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My novel has been through multiple drafts and beta reads, and by and large is in good shape. I've learned how to cure a saggy middle, how to stay in point-of-view, how to keep the protagonist driving the action by working toward their want. And so on. The shape of my novel is generally OK, but by the time I reach the end (climax), I'm simply ready for all the ends to be tied up.

So they are, all the contracts are filled, and by and large the ending does what it needs to. It solves the puzzle, neatly and tidily.

But the ending still feels off to me and I can't put my finger on why. Perhaps it is too precipitous of a solution, or too little cost after the solution. The ending 'works,' but I'm wondering if there's something I'm missing.

Example: Maybe the best endings throw one last small but unexpected challenge at the heroes, out of the blue. (Like Darth Vader joining the air fight in SW:ANH, maybe some ratchet up of stakes during the climax needs to happen). Or perhaps one of our heroes should die during the ending, maybe it is an emotional note that's missing.

Q: I'm wondering if there's consensus on what makes a great ending. What are the features. I haven't seen anything online about this, and thought you insightful contributors might have thoughts.

  • Is your final solution a plot twist, and you feel that this twist is unnatural? – Alexander Sep 18 '18 at 18:24
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    What kind of story are you writing? A techno-thriller has very different pacing from a space opera. – Arcanist Lupus Sep 18 '18 at 18:34
  • @Alexander There are two small plot twists, but the solution is primarily bringing all the 'powers' together to defeat the enemy. – DPT Sep 19 '18 at 2:00
  • @ArcanistLupus Bit of a mashup. Not-quite-steam-punk on another world. – DPT Sep 19 '18 at 2:01
  • Science fiction is not dependent on any specific kind of plot. You can have plots from detective, romance, spy, adventure, all sorts. – Wildcard Sep 19 '18 at 6:54
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Leave the readers imagining the future.

For me, at least, a satisfying ending, besides the things you have mentioned, leaves me imagining the future, for the MC(s), and/or for the world they live in.

It should signal a new phase in life for the MC(s). Something has changed, either in them personally, or in the universe more generally. Perhaps they have learned or come to believe something new that will play a role in their lives.

Death can be that kind of thing; the MC's best friend is dead, or their parents or brother or mentor. But it isn't the only thing that can serve.

I have had, in a coming of age story, best friends come to a new (not sexual) understanding of each other. In a new adult story I have had a protagonist, sexually experienced but not previously in love, incidentally in the course of the story fall in love; and after the mission is over the finale is about her going to a new city, that will be her home as she begin her new life with her new love.

An unsatisfying finale is (IMO) "another day at the office". Okay, we saved the world, see you guys in the morning. Gotta run, it's pizza night at my house!

You could say this is an unwritten contract with the reader; that the whole story, all the trials and tribulations, mean something life changing. It doesn't mean the characters can't go on more adventures and change in other ways, but whatever they have done has ramifications for the future.

It does not necessarily have to be about them. A good scifi story with a satisfying ending might be the discovery of FTL, or some new form of FTL. The story ends with hints of how this begins to have impact on the society: The story mattered and the ramifications are becoming apparent.

That is the payoff at the end of the story. Yes, you wrapped everything up, but the reader still wants to know, "What happens next?"

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    Your first line clinched it in a way I didn't even notice. It's definitely something I did (as I mentioned, my protag ends the story looking forward to an archery tournament at her new home), but I hadn't consciously identified that as part of the process. Nicely done. – Matthew Dave Sep 18 '18 at 15:57
  • OK, that's all good, and focused on the final chapter which is indeed the ending, but what about the final battle before the final chapter? ??? I think there's something too pat in my battle. Any thoughts? – DPT Sep 18 '18 at 16:20
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    By "too pat", I'd guess you mean it was too easy. That could be unsatisfying. Easy battles have their place, in particular for demonstrating expertise: In Achilles, it opens with Brad Pitt (Achilles) dispatching a fearsome champion warrior in less than a second. But the heroic battle should require heroism. You can make it a surprise (the battle is upon them unexpectedly, a surprise attack), you can put them at a disadvantage somehow (betrayed by a mole or spy, the enemy knew they were coming, or has done something so their plan doesn't work), but the final battle should seem risky. (Cont) – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Sep 18 '18 at 16:48
  • @Amadeus In addition, sometimes the point of the heroic battle isn't winning or losing, but rather the consequences that come after, or the circumstances that led to the battle. Alternatively, sometimes the 'easy' solution isn't particularly easy, but non-violent. – Matthew Dave Sep 18 '18 at 16:51
  • (Cont) It should seem like it might not work, or somebody might die. Perhaps somebody is unexpectedly gravely injured in this battle, and even if they win, it isn't completely certain the injured fellow is going to survive it. If it is a predictable success, that could be producing the feeling of "too pat." Hurt somebody, badly, so after the battle is over and the villain defeated, the question is 'What happens to Bill? Get to what happens to Bill! Does he live?' – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Sep 18 '18 at 16:52
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What makes a great ending, in any genre, is that it fulfills the promises of your book. These are different for each book, so there is no one generic answer. The key is to understand what promises you are making and how you are making them.

