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It strikes me that the last chapter (or so) of any story needs to make the reader feel that reading the book has been a worthwhile experience. An exceptional ending might leave a reader with such a warm glow that they immediately search for more books by the same author.

So, my question is: what techniques exist for crafting an ending that leaves a reader satisfied and interested in exploring more of an author's work?

Just to be clear - this question is not about cliff-hangers or sequels - just a solid, fulfilling, well-rounded ending to a stand-alone novel.

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    Although I do not know a way to irradiate just the last page of a book, it will certainly leave your readers with a warm glow at the end of your story. I do not understand if this is the satisfactory ending you desire. Although I'm sure people will find it interesting enough to immidiately look up more of the work of this author. In the end I think it is highly subjective what people find a worthwhile experience as long as the expectations the novel build up on are met in the end. – Totumus Maximus Jun 12 '18 at 14:15
  • Good points one and all, @Totumus. ;) – robertcday Jun 12 '18 at 14:16
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    Your premise isn't quite right. Most recently, a short story by Ken Liu left me not with a "warm glow", but "a punch in the gut". After which I ran off to buy everything he has ever written, because the story was just brilliant. "Interested in exploring more of an author's work" is quite separate from "warm glow" (but not, of course, from "worthwhile experience". – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jun 12 '18 at 19:48
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Throughout your book, you, the author, are continually making promises to the reader about the ending of your book, most notably (a) in your choice of genre, (b) at the beginning of your book, and (c) what happens close to the end. You don't have to keep all those promises, but if you want happy readers, you had better know what promises you are making and have a good reason for any that you break. (Note: I'm drawing some of this from @MarkBaker's excellent series of answers on the topic of story promises.)

The first set of promises is genre expectations. A fairy tale promises a happy ending. A detective story promises a solution to the mystery, and so forth. The next set of promises is the beginning of your book. A satisfying ending will both have some things that reflect or return to the beginning, and some other things that contrast with it. (Part of this is just mood. An orderly beginning promises an orderly end. A chaotic or abrupt beginning foreshadows a chaotic or abrupt end.) Finally, when you get close to the end, you can start signaling it by tying up loose ends (if that's the kind of book you are writing). You also create promises by foreshadowing, which can be helpful at prepping the reader if you're going to violate expectations. For example, if your fairy tale doesn't end up with the prince marrying the princess, you could foreshadow that by showing that he has a terrible temper, or kicks fairies, or something like that.

Personally, I like endings that come fairly soon after the main climax. I hate false ending syndrome, where the story wraps up, but the book keeps going. It's often better NOT to know what happens to the characters after the main plot ends, it gives the reader freedom to imagine whatever you want. But, on the other hand, if you give people too little, they'll find your book frustrating and unsatisfying.

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Let's make it clear - there is conflict resolution and there is ending, and those two are usually different things. Conflict resolution is normally the climax of the book, but it is the ending that leaves that "warm glow" with a reader.

Conflict resolution should follow traditional plot building schemes, being at least somewhat unexpected, comprehensive and justified. Ending is where surviving characters are shown on their way to live happily ever after (which may be the way to more exciting adventures, like in the ending of first The Incredibles).

Let's take Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi as an example (the following is a spoiler, but I'm not going to hide it). Conflict resolution there was the death of both of the Emperor and Darth Vader. The ending is the party on Endor, where deceased Darth Vader/Anakin, Yoda and Obi-Wan appear in a ghost form, apparently enjoying their afterlife. That part was fairly unexpected, but nicely contributed to the "warm glow", which was not as strong in Episode IV and totally missing in Episode V.

5

A satisfying ending balances the expected and unexpected. You have to resolve some things, go where your readers are expecting you to go, give them some expected emotional catharsis, but surprise them at the same time. You can apply the structure of a plot twist to any component of your work (plot, character, theme, world view, imagery): an unexpected turn, a moment of realization, and it all makes sense in retrospect. The nuts and bolts of what is unexpected and what makes sense will depend on the genre (regardless of whether you follow or reject the conventions of that genre).

The Usual Suspects uses these elements in a traditional, workmanlike way, but to great effect.

Expected: We find out who Keyser Soze is

Unexpected: who Keyser Soze is

Moment of realization: we see the look on the detective's face as the cup drops to the floor and the shot pans around the office

The Grapes of Wrath also balances meeting and subverting expectations. Steinbeck does this with more nuance and conflict, but you have the same basic elements. It's a realist novel with a journey plot. They make it to California (the journey is complete), but life remains very difficult. They escape drought for flood. The turn occurs in a single image -- Rose of Sharon breastfeeding the starving old man after her baby is stillborn.

