Endings that Ruin Your Novel

Have you ever read a great book that carries you all the way to the end, and then the ending is so disappointing you feel cheated? I’ve felt that way many times, and usually it’s because the ending doesn’t fit the theme and story, or the characters behave so contrary to the way they’ve been portrayed that I just don’t believe it. On some occasions the author has been promising certain things, building up my anticipation, but when the moment comes, she breaks her promise and the ending falls flat.

I wonder if authors sometimes write these kinds of endings because they think they will sell more books or add more drama. One book that comes to mind (sorry if this offends anyone) is The Horse Whisperer, which I really did enjoy a lot. The premise and story line were great, the conflict throughout was believable, and the characters were engaging and full-dimensional. That is, until the ending. I suppose Robert Redford (who optioned, starred in, and directed the movie, from what I understand) disliked the ending too, for in the movie he came up with a new ending that really did work and was believable. I’m glad he did. I had one of those moments where I wanted to throw the book across the room while screaming, “Oh come on! You’ve got to be kidding.”

Keep Your Characters in Character

If you haven’t read the book, what develops as the main thread of the story is a basic plot type. You have a woman (Annie) torn deciding between two men. She can either stick with her husband (Robert), whom she doesn’t feel that close to anymore, or go after the cowboy hunk (Tom), whom she’s been spending a little too much time with. Nicolas Evans, the author, makes Tom an intriguing character. Without going into great detail about the plot, Tom is a man secure in himself, kind, principled, but very level-headed. He is not brash, emotional, or given to delusions of grandeur or lunacy. So when the time comes for Annie to choose between the two men, instead of letting her make that choice herself, he forces her hand in a ridiculous act of self-sacrifice–letting a wild mustang kill him (yes, kill him!) in order to take the pressure off poor Annie. Okay, how many sane and respectable people do you know would step out in front of a car to die in order to help someone make a decision about their love life? Sorry, it’s just not believable.

Explosions Just Might Blow Up Your Book

Which brings me to the point. Don’t come up with some explosive, fabulous, shocking ending to your book that is not in total harmony with your story. You make your ending dramatic by giving it impactful meaning for your protagonist. Do you get that? It doesn’t have to be a big moment at all. In fact, some of the best novels end with a powerful, poignant, subtle moment that is quiet and understated. And yet because of the impact on the protagonist, it is huge.

I love the Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Setterfield in this debut novel gives us a strong and terrific ending, but not much at all “happens.” The protagonist has fallen asleep in a chair while watching over the famous author she’d been interviewing over a period of months and wakes to find she’s died. That’s not quite the last scene, but the book ends with a whisper not a bang. Why is it so amazing? All the themes, secrets, clues, and motifs that Setterfield wove throughout the book come together at the end, as any good mystery should. Her themes are death, loss, identity, twins, reconciliation, truth, to name some. Any surprise it hit the NY Times best seller list as #1 only a week after its release? (And surely the beautiful writing and gripping plot had a lot to do with that.)

As a huge fan of motifs, I was so drawn to her early setting up of the twin theme, as the reader learns right at the beginning that the protagonist, Margaret, accidentally discovered she’d had a twin sister at birth she never knew about and who had died. There are lots of plot elements having to do with twins throughout (a big part of the story), but this little fact becomes a motif that pops up here and there, and then comes fully formed at the end in a poignant manner. If you haven’t read this book, I highly encourage you to do so. This is a great example of a novel that shines from page one to the end.

The Ending Serves the Plot

All this is to say, you need to have the ending of your novel serve your plot. It’s where you bring to the spotlight all the reasons you wrote the story and all the passionate things you feel, which you infused along the way. Don’t get gimmicky at the last minute–get authentic. Speak from the heart and let that be what drives the writing of your ending. Let the reader see (show it, don’t tell it) how your protagonist has changed and what she’s learned.

This week, if you’re planning out an ending to your book, or feel maybe the one you have might not be quite right, think about your themes, motifs, and the heart of the story. Write a list of five possible scenarios for your ending that puts your character in a place and state of mind to be able to process what she’s learned. Show how she now looks at the world, herself, her family, her life. What has become important to her now, at this moment, that wasn’t before? What does she see as a powerful truth that she never saw before? Now that she’s arrived at her visible goal, she’s learned something significant, and if you can get that visually across, you’re likely to have a powerful (but not necessarily explosive) ending to your book that will stick with your readers for a very long time.

