You’ve done it. You’re embarking on the final chapter of your book. You’ve reached the denouement. You type out the word “Epilogue” with shaking fingers. You can’t really believe it. You’ve reached the end. This is the end.
Terrifying, isn’t it?
Well, terrifying might be a strong word, but many authors have mixed emotions when they come to the end of their book. Maybe the novel isn’t what they hoped it would be. Or maybe they don’t have their next writing project lined up, and the idea of all that free time is alarming. Maybe they enjoyed writing the book so much they’re sad to see it go. Or maybe they’re relieved to finally be done with a book they lost interest in writing a month ago.
Whatever the author’s feelings about the ending of her book might be, there is a phenomenon resulting from these feelings that badly needs to be addressed. That is the fumbled finish, the terrible termination, the inexcusable exit, the garbled goodbye. It’s that horrible, incomplete, mess of an ending that serves only to frustrate readers and ends up being the only thing they remember about the book, which up until the last chapter had been a satisfying read.
It’s the ending that ruins you. And you wrote it.
But why? Why do so many authors sabotage their writing in the final hour? Why are endings so difficult to write? And is there any way to escape this fate? Let’s examine how these awful endings come about and how they can be avoided (for your own sake, and the sakes of your beta readers).
It’s the most obvious culprit, isn’t it? You didn’t plot out your story in enough detail, and now you’ve solved the mystery, the lovers have found each other, the village is saved, but there are still some nagging loose ends you have no idea how to tie up. So, you leave them loose. Or you go ahead and tie them all up nicely by adding a long, less-than-believable explanatory paragraph in the final chapter. Does the job, right?
Endings written in a panic are often rushed, nonsensical, and disappointing. Unpolished and often not even thought-through, they do a great disservice to both the reader and the author. They usually stem from the author’s reluctance to go back and fix logic gaps or mistakes in past chapters. Looming deadlines are also sometimes to blame, as well as a desperate desire to be done.
So, the next time you feel yourself gripped by final chapter panic, remember to relax and resist the urge to rush to the end. Go back over your book and try to figure out what changes you can make to alleviate these feelings of alarm. Because writing just any old ending isn’t going to make anybody happy. Especially if you decide to make the whole thing a dog’s bad dream. (Pro tip: worst ending ever.)
Fear of Not Getting it Right
Some authors manage to mangle their endings by caring just a little too much. The last line of the book in particular has been known to absorb an author’s attention to the point of mania, sometimes a result of a liberal arts education and too many repeated readings of the greats.
Writers who feel their last chapter, last paragraph, or last line have to be fantastic, epic, or even worse perfect, often make the mistake of overwriting them, which can be just as problematic as the first-draft ending that was never re-written at all. An overwhelming proliferation of adjectives, tedious descriptions, and stilted dialogue are some of the symptoms of an overwritten ending.
If you feel yourself falling into this abyss, it’s time to turn the computer off and back away. A little time away from your manuscript will often bring these errors to light, and hopefully when you return to your writing you’ll be able to come at your ending from a fresh angle. Just remember, trying to force genius hardly ever works. If you can’t produce the last line you’re dreaming of, there’s no need to torture yourself with constant, painful reworking of the same paragraph. You’ll never get the ending you want that way (and neither will your reader).
Too Much Thinking Outside the Box
Similar to the problem of caring too much about the last line is the issue of trying too hard to be original. Though originality is always an author’s goal—you don’t often hear of authors trying so hard to write the same old thing—too much focus on this aspect of authorship, especially right at the end, can be disastrous. Killing off the main character, mid-sentence, on the last page is an example of this. Or an Epilogue consisting of a 50 year flash-forward to a world of space ships and Mars colonies where the themes of the book are no longer relevant. Or a last chapter revelation that all the characters are actually dead.
Twist endings or cliffhangers can work wonderfully, as long as that’s the ending the book has been working towards. The “everyone is dead” concept shouldn’t be dismissed—what a shocker!—but it can’t just be thrown in as an afterthought on the last page. Always make sure you’re working within your genre and staying consistent with your themes. Or if you’re trying to subvert a genre, then just be sure you’re doing so throughout. Nothing will get a book worse reviews than a jarring ending that makes no sense at all.
Falling Asleep at the Wheel
There’s overthinking the ending, there’s not thinking it through, and then there’s not thinking about it at all. Sometimes you’re so tired of your book by the time you come to the end that you just don’t care anymore. This kind of ending isn’t so much wrong, as entirely uninspired, clichéd, boring. The lovers kiss and walk off into the sunset. The detective arrests the killer. The little boy finds his dog and says, “Let’s go home, boy.”
To avoid this kind of sleepy ending, try re-reading the first few chapters of your book, the ones you wrote when the story was crisp and every word was on the tips of your fingers. Seek out that original inspiration and give your ending another shot. And drink some coffee while you’re at it!
Your book’s final chapter, final page, final sentence is important. It’s the last thing your reader will read, and its sentiments will stay with the reader once the eReader has been turned off or the book put away. The ending lingers in a way other chapters might not, and if it’s a bad one, it will be sure to make an impression. So, write that ending as if it were the beginning. Give it the attention it deserves. And do your absolute best not to screw it up! Because the end of a book is sort of like the end of a life, and nobody wants to go out as a bad punchline.