I’ve written about starting a novel or short story, and what you might need to know or do to get started writing or what elements readers will respond to in the first sentence, paragraph, or page, but I’ve written very little about endings beyond part of some musings on the three act structure in which I dare you to ask: Was it worth it? In that post I said:

These are people, agents and editors, who are accustomed to reading first drafts, and so will be forgiving of typos and whatnot, but not terribly forgiving of flat, lifeless endings. If you’ve convinced one of these busy professionals to read past the first chapter, kept them in over the last 90,000 words or so in the middle, then drop on them a “to be continued in Book II: The Seriesing” or decide that endings are “unrealistic” and you have some kind of plotless literary non-ending in mind, or the dreaded deus ex machina arrives to pull everyone’s fat out of the fryer, or any other ways in which you can blow the ending of your book… well, now you have a busy professional who wants to murder you.

Let’s dive just a smidge deeper into this extremely important aspect of the art and craft of fiction: endings. And still, in the context of a blog post like this, we’ll just be scratching the surface. First, let’s run through the examples from that last post.

To be continued in Book II: The Seriesing might be okay in a few limited contexts. I did it myself in the Watercourse Trilogy, and it was a feature in R.A. Salvatore’s War of the Spider Queen. But for new authors trying to “break in,” it can be a serious problem area. The generally gun-shy publishing business, and almost-as-gun-shy reading public, don’t necessarily want to commit to more than one story from someone they’ve never heard of. To this end, I’ll refer you back to my post “Once More With Feeling: A Stand-Alone With Series Potential.”

Endings are “unrealistic.” Are they? Let’s ask Kurt Vonnegut:

“Nothing ever really ends. That’s the horrible part of being in the short-story business—you have to be a real expert on ends. Nothing in real life ends. ‘Millicent at last understands.’ Nobody ever understands.”

So yes, you’re right—in real life (whatever that might mean to you) we rarely get to some final wrap-up, the medal ceremony at the end of Star Wars, or the winning smile from Captain Kirk at the end of most episodes of Star Trek. We tend to actually fade from one “story” to the next.

But we’re not writing non-fiction, are we? We’re writing fiction, and what a lot of people—I daresay most people—come to fiction for is that it can make some sense of an often senseless world. And one of the ways it does that is by providing a discernable ending, replete with some new understanding of… something. Anything.

And boy, if you don’t already know that the deus ex machina (Machine of God), is no way to end a story…

But the deus ex machina can come in many forms. The one that’s still unhappily common is the climactic coincidence. But as we learned from Pixar’s Story Rules

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Or from pulp master Lester Dent who asked: “Did God kill the villain? Or the hero?” after calling on us to arrange for, in the last quarter of a 6000-word short story: “The hero extricates himself using his own skill, training or brawn.”

And for me that’s really the key.

As I said—and I stand behind this—in “All the Story Structure You’ll Ever Need”:

The villain starts the story, the hero ends it.

For “outliners” like myself, endings can be at least a little clearer. I’ll often come up with an ending first and craft a story that drives to that. Pixar agrees with me, sort of at least, on that score:

Pixar’s Rules #7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

And there are other famous outliners out there, not the least of whom was Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote in his “The Philosophy of Composition”:

Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.

Though I always end up changing direction at least a little, or failing outright when I drive to the ending no matter what, sometimes ending up putting “clever” above “good” or “readable” or other truly more important aspects to a good story. See my act of self-flagellation on that score  here.

So yes—have an idea of what you’re driving to—some destination—but be prepared to change course, or change destinations, somewhere along the way. This is as true for “outliners” as it is for so-called “pantsers,” which are authors who “write by the seat of their pants”—developing the story and characters as they write rather than in the form of an outline or notes beforehand.

E.M. Forster, in an interview with The Paris Review, said:

Of course, that wonderful thing, a character running away with you—which happens to everyone—that’s happened to me, I’m afraid.

I had trouble with the junction of Rickie and Stephen. [The hero of The Longest Journey and his half-brother.] How to make them intimate, I mean. I fumbled about a good deal. It is all right once they are together… I didn’t know how to get Helen to Howards End. That part is all contrived. There are too many letters. And again, it is all right once she is there. But ends always give me trouble.

It is partly what I was talking about a moment ago. Characters run away with you, and so won’t fit on to what is coming.

Then, yeah, get a new sense of what is coming, or where they should end up.

I guess what all this leads to is as simple as: Yes, have an ending.

Don’t let your story just fade out, or end on a frustrating cliffhanger, or ultimately rob your protagonist of his or her agency.

But of course there’s more to it than that. Endings, like beginnings, can be the most dangerous points in the journey of a story or novel. Like taking off or landing in a plane, it’s the context in which everything else makes sense. The middle (most) of the story is where the work takes place.

Following that airplane analogy: “We took off from Seattle and landed in Las Vegas more or less on schedule,” is not much of a story. It’s not a story at all, actually. But: “We took off from Seattle on our way to Las Vegas but had to land in Portland because…?” is at least potentially an interesting story—something outside the expected has happened. Stories are about characters in conflict, or at least about something going wrong.

The importance we put on beginnings and endings in fiction doesn’t just exist in a bubble. Despite Vonnegut’s caution to the contrary, we actually do seek out those moments in our own lives. Think about it: We celebrate our birthdays (the beginning of our lives) and gather for funerals (the ending of our lives) or might have adulthood ceremonies that mark the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood… but no religion has a ceremony celebrating your turning thirty-two.

Like humans in their thirties, who mostly just work all the time, stories in their middles get shit done, hoping to drive to a satisfactory ending.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Excellent advice! Thank you for sharing.

    Also, nice Lester Dent reference. I doubt many people even remember Doc Savage

  2. “So yes—have an idea of what you’re driving to—some destination—but be prepared to change course, or change destinations, somewhere along the way.” — This. And I would add, be willing to fundamentally change what you planned to do, if it is required. I usually have an idea of the ending of my story, but I never write it first. That just doesn’t make sense to me, with how fluid the story-building process can be as you are writing the story.

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  4. Deborah Jay says:

    Music to my ears 🙂
    I have been frustrated recently with a couple of books I’ve read to review, to find the protagonist plays no part in the climax but is, in one case, merely an observer, and in the other, rendered unconscious just before the villain is dealt with by an act of God. Both were well written right up until those endings. Arghhhh!
    And don’t even get me started on cliff hangers.
    Reblogging this post in the hopes some authors might understand a bit more about what distresses readers in some book endings.

  5. Deborah Jay says:

    Reblogged this on deborahjay and commented:
    Some great advice on book endings – something a little on my mind due to a couple of my recent reviews.

  6. I cut my reading teeth on Doc Savage, so I love the reference to Dent. So few people remember his work, or E. M. Forster’s. Good article, especially pertinent for those of us struggling with short stories.

  7. Pingback: Links to Blog Posts on Writing November-December 2017 – Anna Butler

  8. Pingback: Writing endings to stories

  9. Reblogged this on Surviving the Struggle to Success. and commented:

  10. Pingback: Links to Blog Posts on Writing March 2019 – Anna Butler

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