The End… Or is it?

This isn’t, necessarily, about series. Although it could certainly apply to them. No, it’s something I’ve realized about myself after more than a dozen novels and novellas, and I figure I’m not the only one with the dread writer’s ailment of can’t write an ending to save my life.

I’m really bad about endings. I get to a certain point where I’m fed up with the book. I’m done, I’m so over this story. So I wrap up the ending, put a bow on it and walk away. Then I come back a week or a month later (usually after the beta readers have had it and I’m working on smoothing the rough edges with their help on that) and realize I left so many dangling loose ends it’s more like a koosh ball than a tidy tapestry of a plot.

Now, here is where this is about series. You want to leave some loose threads that can be woven into the next book in line. But not too many. And none that leave the reader dangling out on them wondering what happens next in a big way. Unless you’ve got the entire series written and are, as an Indie (rabbit trail: Indie is not small press. If you have a publisher for that book, you are not Indie. Rant over, just one of those little things I see on social media that bugs me), ready to deliver in a month, huge cliffhangers are Not Nice. So some loose ends are good for a series. And personally I hate to wrap a story up in too tidy a manner. Real life is messy. Real life has unresolved situations all the time. Readers like resolution, so you can’t do too much of it, but a little mystery is not a bad thing in balance.

There’s something Dan Hoyt calls the ‘cigarette moment,’ which comes after the close of the story, that I have embraced wholeheartedly. For the curious, it’s meant to evoke that afterglow of intimacy and closeness in bed, cuddling with the hero of the moment and enjoying the endorphin rush. Ahem. Have I been euphemistic enough? Anyway. I really like to leave my readers with that moment where I show that the main characters have won through. They may still be in pain, have suffered great loss, but there is light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not a train, it is the warm glow of summer sunshine and joy.

Because that’s what I like in a fiction book. I like happy-ever-after (or at least until the next book in the series) endings. I realize that there must be people out there who don’t like this – I have read books for them, where the protagonist at the end is brought to their knees in bitter rain with tears and only the night to veil their misery – but that’s not my target audience. I’ve always written stuff I’d want to read. Which includes the joy and hope for a better day once the adventure is past. Escapism got me through some rough parts in my life. I’d be honored to have someone say that about my books some day.

Back on track: writing the ending. The cool-off period, I’ve learned, is vital for me to come back with fresh eyes and re-read the story in order to see that I’ve truncated the end a little too much. I’m doing this currently with Possum Creek Massacre. I’d hoped to have it out in time for LibertyCon. That… may happen still. My life is no longer amenable to sitting down and writing a few thousand words at a go, which is what this book needs. I could end it as it is. It has the threads for the next book in the series left handy. The main character could walk away from the mystery and legitimately never know what happened next, because that is closer to how reality would end here. In the book? I need to flesh out what happens at the end, because the reader wants to know.

And that’s my takeaway from this for endings. Fill out the ending until your reader is satisfied with it. Not for realism. Real life is full of unsatisfactory endings. Friendships that simply peter out and leave you wondering if you did something wrong, or if they simply grew out of you. Jobs that come to an end abruptly, whether of your choice or not. Houses you move away from and drive by later and wonder what they look like inside, now. Deaths. Births. Weddings, and years later you look back and think ‘when did that era of my life end? There was no big pivotal moment I could put my finger on.’ Books, though, or at least the kind I like to read and write, have endings that wrap it up and leave you feeling happy, like your brain has had a feast. A book hangover is a thing! I’m not sure I can aspire to that, yet, but I can certainly aim for it.

And now, I need to go do some editing and rewriting. My least favorite part of this whole Writer gig. But it needs to be done to deliver something that will make my readers happy. Which is my favorite part!

Header image: “even broken crayons still color” by Cedar Sanderson


  1. > can’t write an ending to save my life.

    I’ve been reading a bunch of classic SF short stories from the scans on Back in the 1940s and early 1950s every story had to end with a “sting”, which I guess is what the editors wanted, or thought their readership wanted. Then the style suddenly changed, and stories would just stop, and I’d wonder if there was a misprint.

    Novels went that route by the 1970s; take a look at the ending of Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” sometime. I actually had a friend call me to ask if he could borrow my copy, because he thought his was missing the last few pages. (it ends in the middle of a conversation). But by the 1990s things had swung the other way, and novels would often drag on long past resolution as the author filled pages with irrelevant bloviation.

