The importance of the ending of a book—or any story—cannot be overstated. It’s the last thing a reader is left with, and can make or break a book. There’s been many a tale I’ve been thoroughly absorbed in, only for the ending to make a swerve into the bizarre or painfully underwhelming at the last hurdle. Recently, another book I read was merely satisfactory all the way to the ending, which took the time to round up everything and didn’t rush the final, much-needed moment of character development for our heroine.
But if endings are so important, why do so many books have disappointing endings, and how can you craft one that is perfect for your story?
There are several elements to consider when creating your ending. The first, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is to consider your characters. When planning your story, you need to know who they’ll be at the start versus who they’ll be at the end, and how you’re going to show this. Let me be more specific:
Whatever your climax is should tie uniquely to your character’s character arcs. Johnny gets over his fear of flying to save his brother. Lucy accepts the call of destiny and rises to the throne to become the greatest queen the world has ever seen. Amena stops trying to people-please and burns her awful family alive. If Ash has been afraid of fire his whole life, but it’s not mentioned once towards the end/he hasn’t had to face it, it didn’t serve narrative purpose.
In my debut, my MC, Rose, has been afraid of love all of her life having watched it destroy her father. Her big moment comes in confessing her love for Thorn, and learning to communicate open and honestly. It’s no less of a challenge than what Leo, my hero of “Kingdom of Thorns” faces when he fights off a monster to save his lady love, despite spending most of the story crippled with fear.
Your character needs to change by the end of the story, and the ending should reflect that change.
Location, location, location
The next thing to consider is the location of your climax. Admittedly, there’s a lot of books that don’t do this, but I think you’ll agree, the best endings happen in important places. It might be the protagonist returning to somewhere important to them, or finally reaching a destination that’s been foreshadowed from the start. Can you imagine how disappointing it would be if the climax of Lord of the Rings happened outside of Mordor? Or Harry hadn’t returned to Hogwarts at the End of Deathly Hallows?
Having the location in a familiar place also means the author doesn’t have to ruin the pace of the finale by describing a new scene. If description is included, it might serve to show how much the character has changed, or deliver a final devastated blow if they see a once beloved place in ruins.
Of course, you can have the location in an entirely new place, but it’s still an important consideration. Ask yourself: why is the story ending here? Does it mean anything? Is it symbolic? Important? If you can’t answer any of these questions, it might not be the right place for your climax.
No new characters!
Never wait until the final act to introduce new characters, especially if they’re the baddie. The only exception is a last-minute villain reveal, where the villain is someone known to the protagonist, but seriously—don’t complicate your ending by introducing anyone new—not even Kevin the helpful minion. We don’t have an emotional connection with them, and it’s just messy. A few months ago I read a book which was absolutely brilliant up until the ending which had a villain appear out of nowhere with no connection to the main characters and made me think we were heading for a sequel… only for him to die a few pages later. It made no narrative sense and really soured this otherwise fantastic book.
Proportions: I hate body shaming, but proportions with books really matter. There’s probably an ideal ratio, but if your book is a bit of a beast, 1 chapter for the climax isn’t sufficient. I read a great book recently, but at 95% in, I thought we might be headed for a two-parter because no way could everything be tied up in that space, right?
Well, wrong, but it felt very rushed. The world-building was so excellent, the characters so intense, and the content so epic, that I honestly feel that there was enough for a second book and I was just left feeling somewhat underwhelmed.
As a rough guideline, I would recommend about 10% of your book be spent on the climax—around 8k in an 80k book. This may or may not include build-up to a big battle or event, but that’s entirely dependent on genre. Don’t rush it. I think it’s better to have an ending that’s slightly on the longer side than one that’s over so quickly you barely have time to draw breath.
Action! Not all books have to end with an action scene—it depends on the genre and content so far—but it should involve something happening. A lot of people were disappointed with the climax of Twilight as it was all talk, no action, and say what you like about the movie’s ending, they clearly recognised the need for a physical fight after five movies of buildup! Romances don’t need epic battles, but stories about vampires do.
Something needs to happen in your ending, and whatever that is, be it stabbing the villain, finishing a project, or having a grand confession, your central character needs to be the one to do it. They have to be the one that saves the day, apologises to the girl, or puts the doorknob on the front of their magical casita. It has to be them. In stories with multiple MCs, all of them should play a role in bringing down the final obstacle. To test their importance, remove them from the ending, and see if it impacts the result. If the day can still be won without them, they aren’t doing enough!
Open ending: it’s all right to leave a few things open, especially if you fancy writing a spin-off or sequel, but most threads should be resolved, particularly the ones attaining to the main characters and the villain. It’s also important to note, that while a few tiny threads are all right, your book should never feel like it’s spending too much of its time setting up for a potential sequel. A trilogy I read at the end of last year felt like it spent more of its time laying the foundations for sequels than resolving the current story at hand.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the stakes need to be really high. Even if you’re reading a fairytale retelling where a happy ever after is almost guaranteed, there should be a moment when all seems lost. The love interest is gravely wounded. The plane seems to have already left. They’re stuck in traffic. They aren’t going to get there in time. Make us fear for the characters, else there’s a possibility that we won’t care when they triumph.
Ultimately, crafting a brilliant ending should be easy, providing you:
Tie it to your characters’ ARCS
Think about the location
Don’t introduce new characters
Pace it well
Include action/make sure your MC instigates it
Don’t spend too much time with side plots
Create high stakes
Remember—always ask your betas about your ending, and don’t be afraid to go back and revisit it.