Novels & The "Knockout" Ending

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Anamorphic Mike.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Anamorphic Mike.

The past few posts, we’ve been talking about the fabulous James Scott Bell’s LOCK System. LEAD, OBJECTIVE, CONFLICT, and, finally, KNOCKOUT. Jim’s given me permission to talk about his system, but there is NO substitute for his fabulous book Plot & Structure. It’s one of the BEST writing references out there.

I am sure many of you’ve had this same experience with either a book or a movie. The characters are great, the story riveting, tense, and you can’t wait until the… WTH? Was that the ENDING? Really? I invested TWELVE HOURS of reading for THAT? And then you toss the book across the room or tell every friend you know not to watch Such-and-Such movie. I think it’s worse with novels because readers have a lot of time (they don’t really have to spare) invested.

I remember one book I read a couple years ago. It was beautifully written and had me on the edge of my seat. I couldn’t wait to figure out the truth to this mystery and when it was revealed? O_o.

I wanted to run the book through an industrial paper shredder.

Needless to say, endings are important. There are all kinds of endings: clear, unclear, twist, positive and negative. All will work if we execute them well (so buy Jim’s book and he can tell you how).


So your novel has thrust a likable, relatable protagonist into a collision course with the Big Boss Troublemaker. The Big Boss Battle must deliver all you (the writer) have been promising. Endings tie up all loose ends and sub-plots and, if we have done our job, will leave the reader a feeling of resonance.

Your protagonist MUST face down the BBT. No fighting through proxies. Darth (Anakin) had to face The Emperor. Agent Clarice Starling had to take down Buffalo Bill. Harry had to take out Voldemort. Spooner had to kill VIKI (I, Robot).

By employing  skills learned over the course of the story and growing and maturing from protagonist to HERO, the protagonist is finally equipped to triumph.

Same in literary works.

Evelyn Couch (Fried Green Tomatoes) had to stand up to her husband (who was as useful as ice trays in hell) and her abusive monster-in-law. She couldn’t send in Ninny Threadgoode to do it for her. In the movie’s climactic scene, Evelyn employs the “Jedi skills” she learned from stories about Idgy. Her Jedi skills are confidence and self-respect, and she uses them to defeat her oppressors by refusing to take any more of their sh—enanigans.

This is why all this “my protagonist is the BBT/antagonist” WON’T WORK. In Fried Green Tomatoes, Evelyn is her own worst enemy. She is spineless and weak. But, the real enemy resides in those who desire to control and bully Evelyn. In each act of the movie, we see Evelyn learning confidence so that by the end, the BIG battle, she can tell her abusive mother-in-law and Momma’s Boy Hubby to stuff it.

She isn’t having an argument with herself. She is standing up to a very real external antagonist…even though this is a character/literary story. Characters having inner angst for 80,000 words is therapy, not fiction. Humans do better with the tangible. Existentialism is great for torturing college freshmen, but for a mainstream successful novel? Not the best approach.

If you plan on writing a connected series, every book must stand on it’s own. If we get hit by an ice cream truck after publishing Book One, the story should be good enough. No 1960s “Batman Endings” where we leave the reader on a cliff to manipulate them into buying the next book.

There are two types of series in my world: connected (I.e. Lord of the Rings) and episodic (crime novels). In Lord of the Rings, we follow a larger story and more is revealed with each book until a final climactic ending. In episodic books, readers are following a beloved character, but each story is different and self-contained (I.e. Agatha Christie mysteries).

If we have several books in a connected series, a reader might not pick up Book One. She might pick up Book Three. The story must still satisfy, and, if it does, likely the reader will seek out the earlier works to catch up.

When we have a connected series, we have ONE BIG BBT (I.e. Sauron) but each book still completes the story problem. There are mini-BBT’s which represent the main BBT.

Uruk-Hai—> Sauroman—> Sauron

Each book has a complete arc. Uruk-Hai dead, Sauroman defeated, Ring of Power melted, killing Sauron and all his evil power. When placing all three books together, each book will be an “act” of the larger work.

Summing Up

So when you get that nugget of an idea and think, Hmm. THAT is my novel. Try using the LOCK system. Ask yourself:

Can I cast a LEAD who is relatable, likable, or at least empathetic?

Is this OBJECTIVE something that will keep readers interested for 60, 000-100,000+ words?

Can I create a BBT and opposition force capable of generating plenty of CONFLICT to keep my lead from her objective?

