five closings will intrigue your readers, no matter what. They will evoke joy, melancholy, surprise and other powerful feelings in your audience, and your readers will remember how they felt about your story for a long, long time to come.
Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Test your endings, beginnings, plot, characters and much more with his free checklist of “44 Key Questions” to make your story awesome. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.
Finished with your endings, Alex?
Kristen here. Now tell me: Have you used one of these five endings before? Which one of them is your favorite? Is there one you specifically like or dislike as a reader? How come even endings have beginnings? And why are sausages the only things with two endings?
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