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I can't tell you how to think of a good ending, but we can summarize what it should achieve (though you might not need all of these):

  • Have a character's personality or development somehow earn or rationalise the ending.
  • Challenge or even refute an assumption that's existed throughout the story, on behalf of you, a character or the reader.
  • Leave some question notably unanswered: not necessarily of what happened or will, so much as whether it's good or what it means. Or do that with multiple questions.

Above all, write something that you can imagine a book club discussing from a variety of viewpoints, maybe to the point of heated disagreement. That idea applies, perhaps, to the story as a whole; I think it's what they call polyphonic writing.

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The hero fought the good fight, as best they could, and that fight is done.

To me, for happy or sad endings (of a book or character within a book), and assuming the rest of the book makes the reader love the characters, this is a satisfying ending.

I would add, they didn't win/lose because of dumb luck, including the dumb luck of confronting a stupid antagonist.

This applies to standalone novels, or those with a sequel: The main fight in THIS novel is done, loose ends are tied, the hero succeeded or failed and the consequences are realized and permanent.

2

Ask yourself what your story is about in simple terms, both externally and as regards the characters' inner experiences. Then, choose an ending that encapsulates or sums this up. I'll give two examples:

  1. The film The Godfather (spoiler alert) is about Michael Corleone's at-first-reluctant rise to the top of his crime family, and his simultaneous moral decline. The last shot of the movie, where his wife watches the doors close on Michael and his advisors, as she realizes she's been lied to about his role in the recent murders, encapsulates this perfectly. Ending right at the climax (the assassination of the leaders of the five families) would have been too abrupt, because the movie is about more than just the external fate of the Corleone family.

  2. The Harry Potter series (spoiler alert) is about Harry's struggle against Lord Voldemort, and also the coming-of-age of Harry and his friends. The much-maligned Epilogue was an attempt at addressing the second theme, by showing the characters as adults. But this was unnecessary, because Harry, Ron, and Hermoine had already come of age, and the story had demonstrated this well. In this case, ending shortly after Voldemort's defeat would have been preferable.

The ending is your chance to put extra emphasis on one particular aspect of your story, so ask yourself what the most important thing to emphasize is.

2

Here are a few of the techniques that I've seen employed successfully.

Make sure that every chapter of your story has moved your readers closer to the ending. Sometimes in big ways, sometimes small, but they should feel the wind in their hair as they read, even if they don't know where they will end up. Even if you don't know at the beginning exactly where you want to end up, once you figure it out go back over each chapter and ask "how does this chapter move me toward my climax?" If it doesn't, cut it, no matter how much you love it.

Make sure that the protagonist deserves what happens in the end. Readers need to feel that it was the actions of the protagonist that caused the ending.

There must be something unexpected in the end. If we all see it coming, the ending becomes quite dull. However, it can't be completely unexpected, because that feels like a betrayal of writer contract.

The ending of a story should sit firmly on the foundation that the story laid. For example, if a superhero arrives to defeat the villain completely out of the blue while the protagonist looks on, that's what is considered a deus ex machina. It's very unsatisfying and feels like a cheat. But if we can look back and see how the arrival of the superhero was hinted at (even if we didn't recognize it at the time) and caused by the protagonist's efforts (either deliberately or inadvertently) throughout the book, the ending becomes more satisfying.

They need to feel that they could have seen it coming if they had just paid a little more attention, but didn't.

Be aware of what your conflict is, and make sure it is resolved. If there are minor conflicts and you want them to be kept in "reserve" for a future novel, then at least resolve the immediate crises but in doing so create others for later.

Keep your promises. This is a little more difficult to define, as each reader will have different expectations. Critiquers are invaluable in figuring out what expectations your writing has set up. They may be as subtle as the "mood" of a story (if your world is set up to be a gritty, unsettling world with horrific abuses happening everywhere, your readers aren't going to be satisfied with a fluffy pink ending). They often have to do with the fates of the characters. If readers like a character, they are not going to be happy with a casual death. If beloved characters die, their deaths need to mean something. If you make your villain an admirable person, readers won't be satisfied with a simple defeat. Perhaps it would be better to reform him. Or at the very least give him a fatal flaw that makes his downfall inevitable.

Go back to the beginning. A lot of people say this, but few are able to define it well. You should be able to hear the echoes of the beginning in the end, and the end in the beginning. For me, this means I go back to my beginning and ask "how is this setting us up for the climax?" and of the climax I ask "does this make me recall the beginning of the story?"

Some of the best, most satisfying endings come when all seems lost and the protagonist is able to turn the tide. This shouldn't be a haphazard case of stumbling into the Great Solution or an accidental happening. I like to be able to look back and see that if anyone else had been in his situation all would have been lost, but because the hero is who he is, he was able to win through.

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