    As a reader, I prefer a story that has a clear ending. Every thread and subplot doesn’t necessarily have to be wrapped up; real life doesn’t work like that, and sometimes an author wants to segue into a follow-on novel, but at least the main part should have some kind of clear resolution… and STOP. Maybe an additional paragraph or two if you fell you have to, but not a novella’s worth of “and then so and so did such-and-such…”

    1. Yes, it’s definitely a stylistic thing, as Misha pointed out in another comment. And a preference thing. I prefer a full clear ending in my reading, so that’s what I strive for as a writer. But there is probably no wrong way, just as any other writing ‘rule’ made to be broken.

  2. I think that an ending should be part of the overall style of the story, but that doesn’t require that all the loose ends are neatly wrapped up.

    I, personally, enjoy stories with messy ends, that leave me with an impression that there is a world outside the frames of the story, and that things happen before the story starts, keep happening after the story ends, and even during the story itself not everything that is going on is shown.

    Samuel Delany’s “Dhalgren”, for example, is one of my favorite books of all time, primarily because so much of it is never explained. I am always left feeling overwhelmed, that I have had only a glimpse of a universe that is vast and incomprehensible.

    It’s a matter of taste. Both the Weird Tales style of pulp and the New Wave movement of the 1960s and 1970s (the two groups I consider my main influences) set out to leave the reader feeling unsettled. It’s that feeling of existential dread–“Something is going on that you can’t comprehend”–that I enjoy.

    On the other hand, I am currently working on a series of novellas that are mysteries set in a fantasy world, and mysteries require answers. So I tend to end up the action part of the story with the arrest of the main antagonist, followed by a section of exposition where the narrator tells what happened to all the principal characters, who went to jail and for how long and stuff like that.

  3. I am going to argue in favor of using “Indy” to describe small publishers and the writers who publish with them. I have not self-published for some years now, but neither am I writing for Random Penguin. I consider presses like Cirsova, Legrange, Millhaven, et al to be Indy publishers, just as the 1980s and 1990s spawned a host of Indy record labels.

    “Traditionally published by Indy presses author” just sounds too cumbersome,

    1. Indy is do-it-yourself, with you in control. As soon as you sign it over to someone else, it ceases to be Indy. Which doesn’t mean you aren’t your own publisher. I’m Iron Ax Press, the owner and sole employee. I may contract out editing or covers, but I am the one in control.

    2. I think that independent presses was the original Indie, but the meaning has shifted as the publishing world changed and grew exponentially. If you look at the data out of Amazon, they categorize the Big Five, small presses, and Indies all differently. So now, an Indie is someone that handles their own publishing, whether completely solo (self-publishing) or by setting up an imprint that only publishes one person, and hiring a team of people to do things like covers, editing, and so forth. Indies are a lot more nimble than a press can be, but it’s also a lot harder work because you are doing it all, or managing a project as it were, with the need to handle everything from editing to promotion and marketing.

      1. And that describes the small presses I work with, “nimble and hardworking”. Most of them are one person shops, usually run in a spare room by someone who pays bills with a day job. The only difference between them and a self-published author is that they publish content from multiple creators.

  4. Denouements are important.
    My favorite example was the remake of The Prisoner that came out a few years back. It was mostly a hot mess of steaming crap. But the quiet minute or two at the end redeemed it to a large extent.

  5. Real life doesn’t necessarily have a story arc.

    At least, I think all lives do have an arc and a struggle and a clear ending, but it is not always a “story arc” — not always something that can be told as a story.

    In my struggles to understand genre that seems to me to be one of the crucial points. I’m pretty sure that a book about a character’s struggle to control a hot temper over the course of forty or fifty years would be unreadable. I’m also pretty that various incidents over the course of those years would be story worthy at least in the hands of a great story teller. But the story arc would have to come from some other frame. As a story ending, “she had learned to control her temper” about someone who isn’t that GOT person (whom I’ve never watched) but just an ordinary fusspot, is not compelling.

    I learned how important the ending of a story is when I told stories about being in the hospital with my son. Lots of people knew us and just wanted to know how things were going. Not a story. I had several incidents that I would share but once when I was just sharing I told a story slightly differently and people cried.

