You’ve spent hours perfecting your narrative, finding the right words, weaving the intricate web of plotlines into the fabric of a clever, meaningful, insightful tale, and now, you’ve come to the final pages, the mad dash to the finish, and are completely and utterly lost.
I suppose every write has this moment. Sitting there in front of their story and just can not bring themselves to finish it out of some paralyzing fear of getting it wrong. It is far worse the better and more complex (or longer) your story gets. It’s hard to find the right payoff that settles everything that needs settling a a way that seems adequate.
This is, of course, partially caused by that nagging voice in an artist’s head that tells them “it isn’t good enough”, that they could do better; that whatever they’ve done does not capture the quintessence of what they had set out to accomplish and show. A part of it is also the difficulty (at least for me) to part from all the lovely (and villainous) characters you’ve created. After seeing them go through everything they’ve been through (well… making them go through it) it’s hard not to feel attached to them and wanted, on the one hand, to keep them around, and, on the other hand, give them a worthy send-off.
Another irritating reason for finding those last few paragraphs or pages to be a challenge is how far you’ve come. By this I mean not only the overall word count or how far along the plot, which also makes things harder, but also how far you might have come from the original plan for the ending. The ending should have been something you’ve had in mind since starting the story, since only by knowing where you were headed could you have written anything with a point, but along the way, you might have realized that what you had planned was, in one way or another, insufficient.
You might see your planned ending forced, no longer relevant to the way the rest of the story has developed (since writing is an organic process and changes all the time) or simply that what sounded awesome and poignant a few weeks ago now sounds rather flat and lackluster.
This has happened to me so many times I could right a story about it, only I don’t know how it will end (wink wink, nudge nudge). I sit in front of a short story or a novel and just become frustrated with how anything I write falls flat. I often find myself writing and re-writing endings four or five times before finally settling on something (which I still think is lacking). I believe other are experiencing this same problems, so I just wanted to point out some kinds of endings I found to be especially unworthy of finding their ways to MY stories (it doesn’t mean they are bad by definition, they might fit your story, and that is the point, I suppose; to find what fits):
- Deus Ex Machina: Besides “carpe diem”, this is probably the most well-known Latin phrase in common language. Literally meaning “God from within the machine” and originally referring to the appearance of a god to resolve the problems of a Greek tragedy (often arriving onto the stage by means of some machine, such as a crane or a land-based mode of transportation). The plot device was popularized by Euripides and was soon after criticized, but somehow, it survived to this day. The problem is quite simple: the solution is too simple and seems to come out of nowhere, bringing very little satisfaction to the reader/viewer/listener. The long-lost twin suddenly coming home, the last will and testament revealing that he/she was the rightful son/daughter all along, a literal god coming from nowhere and simply fixing everything, they all just make the reader think “then why did I bother getting involved with all their problems?” Even worse, it shows a lack of originality and thought. Simply put: it makes a writer look bad. (One comment I feel is necessary: Sometimes a writer would be accused of having done this unjustly, especially in fantasy or science fiction. Sometimes the readers are simply not aware of the whole scope of the story, such as prequels, lore, etc., and would think that this magical item coming out of nowhere is very forced while in fact, this resolution was brewing all along; e.g. The eagles in the Lord of the Rings. They don’t just appear, they have been entrusted by the gods of Middle Earth, the Valar, in the Second Age to watch of Middle Earth and are just doing their job, though rather belatedly, all of this is mentioned in the Silmarillion).
- Happy Ever After: Unless you are writing a fairytale (or a satire of one à la Into the Woods), a Happy Ever After seems just as forced as a Deus Ex Machina. This not only refers to actually using the phrase Happy Ever After, it is enough to forcibly go through every plot line and resolve it in a happy manner. Everyone is happy and gets what is coming to them, the villain is punished, all loving couples marry and get their dream jobs, and all is well. Does that sound realistic? Does it sound natural in a narrative to go and check all the boxes as if the narrator had some “All’s well that end’s well” clipboard? Of course there should be a resolution, and if you are writing a children’s story this may well be what you need, but most of the time, it will be far more natural to integrate the resolution of sideplots into the rest of the text rather than go through them in the end like some sort of seventh grade book report.
- Or Did He? The other side of the Happy Ever After coin is just as bad. Resolving your story only to force some kind of doubt as to the finality would also leave your readers quite dissatisfied and irritated. This would also raise a question as to why they even bothered going along with all those twists and turns only for you to, and I am sorry for using this obnoxious semi-verb, Shyamalan it. It seems forced, like you are desperate to lure people into buying a sequel. Open endings are good, there’s nothing wrong with them. It’s only when you did resolve the main conflict in a satisfactory manner only to then say that the killer’s finger twitched right at the end, showing that he is still alive and will return for revenge that things sound more like a campy 1980’s horror flick than a serious mystery novel. This is only an example, of course. The same applies to all genres. If you want a cliffhanger ending, build up to it a bit, don’s just tell the readers that “suddenly” something is still wrong.