And they all lived happily ever after is an ending you should never ever use. At least, not as an ending. If you want to use is somewhere else in your story, that’s up to you. But as an ending, a final word, it invalidates your characters. If your characters are complex, honest, and real, then your ending should have those same qualities. By now you have spent countless hours with your characters and know them well, know what they want, who they are, and how they would act in a given situation. Your readers will think of them as friends, and ache to close the book. These readers want to know that your characters lives go on after that final chapter, that even though undocumented these friends continue to thrive. Endings can give them that. A good ending does several things.
First, a good ending means that the ending is satisfying and fulfills all the promises you made in your manuscript. It doesn’t mean happy. It doesn’t mean the good guys win. I personally prefer books with happy endings where the good guys win, (I was depressed for a week after I read “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton. Do. Not. Recommend.) but that doesn’t mean you have to write them. You can end your story any way you feel like it, including with the death of your main character or some other tragedy.
The thing that matters most in making the ending satisfying is how the other characters feel about it. If the characters that the readers care most about accept the ending with grace and equanimity, so will your reader. For example, I read a series of books (not naming any names or even the number of books in the series to avoid spoilers) where the main heroine and her initial love interest and later husband went through increasingly difficult trials. It was a save the world kind of story, and at the end they had the choice to live or die. They chose to die, having suffered and done enough. Awful sounding, isn’t it? But it wasn’t. It worked, because we were given a glimpse of them afterwards and they were at peace and together. It worked because all the other characters were all right with their choice and ready to move forward without them.
So if your ending is tragedy or triumph, what matters most is how the people in the story deal with it. Fulfill the promise you made to the reader and resolve the main conflict. And the secondary conflict. Maybe even the tertiary one. But leave the rest. No one will reach a point in life where all of the conflicts are tied up in neat little bows and there’s no more struggle. You don’t want your readers envying your characters, you want the readers cheering. And wanting more. Always leave a window open in your story so you can get back in that world and keep exploring. Good overcame big evil, everyone is safe for the moment and can take a breather while little brother evil slinks away. There is always another monster to fight and another physical or metaphorical demon to slay.
Your ending also needs to have three important events, preferably as close together as possible while maintaining continuity. Your protagonist must face your antagonist in a battle that will determine the final outcome. Your protagonist must either win or lose the object of their desire. And your protagonist needs to have a reconciliation with the character that’s been with them along the journey. That last one can be the love interest, the best friend, the wise mentor, the sidekick, or even a persistent villain. But it needs to be the person to whom your main character had talked to about the reason behind your story; the theme. We’ll go into this more in a later blog post. For now just know those three events need to happen together and that all three must be present in a strong ending.
Finally, your ending needs to end. You’ve grown attached to these people and loved them. You dream about them and talk about them as if they were real. Maybe you just have no idea what you want to do next, or the idea of finishing your manuscript terrifies you because you read the post on editing. So you keep going in the rough draft to avoid starting the second draft. Whatever the reason, walk away from the story a little before you want to. You don’t need to type “The End” for the story to be over, just type that last period and go out to dinner. Finishing a manuscript is a great feeling. And if you’re worried you left something out, don’t. You’ll go back and read through it enough later to be able to recite it. Everything will be fixed in post. Just get the story down, and don’t be afraid to leave some loose ends dangling.
One of my least favorite books of all time has a very famous ending. It’s called “Tuck Everlasting” and it’s about a family who accidentally drank from a spring that made them immortal. They froze at whatever age they were when they drank the water. The book revolves around a currently mortal love interest for the son, and the question of whether she’ll drink the water on purpose to stay with him. It drives me crazy because the book doesn’t end, it just stops in the middle of a sentence. Give me closure!
My least favorite series of all time was a surprising disappointment because I love the author who wrote it. It was four books in a fantasy setting where there was a great evil threatening the world. I cared about the characters. They were well written, clever, and complex people. Unlikely friendships were forged. Alliances between enemies strengthened characters. Romance was found in unexpected places.
And at the end of four books, the gods of the world came in and went back in time to eradicate the evil before it started causing trouble. Seriously. The end of that series completely invalidated all the books that came before. The final conclusion was “none of it happened.” Please don’t ever do that to your readers! Deus ex machina is bad enough- don’t take it one step further to Deos occidit fabula. We read to know we’re not alone, and to know that we have power over our lives. Don’t take that away.
Endings give closure to a journey made with good friends. They don’t always need a twist or a big reveal unless the genre calls for it. Believe in your writing. Believe that your characters are strong enough. Fulfill the promises you made to your readers. Then tie up a few loose ends, and add that final period.Because without it a story can feel very