Thursday, December 8, 2011

Writing an Ending that Rocks

For me, writing the end of a book has always been the easiest part of the entire process. I usually have the climax set up from the beginning, so by the time I get to it all the details are resolved in my head and I just can't wait to get them down on paper.

I think there are five aspects of an amazing ending. My favorite books have all five, some have two or three, and some (series in particular) may only have two. These are what I strive for whenever I write the conclusion to a story.

1. The Twist. A sudden reveal, an exposed secret....plot twists really help make the ending of a book interesting. Here I'd quote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. When Harry walks into the room with the Mirror and sees Professor Quirrell instead of Professor Snape, it shocked most readers out of their seats. (Figuratively. Unless you actually did fall out of your seat, in which case literally.) It was the biggest OH SNAP moment of the book.

2. Physical Action. Let's face it, a climax would be boring if characters just stood around talking. Physical action is essential to move the plot along. In Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, the climax involves an elaborate escape plan, the main character almost getting ripped in half by sadistic religious scientists (all Catholic-Inquisition-style), and blowing up a detainment building in the middle of Arctic nowhere. The physical action is very effective and well-paced.

3. Emotional Action. Every good main character should have an emotional journey. A climax needs to expand upon these emotions, and the character should face mental barriers as well as physical. I know opinions are divided over Mockingjay, the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy, but in terms of emotional impact the climax is perfect and moving. Katniss gives up everything to protect her sister Prim, but in the end she can't save her. It's a sad and dismal ending, to be sure (although the last chapter does give some hope for the future), but the emotional climax is far more effective than a climax merely based on action.

4. Resolution. Honestly, I'm not a huge fan of series in which books end on complete and total cliffhangers. I think, in order to create a good climax, there needs to be some measure of resolution. Again, I think the Harry Potter books are particularly good at this. They leave you salivating for the next installment, but every book contains its own individual story, and all the major points of these stories are wrapped up by the end of the book. They satisfy readers' curiosity as well as hinting at events in the next installment.

5. Unity. I think this is the hardest part of a climax to nail: combining physical action, emotional action, themes, etc into an ending that wraps up all (or most) loose threads. Authors who can come up with a climax in which a single event relates back to all these things (i.e., the character's emotional journey and physical journey come to culmination in one arresting moment) create the most satisfying and emotionally wrenching climaxes. Here I'd quote Ptolemy's Gate, the third and final volume of the Bartimaeus trilogy. Author Jonathan Stroud pulls off the absolute best climax and resolution I've ever read. For those of you who don't know, there are two main characters in the Bartimaeus Trilogy, and Stroud manages to converge both characters' emotional and physical journeys, as well as the book's overall themes, into a single final instant that's absolutely perfect in every way. Stories are made up of multiple threads, but the very best climaxes spin these threads together into a moment that can be used to summarize the book as a whole.

So there you have it. Those are five points that (in my opinion) contribute to an amazing climax. Do you guys like writing your own endings? Do you find them difficult, or easier than the beginning and middle? What do you think makes a good climax?


  1. Wow, this is so thorough. And super helpful. Thanks, Kate!

    While I usually have a final conflict in mind, I don't usually know how that conflict is going to play out until I get there. By that time, I know what my characters are capable of, and they act accordingly.

    I hate killing characters at the end, but I enjoy bringing all the plot threads together into one neat package. But not too neat! Leave a little for the reader to wonder about.

  2. The ending and beginning are always the easiest for me. The middle is a little more work. ;)

  3. I want all of these things too, which is why I struggle with my climax. It's the only part of the book that I feel needs perfection the first time around. Great tips!

  4. I usually have a clear vision of the beginning and ending, and little snippets of how to get from here to there. I'm trying something a little different with plotting my second book, using some exercises from Alexandra Sokoloff's Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and I think they're going to be a big help with achieving that unity in the end. The index cards make you so much more aware of how things tie in together (or don't when they should) and how you need to seed the earlier pages with elements of the ending in order for it to be satisfying.

    And re: your comment on my RTW post, yes, you have to learn to pick your battles! Glad you found the right match for you and your book (which sounds really interesting, btw)

  5. I agree with all five of your points. I don't mind somewhat of a cliff hanger at the end of a book that has another book coming, but I agree that THAT story's plot needs to have been resolved.

    Now I totally want to read the Bartimaeus Trilogy!

    Thanks so much for coming to my party on Saturday Kate! It made me so happy to see you!

  6. I was totally trying to check off things in my own manuscript as I read...and I have some great ideas now on how to make my ending stronger. Thanks girl!

  7. Awesome advice Kate. I love a good ending. A twist is always wonderful but it has to have lots of action as well. Very great tips!

    FYI - I emailed you about coming over for an interview so watch your inbox :)

  8. Love these points! Revisions on my NaNo draft have to start sometime soon, and the ending does need some help. (Or rather, a lot.) Awesome insight! :)

  9. I wish I had Carolyn's ability. Middles are no problem for me. Endings are the toughest. Which is why I plan them in great detail before actually starting a new MS. :)

  10. I am HORRIBLE with endings. I honestly just can't do it. It's impossible. And if I do manage to eek out a climax and a resolution? Then I can't find a good sentence to finish everything up with. Sigh.

  11. Please use this model when critiquing that manuscript I just sent you. Thanks very much. :)