Finding a Satisfying End

Katherine Longshore 4 Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Yesterday, guest blogger Elle Cosimano told us, “…the end lurks like a monster under the bed. It's the scary, dark thing none of us like to talk about. We're not really sure the end exists. And we're too afraid to look, because... well... what if it doesn't?”

Or the fog.  Sorry, didn't have a photo
of headlights at night
Isn’t it terrifying?  Heading inexorably toward the dark?  Who was it who equated writing to driving in the darkness – following the headlights, unable to see the destination, but trusting the road will lead us there?  (seriously, someone tell me, because I can’t remember).  The end is a dark and scary – and distant – place.

Yes, even for me.

Because I write historically accurate fiction, I have a good idea how my stories are going to end.  There’s not a lot you can do with Catherine Howard’s story.  You can’t make it a happily ever after.  If you’re absolutely historically honest, you can’t make a Romeo and Juliet out of her relationship with Thomas Culpepper (despite the debunked claim that she said, on the scaffold, “I die a queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpepper.”).  You can’t change the order of Henry’s wives, and the child’s device of remembering their ends: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.

But that doesn’t make the end any easier to write.

Because, as Lola Sharp said in the comments yesterday, “…endings are as crucial as beginnings...and perhaps more difficult to do well.”  Even a writer of historical fiction can’t just lay down the facts and think that suffices as a satisfying end.  Because history doesn’t always offer satisfaction.

So what makes a satisfying ending?  Victory in battle?  The voyager returning home?  The final kiss?  Can we include the more tragic endings here?  Dying for love?  Losing the girl but gaining the self?  The death of every major character, quietly and heroically eulogized by Horatio and Fortinbras?

I think what makes a great ending is one that comes from the characters themselves.  They have to be the ones running the show.  If you have a brilliant idea for an ending, and it doesn't come from the character’s motivations, it will not be satisfying.  If Scarlett had run off with Rhett, leaving Tara behind, would we have been Happy?  Maybe for a little while.  Our hearts run romantically, and we want them to be together.  But our intuition tells us that they won’t be happy.  They will continue to make each other miserable.  And Scarlett will fade, wallow, and die without the land of her birth.  Mitchell ended Gone with the Wind the only way the characters would allow.  Listen to your characters as carefully as she did.

If you know the end before you get there you have to sculpt the characters toward that end.  Creating a character who will ultimately lose her head/betray her friends/get the girl/climb the mountain/win the war means building the character using preprogrammed parts.  This runs contrary to my natural tendency to pants a first draft.  I feel like I’m wrestling my characters into submission.  And this makes endings very, very difficult for me to write.  I have no desire to send my characters to their destruction.  But history must be satisfied as thoroughly as readers.

So I wrestle.  And I listen.  And somehow I find the balance.

And so will you.  I have no doubt.  Because you are here.  Because you are writing.  Because you will face tomorrow and the next day and the next curve in the road, seen only through your headlights.


The ending to a novel can be such a critical thing. It can set up the perfect cliffhanger hooking readers into an anxious need to stalk the author until the next book in the series is out. It can give conclusion for a stand alone novel so the reader can feel some satisfactory closure. Or it can ruin a reader because they won't want to touch another book of yours again.

No pressure there at all :-)

Thank you so much for writing this blog post JUST FOR ME.

Wait, this is public?

Somehow I heard you coughing *Beth* at the end of each paragraph.

This series on Endings is exactly what I need right now.

Amazing post. Looking back, some of my favorite and most satisfying endings (as a reader) weren't the happy ones. Some even felt a little vague or unfinished. But they all felt "right". They fit the character's story and their motivations (exactly as you mentioned) so they were completely satisfying to me because the character never betrayed who I expected them to be. They stayed true to themselves, and their life. And if we're all honest, life isn't always a clear and happy ending.

Great post.

Thank you, everyone!

Angela-- sometimes I feel like I might be crushed by the pressure, but like a beginning, we just have to keep chipping away at an end until it's "right".

Beth -- we set up our theme schedule months ago, but the timing has been pretty perfect for me, too!

Elle -- thank you! Your post was so perfect yesterday, it was a hard act to follow!

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