Does this story problem lend itself to a KNOCKOUT ending?

This is just a taste of the good stuff that James Scott Bell has to offer in Plot & Structure so I recommend buying a copy for your writing library.

What are the biggest problems you guys have when it comes to developing your endings? What are some setbacks you have faced? Do you guys have any recommendations for resources? Or, feel free to commiserate and laugh about all the good ideas that went oh so wrong.

To prove it and show my love, for the month of October, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Also, for all your author brand and social media needs, I hope you will check out my new best-selling book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.


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  1. James Cameron once said people will always remember the last act. That’s what people talk about when they leave the theater. If readers can attain that experience in novels, then it will make it a bestseller, for sure!

  2. I’ve read novels where the ending happens, and I’m satisfied. Then I flip the page and another chapter appears, and I wonder what they could possibly say to improve the ending they already gave me. Most of the time it doesn’t enhance the story, but puts a damper on the experience I already had with their first ending. I see how the last part is one of the hardest to write. Thanks for helping to improve it!

    1. Harry Potter 7

  3. I admit I’m struggling with this a little bit in my WIP. I like the way you’ve explained it though. I think that will help enormously. *slinks off to review story plan*

  4. One of the books that I felt feel really flat was the Hunger Games trilogy. Collins built up such a rich world with characters people loved, but I think she should have stopped sooner. I would have been okay not knowing the rest of Katniss’ life after the rebellion. I think she might have diluted her knock-out.

    1. Sam-
      I agree. The teacher I work with disagrees with me because she sees Katniss’ overarching desire as finding a home, family, place to belong and be loved. In that case, Katniss isn’t resolved until she either has (or doesn’t have) these things. Just fodder for thought?

  5. Thanks, Kristen. I’m going to use the energy of NaNoWriMo and the month of November to strengthen my novel–BBT and all.

  6. I keep “Plot and Structure” next to my laptop. Right next to the Kit Kat wrappers. It’s my favorite book on writing and I highly recommend it. Off to RT this knockout post.

  7. Good stuff. I’m going to re-tweet it.

  8. Thanks for teaching LOCK. I can never learn enough about knockout endings.

  9. Yes, I have Bell’s book and use many of his systems. I think people get the ending wrong when they a) don’t know the protagonists real desire or b) feel the need to explain everything. I especially despise the second type of ending. I prefer happy endings, but I’m learning to live with the not-so-happy kind if the problem is resolved.
    My problem in writing endings is that I want the image of the last page to resonate. Most of the time it means no ending I write seems good enough. My WIP ends with a line of dialogue – a question – and I like it. It’s the first of a trilogy, but I still hear an agent or editor saying, “No go” to it.

  10. Good post! I learned knockout the hard way. My first book has a major cliffhanger, and a lot of readers didn’t like that. Some even knocked it down from 5 start to 4 because of it. Lesson learned!

  11. Because social media is a jungle to me I have ordered a copy of Rise of the Machines. I hope the book will help me navigate the social media jungle with greater ease and confidence.

    1. THANK YOU, Suzi! ((HUGS))

  12. If I’m not excited about writing it then it’s a fail before the reader sees it.

    1. This is an excellent book. It has kept me from repeating mistakes.

      1. I haven’t read it, but I’ve greatly anticipated each post so I guess it’s another for my “must read” list.

  13. Oops. Hit send too soon. I recently read a book in a series, and the author left a cliffhanger at the end. I was furious. End the book, stupid. I dropped the series right then.

  14. James Scott Bell’s book on structure is the best yet written – he’s nailed the issues and the exercises he gives are absolutely on the money when it comes to teaching those techniques…my only concern with learning to write this way is that it’s important for the author to add a flow, a twist, and sense of dimension that lifts their work. I read a book a while back that was obviously written to Bell’s lessons, by the number – and, of course, it was spot on in all the key structural ways. But there were points through it that were obviously of the ‘paint by numbers’ variety – they lacked sparkle. It’s a matter of practise rather than anything else.

