Today I’m going to talk about endings—specifically, what makes a good one. We’ve all had the experience of reading a great book, only to be let down by a mediocre finale. Similarly, we’ve all read and suffered through mediocre books, only to reach a spectacular ending that leaves us with an overall positive impression of a book that, in reality, we didn’t really enjoy all that much. Mickey Spillane famously said that your first chapter sells the book, and your last chapter sells your next book. Endings are super important. They can make or break a reading experience.
So what is it that separates a great ending from a mediocre one? Some of it is just magic, and resists logical analysis, but as a writer I have tried to study what works.
One ingredient that seems to appear in most really great endings is emotion. A thriller relies for most of its length on breakneck pacing, action, twists, and surprises. There usually isn’t much room for subtle emotions such as regret, grief, tenderness, guilt, or the like. But if set up skillfully, a thriller’s ending can deliver on a deeply emotional level. In addition to wrapping up all of the plot threads, and showing the hero finally defeat the villain, a thriller can also make you feel something. We like to be moved emotionally. It’s one of the reasons we read. A thriller that provides an emotional punch in its finale is a thriller you will remember.
As a writer, I haven’t always succeeded in doing this, but I think I achieved it in the ending of Burnout. I won’t spoil the ending in this blog. If you’re curious, check out the book here!
Another technique I see in effective endings is when the end mirrors or bookends the beginning. In Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book, Save the Cat, which I have blogged about before, Snyder suggests that a screenplay should begin with an opening image and end with a closing image that reflects the opening image. The two images can be opposites—for example, a film can open with a view of a run-down village and end with a prosperous one—or the images can be almost identical—for example, a happy family shown before and after the conflict overcome in the story. The symmetry of the opening and closing images is structurally pleasing to film viewers and also, I believe, to book readers.
Sometimes it is easier to recognize bad technique. One of the ways I often see endings fall flat is when they are too quick. It is as if the writer sees the end in sight and rushes to the finish line. After investing myself in hundreds of pages of a story, I don’t want a rushed ending. I want a satisfying denouement. An ending should wrap up the story in a satisfying way, and then give the reader a moment to enjoy the victory. To luxuriate with the main character in the hard-won success that he or she achieved through great effort. To deny the reader this moment creates a feeling of dissatisfaction in the reader. To return to Mickey Spillane’s quote, the last chapter is supposed to sell the next book. If the last chapter doesn’t deliver the promised victory, many readers will look elsewhere for a book that will.
Do you have thoughts about how books—thrillers in particular—can end in a satisfying way? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.