How to Determine Where to End Your Contemporary Novel

January 27, 2022

When I enrolled in a creative writing class, participating in the assignments presented a dilemma for me. Throughout my life, I’ve gravitated to speculative fiction, because it allows me to explore extraordinary settings where bold characters and dramatic conflicts abound. After years of writing almost exclusively in that genre, its framework became second nature.


Then my writing professor challenged me to confine my imagination to the real world and describe common daily experiences like drinking coffee, completing tasks at a job, and taking notes during class. As I strove to make those moments compelling on paper, I discovered that the mundane can be an effective conduit for conveying deep truths. Unfortunately, though, I left many of the projects unfinished. I couldn’t figure out how the climax should play out or where to usher in the denouement.


The intensity and magnitude of speculative fiction offers clear guideposts that a resolution is forthcoming. The hero defeats the villain. The world recoils from the precipice of disaster. The supporting characters return to their homes and throw a party. But contemporary fiction is milder with a less defined plot, focusing instead on internal conflict that isn’t as easy to track. Worried that I’d end my stories too soon, I kept writing until my ideas fizzled out. However, as I continued to experiment and study the genre, I began to recognize three signs that my stories were nearing a satisfying conclusion. If you’re stretching yourself in unfamiliar territory, maybe the tips will help you too.


Sign #1: Character Development

Inward struggles lead to transformation the same as outward battles with ominous enemies—perhaps even more so, because in this arena the protagonist is forced to confront all of her own weaknesses without any buffers. As the tension between who your character is and who she wants or needs to be increases, she’ll move through her arc. And her progress will reveal whether or not she’s ready to bid farewell to readers.


Has she learned any lessons? Changed her behavior or perspective since the opening chapter? Discarded lies she once believed? Repented of sin? Found a new purpose? Replaced pain and suffering with joy and healing? These are all indications that her mental and emotional trials have shaped her into a stronger, wiser human being. If she’s completed her arc, you don’t have a reason to stay in her head for much longer.


Sign #2: Answered Questions

The most riveting stories contain an element of uncertainty that entices readers to flip page after page to see how the characters will cope with their circumstances. Although the tactic is more pronounced in suspense and thrillers, it’s fundamental to every genre, even slow-building contemporary fiction. The instant your protagonist breaks through the stressors that are harming her well-being, adrenaline will dissipate, and you’ll need to give her a graceful exit before readers get bored.


But what if your characters face multiple problems? How do you distinguish which ones need to be solved? By identifying the overarching issues that drive your characters’ minute-by-minute decisions.


For example, in The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen, sixteen-year-old Jessica is passionate about track, but after a truck crashes into her team’s bus, one of her feet has to be amputated. She feels like her world has collapsed, and readers wonder how she’ll ever recover from both the injury and the despair. But during the difficult season of adjusting to her handicap, she connects with a new friend who shows her that she’s more than a stump and a prosthetic leg. When Jessica at last sprints across the asphalt again, it’s a victory of body and spirit. The fuller you’re able to draw this circle, the more your ending will resonate.


Sign #3: An Established Theme

Depending upon whether your approach is organic or involves planning, you may need to do additional revisions before you can use the advancement of your theme to gauge your story’s timeline. However, as you assess your theme, if you notice that several scenes emphasize it (or have the potential to do so), your characters embody or illustrate it through their actions, and your low point threatens it before a final encore, then your story is probably on the verge of closure.


Returning to The Running Dream, the theme revolves around Jessica’s growth as she realizes that she and others like her long to be seen, loved, and cheered on apart from their conditions. The ending is meaningful, not because she trains herself to run again, but because she perseveres and emerges with a better understanding of herself and the people who care about her.


Listen to Your Story

Often, your story will know where it’s headed before you do. When the right ending seems evasive, pay closer attention to the development of your theme and characters and the problems inhibiting each. A one-size-fits-all option doesn’t exist. Your story needs an ending that’s specially designed. But no matter what it looks like, be sure to highlight your characters’ growth, provide convincing answers to readers’ questions, and put your theme on display. Once you’ve accomplished all of that, your last few keystrokes are guaranteed to be memorable.


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