  15. Reblogged this on #StoryCraft Chat and commented:
    You may have an idea but do you have an ending? Kristen Lamb on James Scott Bell’s “Knockout ending”

  16. This LOCK system is absolutely wonderful. I took a lot of notes to apply to my own writing. Thank you so much for sharing 🙂

  17. ‘Every book must stand on its own’. Exactly why I was so disappointed in a recent installment of a well known mystery series. A huge cliff hanger where the protagonist is shot at the end, and I won’t know if she lives or dies until the next book. Yes I’ll read it because I love the series, but that kind of ending leaves me feeling like the cliff hanger is a plot device to do nothing but get me to buy the next book. I’m so invested in the series by now so of course I’m going to buy the next book. However, if I am let down by the ending again, then that ends the series for me. And if this type of ending had happened in a book that I was new to, I seriously doubt I’d pick up another by the same author.

  18. Here’s an Ending problem I’m mulling over at the moment – how do you have your protag comprehensively defeat your BBT at the end without either making the protag seem unlikeable (wth? you stabbed your abusive mother-in-law??) or a cop-out (wth? your abusive mother just happened to slip while lunging at you with a knife and fatally stabbed herself??).
    For some BBTs, it’s just not a Knockout if they’re still breathing.
    I’m eager to hear y’all’s thoughts.

      • Jason Gallagher on October 26, 2013 at 12:26 am
      • Reply

      They win with love and forgiveness.

      • sao on October 26, 2013 at 1:56 am
      • Reply

      I hate cop outs where the abuser just happens to die, unless it is really well done. But I also dislike heros who lynch (kill without a trial). Plus, if he’s killing his MIL, what’s the future of the relationship with the wife? I’m probably not going to feel like HEA is possible for that pair.

      If the abuse is verbal, then the protag just doesn’t care. Feels pity for the pathetic creature.

      But Jail works too. The hero/ine/neighbor/etc can call 911 before the fight and have the abuser pinned on the ground, (ie winning the fight) and the cops come in. It’s less climactic, but happier.

      And really, if it’s a mother, then she has to be around 50 when the hero is an adult, so 20 years in jail, she’ll be 70 and not much of a threat.

      1. Thanks for your input!

        I was just using Kristen’s example of the woman standing up to her m-i-l & husband – my WIP has a princess struggling against her usurping uncle, so no 911 option 🙂
        Sure, you can fling ’em in a dungeon, but someone who has engineered one coup can probably repeat the feat.

        Love and forgiveness are definitely great qualities but they don’t make for very satisfying endings where cold-blooded murderers are concerned, imho.
        Yes, we want the protag to move on with their life, but the BBT can’t just carry on with theirs. Justice must season mercy…

  19. I was writing a paranormal romance series and getting some great feedback from comps (wins and placings) and interest from agents and editors, but then they’d read the whole thing and give me a ‘no’. It took me a while to figure out the problem (and when I did, I didn’t quite believe in my own intuition enough until a couple of editors said something that made me realise I was right.) The problem was I was so busy thinking about the overall series and the BBT for the series, that I didn’t just write the first book. What I’d really written was a book and a half. There was a really great BBT in the first book, but I bumped into her and then swam over her in an effort to get to the hints and clues for the big arc. I realised I had to concentrate on the story that involved that BBT in relation to my main protagonists and end the story in defeating/coming to terms with her impact on them and give them a HFN.
    The last 3rd of the book was really the start of the 2nd. The reason I didn’t want to accept this was I’d already written the 2nd novel and it would mean huge re-writes for both novels and possibly making part of the 2nd novel the first part of the 3rd. It’s a big, frightning thing to think about and I’ve spent months coming to terms with what I have to do and letting my mind play with these new ideas of restructuring and replotting. But what seemed frightening at first is now starting to seem exciting and I am preparing to get stuck into it and see what I can pull free of the muck, polish off and turn into something shiny. Your advice here makes me even more certain that my new path is the right one.

  20. Why buy books when I have your blog? I kid, I kid. Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll pick it up. I’m going through my 2nd draft right now and this is very helpful as I refine the plot and characters. I enjoy the ending I wrote in the first draft, but this will help me look at it more critically to ensure it truly delivers on the original promise.

  21. Reblogged this on Life is a story. Write it. and commented:
    For any writer out there, Kristen Lamb’s blog is a must-visit. She has a volume of past posts that are worth reading too.

  22. The protagonist has to happen on the page as soon as humanly possible, preferably with the first word (sometimes there are exceptions to ‘the first word,’ but you better have it planned for first impact somehow.

    The protagonist HAS to be the one to solve the crime/confront the antagonist and WIN/have the last word – no Deus ex machina for a very good reason: you’ve been working the WHOLE book to set up the end, the reader has invested untold emotional capital with the protagonist, and you had better satisfy – or, whether they realize why or not, those readers who get to the end won’t come back.