  • In my end is my beginning: People like matched sets, your beginning is a foreshadowing of your beginning. A prologue promises an epilogue. A slow beginning promises a gradual end. An abrupt beginning forewarns of an abrupt end. Furthermore, every ending needs to have something that has come full circle and recapitulates a piece of the beginning, and something that has changed, and that contrasts with the beginning.

  • Genre promises: A fairy tale promises a happy ending. A mystery story promises a mystery solved. A romance promises a couple established. A tragedy promises death.

  • Moral promises: Typically, readers like to see moral consequences for the characters; the good rewarded and the bad punished. If your book is going to flout this convention, it needs to be signaled.

  • Put in the effort: Characters are expected to earn their endings. If a character has worked hard, they deserve some reward, if not, they don't --in the reader's heart. The work doesn't actually have to bring about the reward.

  • Story arc: Every character has a story arc. These arcs tend to need to largely complete, although some can be left open, or just promised. But in general, your main character needs to have learned something, gained something and lost something.

  • Explicit promises: You want to be judicious with these, but your characters can describe the ending they are seeking before it happens. "I just want to go home!" "If only the dragon were gone..." etc. However, too much of this will tend to steal the energy of the actual ending.

It's entirely possible to have endings that are idiosyncratic, open-ended, incomplete, depressing, frustrating, or any number of other such traits, and yet that still satisfy. The key is that they need to be promised by the book. The best ending is both wholly expected, because it matches every expectation built in the reader, and wholly surprising, because the reader has not expected how to get there or believed it could actually happen. This doesn't need to be a twist! It's much more about maintaining a sense of real emotional tension and uncertainty that can be discharged at the end than it is about actually fooling the reader.

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I recently finished the second rough draft of my fantasy novel. It's not science fiction, but I think arcs and stories have unifying aspects (especially sci-fi and fantasy).

Now, take my words with a grain of salt, because until I'm published, I cannot claim to be a professional, but these are the things I kept in mind when writing my final chapter:

  • What plot points remain unresolved, and what makes sense to be resolved in this chapter given the situation? Conversely, what mysteries are best left unsolved? If you intend to resolve something, it's best not to open fifty more questions with your answer, but sometimes you don't need to try an answer anything at all.
  • What conflicts remain? How can this best be explored and established in this last opportunity?
  • What themes have my novel been trying to explore? Any aspect of said theme that was opened/discussed in the first chapter ideally can be closed here.
  • How did my story begin? Whatever it is, give a contrasting scene at the very end of the book, to show things coming full circle.

In my case, this came in the form of, respectively:

  • Discussing a long-missing figure from the secondary protagonist's past, establishing that as much as it consumed him, they were long-dead and forgotten, making the primary protagonist finally confront her neglectful mother after growing strong from her adventures, the same girl reuniting with the sister she loved and even establishing that while she had her own adventures, the sister'd been doing some growth of her own. However, certain mysteries, like the protagonist's biological father, are not resolved nor do they need to be.
  • The conflict between the primary protagonist and her mother remains, however this time, she can choose to back out of it (as she's allowed herself to be adopted by an attentive father figure, the secondary protagonist). However, in her attempt to forgive her mother, they instead break out into an argument when it's revealed she was only concerned about the protag's going missing because of the reputation damage she suffered as a 'bad mother'. This establishes that no, this conflict and this flaw will likely never change, but ultimately the protag's growth allows her to not care if it's resolved or not; her mother simply isn't worth it.
  • Themes of my novel include the idea that people can grow and change, and that the worst people aren't those that have done horrible things in their past or done things to ruin others; it's those that refuse to see the error of their ways and grow as people. Once again, I use the argument between the protag and her unchanged mother, and contrast this with how her sister (and both protags) have changed to make this theme bold and strong throughout the conclusion of the tale.
  • My story began with my young, overly idle protagonist trying and failing to get a lie-in because her hedonistic, sex-obsessed mother is loudly making love in the room next to hers. It ends with the protagonist excited to get practising for an archery tournament, and so she's getting an early night despite being bitten by a horse while she fed it. The reason she sleeps soundly is because of a good parental influence bandaging her hand up and making sure she's all right.

This was a bit of a ramble, but I hope I at least provided a semi-decent example of both the thought process and the output I had for formulating a good final chapter.

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  • Thank you. It's great to see itemized thoughts and responses. – DPT Sep 18 '18 at 16:21

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