As aspiring writers, we spend a lot of time on beginnings. At conferences, critiques are often limited to the first 15 pages, and while querying, agents often make decision on the first few pages. Even after requesting a full manuscript, an agent will never make it to the end unless they are seriously considering offering representation.
What does this mean for writers? It means that we get very little feedback on the ending of our novel until we’re far along in the process. But endings are every bit as important as beginnings.
There is nothing better than racing to the end of a book and turning that last page with a sense of satisfaction of reading a story well-told. I once read that a good ending should be both surprising and inevitable. But how can it be both? That of course, is the question.
One of my favorite endings of all time was the ending of the movie, The Sixth Sense. It was a twist ending, so it was surprising, but it was also inevitable, because every scene of the movie foreshadowed that revelation in some way.
*Spoiler alert- if you haven’t seen the movie- stop here.*
At the beginning of the movie, the psychiatrist played by Bruce Willis is shot. The next scene takes place six months later, and we see the character on his way to meet a new patient, a young boy who sees dead people. Nothing is said about the shooting, and we see the psychiatrist trying to move past it by helping the boy. Bruce Willis’s character wears neutral clothes, and it isn’t until the reveal that Willis’s character is dead that we realize he’s been wearing the same clothes in every scene; that no one talks directly to Willis but the boy; and that the boy has been helping the psychiatrist to move on, not the other way around.
That was a great ending.
I’m not saying that every book should have a twist ending. I think those kinds of endings are the most difficult to pull off, because there is a risk that the reader will feel cheated unless the ending is foreshadowed enough from the beginning.
So how do you foreshadow the ending without giving it away entirely? Here are some things I’ve noticed. It’s by no means a complete or exhaustive list.
Give the character a goal: If the character has a goal that fuels them throughout the story, readers will be invested in the outcome. Does the character accomplish the goal? Does she fail? What are the consequences of achieving the goal? Of failing? The reader anticipates the possible outcomes, which helps make the outcome inevitable.
Introduce the main conflict early in the story: Whether or not the character has a goal, your story needs a central conflict. Introduce it early. It also gives the reader a chance to anticipate potential outcomes. Does the character win? Lose? What are the consequences?
Allow the character to grow: How is the character changed by the events in the story? A good ending will show how the character has been affected by the plot, and how the character has grown and evolved as a result. Someone once suggested to me that at the end of the book, in the climactic scene, the character should do something that he or she would never have done at the beginning of the book. This is a great way to show character growth. Just make sure that your character has earned the right to make this dramatic shift.
Leave hints of the possible outcomes: A little foreshadowing goes a long way. Leave hints throughout your story of the ultimate outcome, so that the reader won’t be blindsided by a twist or event. You have to earn your ending, and it should never feel like it came out of left field. Go easy though. Too much foreshadowing makes your story feel predictable.
Make the outcome different than the character expects or wants: I love an ending where the character doesn’t get what they want or expect, especially if what they get turns out to be exactly what they really needed to begin with. As long as failure was always an option, the ending will be both surprising and inevitable.