End a Novel
Ending your novel is more important than beginning it, despite the reasoning that the opening entices the reader into the work. Both are skills to master. However, fixing a problematic opening in a revision is simple compared with fixing a befuddled ending. Traditionally, endings are viewed as "happy", "sad", "pensive", "surprise", "abrupt" and the rest of the gamut. However, it really doesn't matter "how" your novel ends, it's "where" your novel ends that is critical.
Novel endings can suffer from a number of issues. Here's are six that I'll be referencing:
Anti-Climax endings are usually recognized by their failure to please, surprise, or even keep the reader's attention. It is generally caused by having a more powerful scene a few chapters from the end, which "peaks" your novel too soon. It's downhill from there. This is corrected by toning down the zenith chapter, although it might break your heart. Usually, the culprit scene and the final scene have similar settings, characters and tone. Change the earlier scene's intensity, setting and character mesh. Intensify the last scene. The last scene must be the most important and memorable scene in the novel or why should the reader even bother to make the journey?
Runaway train endings are recognized when your pacing is too fast. Your ending comes up suddenly, catching the reader off-guard. "Is that it?" It usually stems from a writer's "need to finish." That motivation lends itself to "flat" writing and slipshod parascaping. In my experience (and I mean, my experience), these endings need a complete rewrite. Think about when your "ending" begins. If it starts in the last two chapters, back up and rethink. The earlier your novel's ending begins, the stronger and firmer paced the ending is. Most novel endings begin in the middle of the work and some in the first paragraph of Chapter One. You must be continually building toward the end. You use this to ground the whole work. Gravity wins in the end (and with endings). A runaway train ending usually means extensive revision. You must find that crucial end-start point and rework everything in between - sometimes subtly, but reworked it must be.
Contrived endings are grafted onto the novel, and usually because the author is using a strict outline. The stronger the outline, the more constraint there is for character development. Characters are forced to say and do things that the author wants them to say or do. That's not good novel writing. When the work concludes, the end is usually contrived. Readers will say, "What? He rammed his fist into the airplane propeller because his Uncle Fitzgerald cut him out of the will and he needed to get money from his health insurance to bury his long estranged and tubercular wife?" 'nuff said.
Developmental endings are common. Authors sometimes fail to recognize that their beloved, well-honed style must change as the novel progresses. Expositional styles in the first third of the novel, work less and less as the work progresses. Developmental devices stop working by the last third. Too many times last scenes are a suite of settings, flashbacks, hula dances, complex actions requiring science degrees and the like. Endings can be action scenes, but simple ones, with intensely short sentences, devoid of metaphors and similes. Extensive movement should be simplified and clear. Character activity and dialogue should be emphasized. Build, build, build to a climax, and never introduce a new character in the last twenty pages. There's no time to develop such characters. That doesn't mean you can reveal a character physically that has been aforementioned in the body of the work, but too many developments make for a confused ending. My personal preference in my own novels is to introduce the necessary mechanisms for the ending in preceding chapters, and then punch through them at the end. You send the reader to class early enough, they are trained to operate your ending better than you. J. K. Rowling uses this technique, so by the time the reader reaches that intense last sequence in The Deathly Hallows, they already are adepts at the mechanisms that rule the sequence. Rowling needn't explain a thing. Her readers all have degrees in Harry Potter by that time and the end has all the gravitas of a graduation ceremony.
Dribble out endings are evident in works that do not have an ending. They have no impact. The reader is supposed to ponder the ending - the metaphysics and philosophy that should keep them awake a night wondering, "just what happened, anyway?" This is the "forgettable" ending, because the author "forgot" to write one. You ride the train with no destination and are abandoned in the desert to play tennis with the prairie dogs. How to fix this? Have the train go to Las Vegas and end with a jackpot.
Epilogs are good. I use them all the time (not that that a justifies them), but there are always details beyond the ending. The reader wants to know if Sarah Brown married Sky Masterson, and whether or not they have children. The issue with epilogs are that they are sometimes incorporated into the last scene or hover beyond the back cover like a bad hangover. Epilogs are "not" the ending. They just come "at the end." In my own work, The Jade Owl, my climatic scene occurs twenty pages before the end of the book. The book ends in that scene. However, using internal dialogue and sequeling, the protagonist is allowed to settle some details and, in a small "coda" scene, he hero performs a character-defining "heroic" act. THEN, I have an epilog, which is in a different mood and style, as if I was writing another novel. It's that taste of sherbet between courses, "your novel" and "the reader's exit to the real world." Epilogs settle details in a satisfactory way, leaving something open for perhaps another "book" in a series, and makes the reader feel better for reading your work. Sometimes it contains a memorable last line, from the Brontean "sleepers in the quiet earth," to the Tolkien, "I'm back." Who can forget, "Tomorrow is another day?"
Be assured that
when you revise your novel you "will" rewrite your ending. You
should, just as you should craft a dozen openers. Be resigned to it, but
don't regard it as a chore. In fact, it is the one stroke of revision
that will transform your novel from a barnyard into a palace, unless you're
writing "The Egg and I."
Edward C. Patterson