Have you ever started a book and loved every page of it only to be disappointed, confused, or frustrated by the ending? If your answer is yes, you’re not alone. For many readers, there’s nothing more aggravating then to invest hours and hours into a book and feel cheated, duped, or let down by the climax.
Starting a story is easy. Wrapping things up in spectacular and satisfying fashion is what separates the masters from the amateurs.
But why does this happen? How can an author create literary magic for 395 pages only to trip and fall on page 400? The answer, my aspiring author friends, shouldn’t surprise you. Writing great endings is difficult! If it wasn’t, then anyone could pen a bestseller.
Here at Career Authors we certainly don’t have all the answers, but hopefully these four tips will help you to right great endings and Get the Most Out of Your Climax.
END WITH THE BEGINNING IN MIND
You’ve probably heard the sage writing advice to “begin with the end in mind.” This tip is has served me well as an author, but when it comes to endings I want you to flip it on it’s head and “end with the beginning in mind.”
What I mean by this is that an ending must, at a minimum, address the driving question posed at the opening of the novel. Not sure what I’m talking about? Here’s some examples.
JURASSIC PARK begins by posing the question what would happen if a billionaire opened a theme park with real life dinosaurs?
The novel climaxes with the dinosaurs terrorizing the humans and destroying the park. The ending answers the question and shows that making a dinosaur theme park is a bad idea.
THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER begins by posing the question what if a Russian submarine captain wanted to defect with his submarine but could not communicate his intentions to the American Navy?
The novel climaxes with a sub on sub duel in which Jack Ryan figures out that the Russian captain is not trying to kill the American sub, but actually trying to defect instead.
An ending must, at a minimum, address the driving question posed at the opening of the novel.
Even if you don’t frame your novels in terms of a “what if” question, every story can be distilled into a question (or multiple questions) that readers are reading to the end to discover the answer:
Does the girl end up with the boy? Does the knight save the damsel in distress? Does the hero stop the terrorist attack in time? Does the detective catch the killer?
Which leads me to the next tip…
GIVE THE READERS WHAT THEY WANT
If you’re writing a thriller, your ending has to thrill. If you’re writing a romance, your ending has to tug heartstrings. If you’re writing a mystery, your ending has to make the reader say “I should have seen that coming.”
If you went to an Italian restaurant and ordered lasagna but were served sushi how would you react?
Readers buy genre books with baked in expectations and they want to experience the ending they are both anticipating and looking forward to. Aspiring authors sometimes feel compelled to break with convention in an effort to exercise their creativity or to grab attention by breaking the mold. This can be a potentially career ending mistake for a new author. Don’t break convention until you’ve solidly mastered your craft first.
NOTE: I’m not condoning writing predictable endings or discouraging you from writing a twist. A good twist is an ending that gives the reader what they want but not what they predicted. Just because an ending is satisfying and meets expectations doesn’t mean it has to be predictable.
DON’T GET TOO PREACHY, CUTE, OR CLEVER
Fiction readers love to learn but they hate to be lectured. The ending of your book is not the place to teach your reader a lesson or try to espouse your political views beneath a veneer of prose. Fiction buyers purchase books to be entertained. Never forget that.
Always remember your goal is to delight your audience.
Also, always remember your goal is to delight your audience, not to amuse yourself. This might sound obvious, but sometimes authors can get too cute or clever for their own good and undermine an otherwise well-crafted novel by writing an ending that only they can truly appreciate. One of the quickest and surest ways to lose a repeat reader is by leaving them rolling their eyes, shaking their head, or worse shaking their fist because you used the climax as a bully pulpit, a lectern, or a stage.
A SINGLE CLIMAX IS GOOD, TWO IS EVEN BETTER
When my coauthor and I wrote TIER ONE, our first novel together, we penned a multi-chapter action climax set in New York City where the hero had to stop a terrorist attack at the United Nations. But when that sequence of chapters ended, we realized we still had another plot thread to wrap up and that we couldn’t reasonably incorporate the resolution into the climax we’d written at the UN. So, we decided to write a secondary climax to resolve the that plot element. The end result was back-to-back climaxes and it was a eureka! moment for us as a writing team. Ever since that book, we’ve made the double-climax a signature element of our thrillers.
The double climax might not work in every story, but it’s not as difficult to write as you might think. The key is to resolve the major and minor subplots sequentially rather than simultaneously. You can either use a double denouement (one after each climax) or skip the intervening one and just have one comprehensive denouement at the end.
What’s fun about the double-climax structure is that it’s both unexpected and fun. The reader thinks the story is over, feels like the story is over, but sees that they still have more pages to read. It’s like finishing a delicious dessert at a fancy restaurant, only to have the server unexpectedly show up at the table with an extra scoop of ice cream for free. Who will say no to that!
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