Writing the Perfect Ending

Reposted from Classic and Cozy Books, published on June 27, 2017, in honor of Margaret Mitchell

What’s in an Ending?

Some of us write in a kind of stream of consciousness way. Some of us plot. Some of us outline. Some of us have an idea that writes itself.

We all must find a way of coming to an end: one that is appropriate, comes at the right time, is both logical and emotional so that the reader puts the book down with a feeling of satisfaction.

None of us want to hear that our ending was disappointing, unless that disappointment is because they wanted the story to go on and on.

One of the most iconic endings was written in a novel published on June 30, 1936 and very quickly became the most quoted ending for decades to come at the end of a novel 1037 pages long.

“After all, tomorrow is another day.” (Gone with the Wind)

This is the only ending completely suitable for this book, because the readers know this heroine very, very well and are assured that yes, one day, she will get him back.

However, this open, promissory ending has the drawback of inviting others to continue the story to suit their own wishes. The Margaret Mitchell Trust has only ever authorized one sequel, Rhett’s People, but all potential sequels pale in comparison to MM’s achievement.

Many of the best endings are in the classics, both modern and ancients. Here is the ending of one of my favorite books by American author, Anne Tyler:

“…She was frantically waving down taxis—first the one ahead, then Macon’s own. ‘Arrêtez!’ Macon dried to the driver. The taxi lurched to a halt. A sudden flash of sunlight hit the windshield, and spangles flew across the glass. The spangles were old water spots, or maybe the markings of leaves, but for a moment Macon thought they were something else. They were so bright and festive, for a moment he thought they were confetti.” (The Accidental Tourist)

And the ending by a much-acclaimed author, Gabriel Garcia Márquez:

“Florentino Ariza had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights.

“‘Forever,’ he said.” (Love in the Time of Cholera)

Some endings intentionally leave you wanting more, particularly if they are part of a series but cliff-hanger ending are best left to chapters in a single book, not a series that requires a purchase—being left in the lurch or forced to buy is not necessarily pleasant.

As in Gone with the Wind, a novel that ends leaving us wanting the story to go on can lead to “fan fiction.” Whether that is a good thing is a matter of personal choice and taste.

If for any reason, an ending cannot be found that is satisfactory, some writers (and script writers as well) used the epilogue. Like the prologue, the epilogue serves a purpose—the device can cut off any further speculation in the same way that a prologue sets the stage before the story begins. These address backstory and closure but, as Elmore Leonard said,

“Avoid prologues.” (10 Rules of Writing)

I extend that admonition to ‘Avoid epilogues’ as well. If we’re writing a series (or think a book may become a series), an ending can keep that door open as well as close the chapter on that particular story without leaving us with the sensation something is missing.

Or an ending, a final sentence or paragraph

  • Ties everything up
  • Brings all the pieces together
  • Clears up the mystery
  • Identifies the culprit
  • Puts all characters at peace
  • Or leaves all possibilities on the table.

Although the total of the reading experience is the ultimate determinant, we still want the final word to linger and resonate, not as an ending, a finality, but as a promise of forever, hope.

& also

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