26 Responses to “Endings that Ruin Your Novel”

  1. Catherine Leggitt November 6, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

    Thanks for getting into this topic, Susanne. Endings are really hard to write, for me. And I SOO hate it when an ending disappoints. I hated the ending of The Thorn Birds so much, I actually threw the book across the room. Just not the ending I wanted. But I tend to like happily ever afters.

    A more recent book by a well known author had an outstanding beginning and a better-than-average middle. But the ending made me wonder whether she wrote it on a deadline without much thought. How disappointing! I will be wary of picking up any more books by this woman. Endings are quite important. You are so right when you say they need to serve the plot. Being authentic is critical. I hadn’t ever thought about it quite as you put it, so thanks for pointing out that the ending is the heart of your story.

  2. Mary M. Forbes November 7, 2012 at 8:45 am #

    Thanks for your insight into this. I find the same problem – in books and especially in movies/shows. Consistency in your characters is very important – and if they change there better be a good reason – but some don’t seem to understand that. A very good article.

  3. Pamela Mooman November 7, 2012 at 9:14 am #

    Funny, but I am writing the next to last chapter in my newest fiction novel, which is also my graduate school thesis. I have three protagonists, actually, and each chapter is told from one of the three’s point of view.

    My final ending, which came to me early this year during a graduate residency, is geared to exactly what you discuss–what seems like a small moment, but to the character is a HUGE victory.

    I was concerned that my endings for all three characters would be a collection of nothing but small moments, but after reading your thoughts on types of endings, I feel much better about how I plan to end this story. My endings, as planned, are huge for all three characters, though not explosive, making them the more powerful, to my way of thinking.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Now I am encouraged.

  4. Deborah Jay November 7, 2012 at 11:35 am #

    Oh Susanne, you made me laugh: the ending of my WIP (finished a couple of months ago and now with Beta readers) is an actual explosion!
    The whole plotline revolves around trying to avoid this explosion, but in the end the MC allows it to happen as a means of defeating the protagonist. And all in keeping with the ecological theme of the book 🙂
    I’ve read more than one indie published novel recently that could have done with your advice. Because many writers plan series, they seem not able to understand that an individual novel needs to have an ending. Not that it has to resolve all the issues that will carry over into subsequent books, but it must have SOME sort of resolution, and this seems to go over many writers’ heads. Most frustrating, and I won’t buy the follow up novels as a result – surely the opposite effect to the one they are trying to create.

    • cslakin November 7, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

      Hey, there’s nothing wrong with a literal explosion if that’s the right and best ending for the book! I’ll never forget the way one of Tom Clancy’s books (I think it was his) ended with terrorist planes crashing into NY’s Trade Towers. So I guess that’s a note of caution. Trevanian in his later books refused to put crime details and methods in his novels as former books has been used as guides to commit actual crimes. I don’t know why your comment got me thinking about that but I guess the point is go ahead and blow something up if it’s the best thing to do–but just don’t explain the technical details on how it was done!

  5. sherrie November 7, 2012 at 11:49 am #

    I hadn’t really thought about what makes an ending great, but HAVE been wondering about the ending to my novel and what it needs. Maybe, if what you say is true, my ending is fine. My protagonist has learned a great deal and is starting a new life (in more than one way).
    A few years ago, I read “My Sister’s Keeper”. I loved that story, especially the way it was told from all the characters POV. In fact, I had argued in support of the author on Amazon, so much so that people thought I knew her or was even related to her.
    Then I watched the movie and I totally understood what these readers were talking about. The protagonist’s sister dies at the end of the movie, which made sense since she had Cancer. The healthy sister lives and learns what love is. The entire family learns a totally different lesson with the story ending the way it is logically meant to end.
    Sounds like the same thing with “The Horse Whisperer.” The lover killing himself sounds illogical. How could anyone who is in love kill himself? You kill yourself when there is nothing left to lose. People who commit suicide are unbalanced and selfish, at least that is what we’ve always heard. To me, that sounds like the beginning of a story. Someone kills himself and the protagonist sets out to see why.
    Either way, it leaves me wondering IF endings should be logical. Any thoughts on that, Suzanne?

