The Not-So-Long Good-bye

Earlier in the year I covered some tips about creating scenes, and most particularly in discussion about your novel’s first scene. I mentioned that the first scene in your book carries a special burden, and if you’ve been faithfully following this blog, you’ll recall we spent a whopping five months on just your first scene! Now, as we approach the end of this year, with only nine posts to go to wrap up this year-long intensive look at writing the heart of your story, I want to shift from scene endings to ending scenes.

Are You (More Than) Ready for It to End?

I promise we won’t take five months to go over this pivotal and crucial part of your novel, but it does require some attention. Writers tend to get a bit tired, burned out, and sometimes even a little sick of the story they’ve been crafting for months (years?) by the time they see the home stretch and often they push through or rush to wrap it all up so they can figure out where they left their life, kids, and keys that seem to have gone AWOL while they were hunched over their computer. But the ending scenes carry the next biggest burden in your novel, and so if you’re feeling the urge to hurry up and get the $%&*@ book done, or if you’ve already written an ending but it feels flat and ineffective, I’m hoping some of the suggestions I propose will be of help to you.

I recently heard the expression “Get in quickly and out quickly.” I hadn’t heard that before, and it came from a critique partner who felt my fairly short wrap-up ending to my epic novel Intended for Harm was right on. I recognize the truth in those words, for you don’t want to drag either the beginning or the ending of your novel. A “not-so-long good-bye” might just be a good thing. But it needs to be oh-so-right, short or not.

Oh Great—Another Burden

So, just as you have to cram in so many elements in a few short pages in the opening of your story, you also have to accomplish a number of big things in your last few pages.

I really love writing the last scene in my novels. I feel it’s like a reward to me for getting to the end. And rather than looking at ending my book as a big chore with the pressure on, it’s usually a high, exciting, invigorating time at my computer, filled with joy. Of course, having done my homework in advance (see my soapbox speech on why you really do need to plan out your book ahead!) and jotted notes down as the novel progressed regarding what I need at the end of the book, I don’t have that horrible trepidation of finishing. I’m always a bit sad to write  “the end” because by that point I’m so madly in love with my characters and the world I’ve created that I don’t want to go away.

I feel like Pokey (from the old Gumby cartoon show), who pops out of a book and zooms away on his weird horsie feet that slide along the floor. I hate the zooming-away part. Of course, I could write a follow-up book and drench myself in another journey with those same characters (and I do this in my seven-book fantasy series).

So, your ending takes some serious thought and planning because you have a lot of elements you need to bring out and tie up (not just plot but emotional payoffs as well). I’m not talking here about writing the climax of your book, although in some cases a climax appropriately comes in the last scene, and sometimes on the last page, of a novel.

If that’s the case with your novel, you have an even greater challenge because you’re combining both the climax and the ending at the same time, which can be tricky. Most books tend to work best if the climax comes enough before the last scene or two to allow the reader to do some processing (and the protagonist as well) to the climax—the gigantic event or moment you spent your entire book building to (which answers the MDQ and shows whether or not the protagonist reached her visible goal). Maybe next year we’ll spend a few months on building to and executing your novel’s climax since there’s a lot to say on that topic.

No Pressure—Just Do Everything on the List . . .

A. S. Byatt wrote: “We are driven by endings as by hunger.” No pressure, right? How about some more pressure? Here’s what you should believe (and strive to accomplish with your ending):

  • Endings should be unforgettable
  • Endings should satisfy both the intellect and the heart
  • Endings must wrap up all the loose plot ends
  • Endings must clearly answer both the plot and spiritual MDQ (see my earlier post if you don’t know what this is)
  • Endings should highlight the novel’s theme
  • Endings, if possible, should somehow connect to something in your opening scenes
  • Endings, if possible, should bring back a repeated motif used throughout the book (see my post on motifs)
  • Endings should leave a significant take-home message or feeling that is powerful and lingering

You can see here that a lot of what needs to appear in your ending won’t be all that hard if you did a good job setting up those elements from page one. Readers want to feel a sense of completion at the end of your novel, that you’ve given them something, and that you delivered what you promised in the first scene.

Aim for That Unforgettable Ending

All that is a tall order! But just as with the first scene, with conscious effort and forearmed with knowledge, you can create a memorable ending. Not a whole lot of books have moved me with tremendous force in the last scene. I’ve read some great last scenes, and many endings are truly satisfying, some even lingering with me for days after I put the book down. But I do hunger for that incredible ending that will knock my socks off.

Three books with endings that blew me away are Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams (I cried my heart out), Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain (yep, cried even harder, but in a gloriously happy way), and Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (which had me gasping and delirious over how he wrapped everything he set up on the last page!). Don’t you want to create that kind of response in your readers when they read your last pages? I do!

This week, pull out some novels on your shelves or skim through your e-reader to the last scene written. Make sure these are books you’ve read and at least have some memory of! See how well the author accomplished all the things mentioned above. And take some notes as to what they did that was really well done. Share with us here, or suggest some books that have knockout endings.


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  1. This is great. I’m going to use your suggestions to edit my ending. Now…in time for nanowrimo…I’m going to search your blog for a suggestion about beginnings!

  2. This article timely as usual! I’m writing draft endings for two projects. The first one seems to fit o.k, but the second one I’m having difficulty with – what to leave in and take out etc! I feel to take out more than I leave in, after reading this.

  3. What a great post,thank you. Yes endings are extremely important and like you there are very few novels whose endings have left me gasping in admiration, even in the classics. One ending recently read which left me stunned and even evoked a moa was Debra Den’s The Madonnas of Leningrad, a novel I highly recommend!Possibly one of the best endings I have ever read!

  4. Great advice, as always. Right this minute the beginning is killing me, but at some point I will need to write an ending, so I’ll refer to this then.

    (Optimism’s great, isn’t it?)

  5. The ending of my book is a long way off; but, you’ve given me some things to think about. I had intended my book to be one in a series…a trilogy. However, I am seeing a difference between how I am handling this book (3 generations) to the other two (one generation). Perhaps it is because less is known of the first three, which builds to the last two. In any event, I need to figure out where to cut off each generation’s section. I planned to write this first book in three separate parts, each dealing with the story of the great grandfather, the grandfather, and ending with the father.

    I am yet to find the motif…perhaps it will come with further writing.

    This post, as with all your posts in this series, have helped me so much…far beyond what I learned in college writing classes, which tended to be workshop style and not very informative!

    Thank you for all you do for us!

    1. I usually write the ending very early on in the process so I know exactly what outcome all the characters are journeying towards. This post offers a great check list to work through before tying the big red bow around the manuscript.

  6. I am now mentally reviewing the debut novel I recently posted as Kindle book to ensure that I have included all the elements you klisted above…and yes, I think I have them all.
    One wuestion; If even the author cries at the end of the climax and then experiences a profound sense of well-being as the story closes – does that mean it works? 😀

  7. I think the ending issue is a very valid point to make. I know I spend ages writing the opening and middle scenes in my book only to feel burnt out by the end of it. Sometimes I think I’ll write the ending first!

  8. Excellent post. I struggle much more with endings than with beginnings. Luckily, I have an editor who guides me, but the message at the end is very much that of the characters and the story. Endings I especially love are Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck), Gone with the Wind (Mitchell) and Lisey’s Story (King). The images stay with one forever.

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