    I have a point that I’m struggling to make…. People want stories to make sense or have a point … They don’t need pointless stories because our lives are filled with stuff that doesn’t seem vitally important even when it is. Stories can show how seemingly unimportant things matter but only if — in the story —- they do matter. And without some kind of wrap up — ending — that point can be missed.

    1. I suspect that’s exactly WHY we gravitate toward stories that have an arc. Order in chaos. I need a bit of order and pattern, at least in my reading. 🙂

        1. I like slice of life; mostly because I’m one of those people who think that ‘everyone has a story’, and most of my exposure to slice of life has been via manga and anime – it’s absorbing as hell (“I just spent time watching an episode of four high school girls talking about the right way to eat a cream horn!” – with the amazement being ‘I’m not bored! Why?!’) and the ones I’ve been exposed to were oddly good; My favorite still is ‘The Walking Man’, where you follow a Japanese salaryman on his walks where he exhibits a rather childlike curiosity and capacity for imagination that most people… well, don’t have, once they reach that age. The gorgeous art helps.

          Slice of life, for me, are the ‘little stories’; kind of like how there’s fascination to be found in reading the journals of people who journey the frontier, or those diaries of housewives from a hundred and fifty years ago. They’re fictional, but I guess in my headspace, they sort of occupy the same area as Little House On The Prairie. Glimpses into a different life. <a href="–part-1-c686564.html#7"Mr. Smith puts it rather neatly over the next few pages.

          Anyway, this isn’t meant to get you to start enjoying them; it’s more an attempt to try explain why the genre has appeal.

        2. I’ve read way too many of those. I usually characterize them as “stuff happens, more stuff happens, the end.” And then there’s the variant of “nothing happens, people discuss it in excruciating detail, the end.”

          1. _Portnoy’s Complaint_ might be the ultimate example of “nothing happens and it is discussed for far too long.”

        3. I completely agree about ‘slice of life’ which seems to be what a lot of lit-fic is. What’s the point of it? I can go talk to the homeless people if I want a slice of someone’s awful life.

  6. Some of the stories, you kind of need to imply that ‘life went on’ in some way for the people in the series. Maybe some of them got a Happy Ever After, but some characters don’t quite get that.

    One particular one I recall right now is Sanosuke from Rurouni Kenshin getting chased out of Japan for some crime, and basically living a life on the run, while his friends stay in Japan, and more or less have happy endings.

    Another way is that one finishes the series with a sense of ‘this story is finished’ and the reader is left to imagine that things go on on their own.

    1. That’s one thing I’m determined about. EVERYBODY gets a happy ending, except the Bad Guy who gets his/her/its just deserts. Nobody dies, everybody lives.

      The one exception f-ed -himself- over. Even that guy was given every chance to turn from the path.

  7. I suck at endings so bad…

    Generally I end with a party, where there’s some playtime for everybody to decompress from saving the world. The first book had a house party and a Mario Kart tournament. Save the world, then play Mario Kart. Seems reasonable, right? ~:D

    Last time it was a garden party, just to change things up a bit. Convenient thickets were inspected for privacy and the quality of the foliage. Also the president of the USA and his wife, who resembled a Klingon shield maiden, got yelled at by a werewolf.

  8. In some ways, a lot of the questions about endings depend on what you think the story is.

    Consider Lord of the RIngs. If the story is the ascent of Man, and the events leading directly to the Fourth Age, then the story ends with the Crowning of Aragorn, and there’s a short what-follows at the end. If it’s the story of the Fellowship and its characters, then we don’t really end the story in the text, but only in the Appendices. And if it’s the story of the tragedy of the Elves (which includes, at least, the Appendicies and the Silmarillion, with only Galadriel as the continuing character, then it ends when she sets sail.

    Of course, pulling that off depends on being a really great writer.

  9. One thing I liked about the original Star Trek show was that little bit after the last commercial and before the credit rolled that was a sting/summary/commentary/joke… it was An Ending. Which was a wonderful contrast to the various movies of the (late 1960’s? and) early 1970’s which… just petered out rather than have any actual ending. Maybe that non-ending was “art”, but it was still crap. I suppose that sort of thing disappeared from TV due to maximizing advertising/commercial airtime, but the hole is there just the same.

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