    • cslakin November 7, 2012 at 12:48 pm #

      Huh, I never saw the movie (didn’t want to) but I read the book and thought the ending was a terrific twist (the opposite of the movie). However, when I mentioned that to some author friends, they went ballistic, saying they hated the book’s ending and had thrown the book across the room. Funny how people are so divided on that ending. A lot of people may have also loved the ending to The Horse Whisperer (the book) too. But I think for the most part only certain endings will really work well for each novel, and it has to be in line with the true nature of the characters and their needs.

  6. Joan November 7, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

    This is such an important topic on so many levels. As I read your blog I immediately went back to my huge disappointment in this very book, and how my response exactly mirrored what you wrote was your own. However, at that time I was just starting my writing career, and the disappointing experience of reading that book made me examine it on a writing level. I remembered how my mind started visualizing Robert Redford as the hero in the book from about halfway on, despite the fact that I hadn’t thought of a blond hero before that point. I wondered about this and spoke to a friend about it who remembered an NPR segment about the book that aired because the book was sold to Redford’s production company WHEN IT WAS ONLY HALF FINISHED. Yes, that made the lightbulb go off in my brain. It also reminded me of the Kurt Vonnegut quote he wrote in a letter to his son about the fact that he (Vonnegut) thought new writers shouldn’t try to get an advance before they finish the book. This experience made me wonder if what I saw as a compromised second half–and especially sloppy ending–was due to the fact that he’d already made his big sale and didn’t feel he had to challenge himself anymore to continue on with the hard work he did at the beginning of the book.

    I’ve seen something so often with outstanding debut novels that become sold series, only to have the subsequent books fall far short of the original. I don’t know if it’s because the authors already have “three book deals” they have to fulfill, or the publisher is asking for a faster writing schedule than the author can fulfill on a quality basis, but I find myself too often setting aside a book after the final read (even if I don’t necessarily want to throw it across the room that time) and promising myself I’m not going to bother picking up the next book by that author.

    As a writer, I think what I took away most from The Horse Whisperer is, if you write yourself into a hole that involves your protagonist acting in a way he would NEVER have acted before, it’s time to scrap the ending and rewrite it. And if the next try gets you into another sloppy hole, scrap that one and try again until you get the ending your great protagonist deserves. Don’t count on Robert Redford coming along and fixing your story later.

    • cslakin November 7, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

      Yes, amen to all that! I often feel like a Robert Redford as I critique the dozens of manuscripts that come my way each year. So often I have to say whoa! Like I’m actually doing today with a critique that is building unbelievably.

  7. J. Rose Allister November 7, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

    You know, talk about endings made me think about, of all the weird things, the way George Lucas ended the Padme Amidala story arc in the Star Wars series. Here was a female character who was strong, independent, willing to fiercely defend her principles and fight as a warrior for freedom. But in the end, her boyfriend goes to the dark side and POOF!, she inexplicably croaks of a broken heart after giving birth to beautiful twins.

    It was beyond implausible to think that a character who had been portrayed as such a political whirlwind would up and kick over a guy, leaving her children and a galaxy in turmoil behind. I always blamed that stupid ending on the fact that George Lucas had gone through a divorce and had issues with strong women. So rather than giving her a heroic death befitting her characterization, he pulled the plug and said “pfft.”

  8. Laurie Evans November 7, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

    The Horse Whisperer! YES! I loved that book…up until the end. I really wanted to throw that one against the wall. I was so disgusted, I couldn’t even bring myself to watch the movie (even though I know things change a lot when they make a book into a movie.)

  9. L.E. Smith November 8, 2012 at 3:49 am #

    Writing is a very personal thing, as is reading. I don’t think any one writer can solve the endings
    dilemma. Every writer has a method worth hearing just in case it resonates and can be used by others. Mine, for what it’s worth, is this: 1st novel (see my publisher’s website) has just come out and my publisher/editor says it’s a “masterpiece except for the ending.” I wanted my character to head out to places unknown for adventures unknown with an old flame. He didn’t like that. I still do, although I made some adjustments to please him. My 2nd novel is coming out summer of 2013. I wrote the end to that novel midway through. That worked really well for me. That way I had A and Z done and just had to fill in the middle. My editor/publisher likes the ending. I have done the same thing for my 3rd novel underway. Right now I’m filling in the middle and know where/how it’s going to end. So, give it a try. Or not.

  10. Michelle November 8, 2012 at 4:40 am #

    Hi Susanne,

    The only time a weird ending “works” is in nonfiction. Mark Twain once said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” That’s why in fiction we don’t like weird endings, especially if they’re unbelievable.

