Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Blockbuster Ending


by Ian Walkley

I recently read an enjoyable thriller by a NY Times Best Selling writer, but felt let down by the ending. If this can happen to those guys, imagine what it would do to a debut author in terms of future readership.

Most writers I’ve spoken to say they spend most time making sure the beginning of their novel is sufficiently honed to hook the reader. But it’s also important that time be spent ensuring the ending is strong. Which raises the question: what function does the ending of a novel perform? And what can writers do to ensure readers are not disappointed?

Don Maass, in his wonderful resource The Breakout Novelist, states that the main function of the ending is to satisfactorily resolve both the inner conflicts of the main character(s) and the outer, plot-driven conflicts. Sometimes, he says, authors rush the ending because of story fatigue or a looming deadline, perhaps both.

Preferably, Maass suggests, a story should be structured to make the inner and outer conflicts converge at the climax. No mean feat, given the numerous subplots to resolve, the main storyline to bring to a climax, character arcs to keep track of, and outcomes to tie back to the storyline in order to wrap things up for the reader.

Al Zuckerman (Writing the Blockbuster Novel) believes that the key element to the climax is an obligatory scene of great emotional power. In his book Fiction Writer’s Brainstormer James Smith suggests the following elements for a story ending:

  • · A final, titanic, climactic struggle, with the climax the most powerful scene;
  • · An element of surprise, even if minor;
  • · Resolution that offers redemption to the hero;
  • · Recognition that every element in the story pointed to the end (even better if you can plant a clue to the ending in the first one thousand words);
  • · Lessons learned, for both characters and readers.

Excluding edits, I changed the ending to my novel, No Remorse, five times. To keep the action and suspense going right to the end I included several plot twists and a small surprise in the wrap-up chapter. To create scope for the sequel I had the readers realize that some evil forces were still out there, while keeping the protagonist sufficiently heroic and resolving the main threads. Feedback has been positive, with one reader writing that it was one of the best ending twists she has read.

Here are my ideas for ramping up the volume of your ending:

  • · Write the last few scenes early on, rather than waiting until the end. You’ll change the scenes later, but at least you’ve got some material to work with and a destination to journey towards;
  • · Write two or three alternative endings;
  • · Write an ending from another character’s POV (even a non-POV character);
  • · Write an ending as though you are setting up a sequel;
  • · Rather than doing yet another edit from the beginning, review only the climax and resolution. Are they exciting enough? Do they plausibly resolve the storyline? How can tension be held right to the end?
  • · Try an unintended consequence, like killing off a character you hadn’t, or letting one survive you had killed off. (Even if you don’t use this, it might give inspiration to change something else);
  • · “Do a Donald Maass”––reverse the obvious, or reorder priorities or motivations;
  • · Use index cards with descriptions of actions, conflicts and character emotions to brainstorm a new mini-climax;
  • · Write your own checklist, like the one above from James Smith, and vet the ending against it. Does it tick all the boxes?

If none of the above give you a satisfied feeling, it might be a good idea to put the manuscript in the drawer for a few weeks, and come back to it with fresh eyes. I would also strongly recommend the use of a professional editor, even before you’ve even submitted your manuscript to a publisher. A pair of experienced editor eyes is invaluable.

Hopefully, you’ll have your Jack Reacher type character walking off down another lonely road, without a reviewer complaining that you didn’t explain what happened to the dog.

Ian Walkley switched to thriller writing after a career as a social and consumer researcher and marketing consultant. He is a published travel writer and has previously authored and edited two books on small business. Ian's debut conspiracy thriller, No Remorse, is the first in a series, and he is currently working on a crime thriller set in Australia. Visit Ian at


Sharon Linnea said...

Nicely said,Ian. I have been disappointed before, especially when the slam-bang action goes to the last sentence, and there's no room for the character (or the reader) to process everything that has just happened. said...

Great informative blog, thanks for sharing what you have learned. Claudia

jenny milchman said...

Excellent tips, and you named two of my favorite books on craft! I love the canard "the first chapter sells this book and the last chapter sells the next".

Unknown said...

I agree, Jenny. I keep my Donald Maass books near me. However, I have been struggling with slowing down my ending. It's not that I have writer's fatigue, because I write my endings first. My challenge is my book gets changed during the editing process and I need to focus on how to take the changes my editor gives me and make a smoother transition into ending it. I will use this checklist as we begin editing the book I just turned in. The timing for this is good for me. I really appreciate this post.

Ethan Cross said...

Nice tips, Ian. Great information compiled from some wonderful resources.

Ian Walkley said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. It is important not to slip into the mode of just resolving everything I think. Make the ending a little of a surprise. But I understand your point Sharon, that we don't want to leave the reader hanging there. Yes, Jenny, the reader will remember the ending when they're considering their next purchase. Cheers, Ian

Linda Rodriguez said...

Excellent advice, Ian! I do think that, in a series, there can be ongoing situations that are not immediately resolved, especially in the personal situation of the protagonist and the inner conflicts caused. Everything that applies to this book's mystery and plot must be tied up, yes, but there can be larger ongoing conflicts that take several books to resolve completely.

Jodie Renner said...

Excellent post, Ian! Clear and well-written, with lots of great points for novelists to consider to ramp up their ending and leave the readers with a feeling of satisfaction and a desire to read more from this author.