“All around, there were monuments carved with armorial bearings: and on this simple slab of slate—as the curious investigator may still discern and perplex himself with the purport—there appeared the semblance of an engrave escutcheon. It bore a device, a herald’s wording of which may serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so somber is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow—on a field, sable, the letter A, Gules.”
With the unsettling image of a woman’s disgrace and a man’s duplicity, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter concludes. Afterward, outrage hovered over me for days.
A powerful ending doesn’t stay sealed inside a book once you close the cover. The surprise, challenge, curiosity, or inspiration in the final words becomes part of you. You’ve lived an experience through the characters, watched them resolve an issue, explore an idea, or pursue a goal. And now their feelings have melded with your own.
How a story ends is as important as how it hooks readers in the beginning. One captures readers’ interest for a few hundred pages while the other captures their hearts forever. You can approach an ending from any number of directions, but I’m going to outline three of my favorites that can help you brainstorm a memorable one.
1. The Circle
An ending that revisits a theme or a setting that appeared in the beginning leaves readers with a deep sense of satisfaction and closure. Frank Baum’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a prime example. Kansas is portrayed as bleak and gray in contrast to the colorful land of Oz, where Dorothy spends most of the story after a tornado sweeps her away. But when she returns home at the end, she recognizes that it’s a beautiful place because of the people who love her. “Oh, Aunt Em, I’m so glad to be at home again,” she exclaims, revealing that her perspective has changed.
Authors often harken back to their opening chapters to show character development or create irony. Like two slices of bread cradling the meat of a sandwich, a circular ending holds the story together.
How to Achieve It:
- This ending requires planning far ahead, so you’ll need to consider how each event leads to the next.
- Remember that your character must grow somehow. Every pivotal scene should add to the transformation.
- After you lay out the plot in order, determine how to travel from the last point back to the first. Plant connections to make the path logical to follow.
- Once you can see your story’s full trajectory, write within those guidelines.
2. The Takeaway
If you hope to influence people’s behavior or attitude, packaging a pithy lesson into your ending can remind them to act on it afterward. As a teacher, I often come across children’s books that adopt this style of ending. One that stands out is Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Because of the book’s timeless message—protecting and caring for the environment—it has become a staple in many classrooms. Every time I read it, watching students listen and react to the closing line is sobering. When they realize that they can make a difference even at such a young age, their faces light up.
With fiction that’s aimed at adults, however, you’ll need to be more subtle. Author and editor Josiah DeGraaf recommends that you “communicate the lesson in a way that’s specific to your story. Animal Farm doesn’t telegraph the reality that rebels without principles will devolve into tyrants. Instead, George Orwell couches the truth in symbolism: ‘The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.’”
How to Achieve It:
- Think about the message you want to convey and try to condense it to a single sentence or word. This will provide clarity as you write. In my book Meghan Rose Is Out of This World, I decided to focus on honesty and designed every scene to teach my protagonist that virtue.
- Allow your protagonist to discover the lesson on her own, not because another character told her. (That’d be preachy.)
- Put yourself in the learner’s point of view. What emotions, problems, and arguments would you bring to the situation? How can you incorporate those insights?
3. The Emotions
Through the sharing of sorrow and frustration, both writers and readers find healing. The more complex and compelling your characters are, the more readers will identify with their struggles, which presents an opportunity for your ending to have a huge impact.
Author Bodie Thoene is a master of evoking emotion. I bawled through several of her Zion Chronicle historical novels. I became attached to characters who underwent horrific trials while fleeing the Nazis. Yet as I sobbed, I kept turning pages, and long after I set the books back on my shelf, her endings haunted me. Even without the backdrop of World War II, her stories always ended on a poignant note. In her book Take This Cup, she gave the reader one last glimpse into the heart of a cupbearer.
I peered over the top step. Tears misted my eyes as Jesus stood and wrapped himself in his seamless robe. He held me gently in his gaze for a long moment and nodded. I wrapped the cup in my cloak.
“Come,” he said, “follow me. The moment is at hand. We will go now to the Mount of Olives and pray.”
Thus the first part of my journey came to an end. But, in truth, it was only the beginning.
How to Achieve It:
- Draw from your personal experiences. Closely observe the people around you. Embrace empathy. Then pour that reservoir of emotions into your characters so your audience will relate to and root for them.
- Choose your words wisely. Words usually have underlying connotations outside of their literal definitions. For instance, in a winter scene, frosty air and a cozy fire give off cheerful vibes. But brittle air and a hot fire sound much harsher. Studying poetry can increase your awareness of these nuances since poets must be precise with their language.
- Imitate yet another poetic strategy and rely on literary devices like repetition to set the mood. In “Tell-Tale Heart,” Edgar Allan Poe echoes “stealthily, stealthily” to send shivers down readers’ spines.
I described three elements that most memorable endings have, but my list isn’t exhaustive, and every story is unique. Yours may call for a surprise ending instead, like mystery writer Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The masterful twist (which I can’t talk about without spoiling it) took me completely off guard. What a delight to be fooled and then retrace my steps to spot clues I overlooked!
Or perhaps your story would benefit from strong imagery. Edgar Allan Poe ruled in this area, as evidenced by his short story “The Masque of the Red Death.” A clock, chiming every hour, represents the passing of time and morality. Even the rooms and colors are symbolic. Every detail accentuates the theme that the ending unveils: death comes for us all.
And don’t forget cliffhangers, those endings that stop in the middle of an intense moment. Many television shows, like Lost, use this tactic to entice viewers to tune in to the next installation.
No matter which type of ending you gravitate to, make it count. As I tell my elementary students, the ending is the last idea, image, or emotion that readers will carry away from your book. Don’t let them leave with empty hearts.
Elementary school teacher Lori Z. Scott usually writes fiction because, like an atom, she makes up everything. Her down time is filled with two quirky habits: chronic doodling and inventing lame jokes. Neither one impresses her principal (or friends/parents/casual strangers), but they do help inspire her writing. Somehow her odd musings led her to accidentally write the 10-book best-selling Meghan Rose series and purposely write more than 150 short stories, articles, essays, poems, and devotions. In addition, Lori contributed to over a dozen books, mostly so she would have an excuse to give people for not folding her laundry. (Hey! Busy writer here!) As a speaker, she’s visited several conferences and elementary schools to share her writing journey. Some of Lori’s favorite things include ice cream, fuzzy socks, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars, books, and hugs from students. Guess which one is her favorite?