    The other faux pas some writers (use that my writing teacher preached NOT to use) is this:

    “The term deus ex machina is used to refer to a narrative ending in which an improbable event is used to resolve all problematic situations and bring the story to a (generally happy) conclusion.”

    When an author uses this–someone or something that drops from out of nowhere to resolve all the conflict–that makes me crazy! Especially if I’ve invested time in reading the entire novel!

    Great post!


    • The Don December 23, 2013 at 1:31 pm #

      This is absolutely false, I enjoy weird endings. Anything can be pulled off well, and not every story must have an ending that is 100% conclusive or expected. Deus Ex Machina is bad of course, but the idea that every ending must be mundane invalidates the creative aspect of writing entirely.

      I want an ending that is strange and doesn’t give me all the answers at first, one that takes a bit of work to understand completely. Not something that tells me “Since you’re too stupid to figure it out yourself, here ya go.”

  11. James M. Copeland November 8, 2012 at 6:46 am #

    What about Alfred Hitchcock? His stories were so skewed toward a crooked ending, it made you want to see what he could come up with next. I know he didn’t write them, but he did direct them and the endings.
    Ms Lakin, I sure do enjoy reading your information. I gain a great deal every time I do.
    James M. Copeland

    • cslakin November 9, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

      Thanks, James! I think Hitchcock was such an artist with mood, lighting, camera angles–the whole package. The twists and surprises often were subtle and as subtext and I love his endings, which are usually quite dramatic. The aim for writers is to go big and wild with ideas, characters, concepts and keep your reader always amazed.

  12. Lorna Peel November 8, 2012 at 11:55 am #

    A beautifully written book called ‘Year of Wonders’ was completely ruined for me by the terrible epilogue.

    • cslakin November 8, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

      I don’t know that book but probably won’t read it! Anyone else had a bad “ending” experience?

  13. Jeriann Fisher November 9, 2012 at 7:49 am #

    Thank you for this article. As I’m going through final edits in my WIP I realize I have to tighten up my ending.

  14. Robin Lloyd-Jones November 9, 2012 at 9:54 am #

    Thanks, Susanne and the rest of you for an interesting discussion of a vital topic for a novelist. I find that I have a tendency to rush the ending and book for two years or more. I have learned to take a break before starting on the final chapter. Things I aim for in the ending are: that it has its roots in the entire novel from page one onwards; that the chief protagonist is not the same person as he or she was at the beginning, that there has been some change in his/her attitude, values etc. brought about by the events of the novel; that the pattern is completed – by which I mean, most of us don’t see much pattern to our lives, but novelists need to find some pattern in their protagonist’s life.

  15. Jeffery Cotton November 9, 2012 at 5:19 pm #

    Great insights! On the theme of the ending being a quiet moment that is entirely in keeping with the plot, I have to think of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, when Scout realizes that the man standing in the corner, who saved her and Jem, is Boo Radley. A very quiet moment, but it completely changes her. I’ve read the book a half a dozen times, and I tear up every time I read that passage.

  16. cslakin November 9, 2012 at 8:31 pm #

    Harper Lee built to that ending with the many themes working throughout the book (See my post on themes that talks about that). When you finally pay off your motifs and theme at the end, a subtle, quiet moment can be huge. As Donald Maass said what makes a moment explosive is not the action but the impact on the character. When we face a huge significant moment in our lives it also feels huge.

  17. Peter D. Mallett November 10, 2012 at 8:30 am #

    I’m glad you wrote on this subject. I don’t write books, but love reading them. If you read my “about me” page you’ll see that this is one thing that annoys me. Every reader wants the end to have been worth it. I would rather for the book to be a bit slow and have an good ending than the other way around. I too, want the ending to seem to fit and to appear that the author had the ending in mind when they wrote the rest. Some books seem like the writer got to a certain point and didn’t know where to go after that. You are right, it doesn’t have to be explosive, just good.

  18. Paul Rains April 4, 2016 at 12:17 pm #

    Susanne, I enjoy your helpful website. How come you use so few canonical novels and stories in your examples, though?

    • cslakin April 4, 2016 at 12:31 pm #

      I look at a lot of novels (see Wednesdays), but, like many other writing instructors, I find referencing movies better. More people have seen a lot of the same movies, and they’re easier visually to picture, and concise in their story form. I often mention novels for examples in my posts but if a reader hasn’t read the book, some of what’s shared is lost on him or her.

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