    I have never read the next book of someone who can’t ‘close’ a story. I have rewritten a few endings for myself, just to prove that I can, but it had better come from the storyteller if I am ever going to go back to that source.

    Not providing a good ending (in the reader’s opinion) is the worst kind of breaking the ‘contract with the reader’ you can do.


  23. Thanks for sharing the LEAD process. It’s always good to get a fresh take on how to go about writing my books.

  24. Hmmmm, My biggest problem is not wrapping everything up. My writer’s group likes all the questions answered at the end of a story, I like to leave things open to interpretation. So, I’m struggling with that balance. So much great advice my head is swimming 🙂 Thank you!

  25. I’m with you on that, and not always just with the ending. Some people like the open interpretation, others hate it. It’s definitely a balance but as the authors, I think it remains our discretion what we feel is best. Part of that is being confident in why you chose to end things that way. I didn’t think the show Dexter ended all that great, but I really liked the ending to the Soprano’s even though a lot of people hated it. Can’t win ’em all!

    • Karyne Corum on October 26, 2013 at 12:52 pm
    • Reply

    This is one of my biggest pet peeves. When it almost seems like the writer just got bored, wandered off and then came back only to type “the end”. Grr. I actually threw a book out a window for this once. True story. I have copied down this excellent advice to utilize in my MS lest I become my own worst enemy!

  26. Thank you for such a great article Kristen! I’m writing my third YA novel at the moment, and this time I’m making sure I have an outline first, to prevent my book from becoming a big mess I struggle to edit, like the first two novels did. My biggest problem has been failing to plan the ending, and never being satisfied with the structure of the books I write. I’m fixing that with this book. No more writing without any clue where my book will end, and messing it up as a result. This is the first time I’m commenting on a blog post of yours, but I’ve been reading your blog for some time now, and your posts are always helpful, inspirational and fun!

  27. There seems to be a lot of risk in a book’s ending – you’re tossing the dice, going for it on fourth-and-long, etc. I wonder what value keeping a journal on endings would be: To jot down the great and the disappointing in the ends of stories we’ve read, and explain what makes or breaks it.

    I know not all work can be tossed in the same category, but are there elements in there that consistently swing us one way or another?

  28. I always tried to avoid “explaining the obvious” at the end. I figured the ending I’m writing was sufficient for the reader, considering myself reading the book instead of writing it. I really hope my future readers share my opinion.

  29. Well, 37 comments. I have a snowball’s chance. But I do have this post, already signed up for your newsletter, and James Bell’s Plot & Structure is next on my ‘to read’ craft pile. I just got feedback from a beta reader that the first two chapters of my historical fiction are “slow”. But these two chapters introduce the people I want the reader to care about most, not the BBT who, thankfully, dies by the end.

    1. I read ALL comments and ALL are deeply appreciated. THANK YOU!

    • terencekuch on October 30, 2013 at 5:50 pm
    • Reply

    If the reader’s jaw doesn’t drop, then the ending wasn’t strong enough. Too bad, leads to some forced and phony plotting, but it seems to be true. A chase, if nothing else.

    Different fiction-writing topic: This is a quandary that seems to come up only for longer works such as novels. Does the narrative voice (i.e., not dialog) refer to people by their first names, or their last? Does it matter if you’re consistent about it (e.g., always “Charley” Smith but always Doug “Desmond”, or even sometimes “Charley” Smith and sometimes Charley “Smith.” The reader knows who’s referred to, so this is a matter of style, not clarity. Thoughts?

  1. […] I am sure many of you’ve had this same experience with either a book or a movie. The characters are great, the story riveting, tense, and you can’t wait until the… WTH? Was that the ENDING? Really? I invested TWELVE HOURS of reading for THAT? And then you toss the book across the room or tell every friend you know not to watch Such-and-Such movie. I think it’s worse with novels because readers have a lot of time (they don’t really have to spare) invested.  […]

  2. […] Novels & The “Knockout” Ending […]

  3. […] Jami Gold shows us how to avoid a sagging middle in our stories, and Kristen Lamb explains how to deliver that knockout ending. […]

  4. […] up. I’m in. I’ve done my research. I have a terrific support system: my writing group; Kristen Lamb the WANA Mama and my WANA-peeps at (shout-out to my WANA113 fellow Hotel […]

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