The ending is one of the most important parts of any story. Sure, the beginning is what hooks readers, but the ending is what shapes their thoughts and feelings after they finish your work, and so colours their memories of the rest. It determines whether a story is satisfying through the payoff it provides, and makes a huge difference to whether readers, viewers and listeners come back for more.

The ending was the closest to a bum note for me in reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk & Honey. Without spoiling it, I think it’s safe to say that all the pieces are put in place properly, and in that sense the ending is earned. But there’s a huge shift of tone for the climactic sequence that’s at odds with the rest of the book. It’s like the author changed genres slightly to get the results, rather than sticking with the Austen-style social drama that had dominated to that point, and that disappointed me. I like genre mash-ups, but I also like endings that fit the books, and this one didn’t quite. It wasn’t so awful I won’t read more, in fact I enjoyed the book so much I’m already reading the sequel, but still, it was a shame.

I’m also aware that the ending of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother really divided people. I thought it was great, fitted the story and said some things about love and life that I don’t expect from a mainstream sitcom. Others thought it took an easy option. If you don’t mind the spoilers, this video from the excellent PBS Idea Channel looks at it in more depth:

 

My current freelance ghost writing is also raising some questions for me about endings. I’m working on a series of books, and the plot I’ve been given involves each book setting up questions for the next. But there’s a delicate balance to be struck between making readers want more and leaving them feeling like they got closure. How I pace the final story beats of each book is shaped a lot by that.

Which stories do you think got the endings right, and why? Which got them wrong? Share your thoughts below, help me refine my own thinking.

And as ever, if you’d like to read more from me, you can find out about my ebooks here, including some of the glowing things people have said about them in reviews.

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Comments
  1. John Moley says:

    I’ve always thought that Pratchett excels at endings; structurally, tonally and in terms of the satisfaction they deliver. Who can forget Vimes planting that axe in the table? Or the ultimate fate of Brutha and Vorbis? Just typing those two questions conjured up the most vivid memories; they gave me a grin of glee and a melancholic moisture of the eyes. 🙂

    • Pratchett is very good at writing satisfying endings. Must go back and read some of his best works, think about how he sets up those finales. But of course, he’s great at pretty much everything.

  2. nefertare23 says:

    Battlestar Gallactica springs painfully to my mind. Damn you BSG. Damn you. I blame you for that. Tj.

    • Can’t believe I didn’t think of that when writing the post. The way that show drifted away from gritty sci-fi to mystic quest story was so disappointing. I wouldn’t have minded the ending if the start hadn’t promised something so very different.

  3. glenatron says:

    A lot of series’ have a habit of not ending properly and it drives me up the wall. Sometimes it just feels like they stopped half way through a sentence – if a writer does that I am very unlikely to buy further books from them or if I do, I will wait until the series is complete rather than buying book by book. It’s fine to have hooks forward into the next novel, but you have to give a reader closure and bring things in to a conclusion.

    I really like the way that Juliet McKenna makes each novel into a satisfying story without losing the underlying narrative. Other writers do it well too, but her novels stand out for me in this respect.

    There is also a somewhat equivalent trick involving bringing the audience up to speed at the start of the next book without alienating everyone who read the previous one – something else a writer of series really needs to master.

    • That trick of bringing audiences up to speed is something I’m having to work on for this ghost writing project. It’s really hard to tell if I’ve delivered enough information, or whether I’ve slipped over into excessive exposition, when I’m so well aware of the preceding story from finishing writing it the day before. Of course doing this for someone else’s stories is great practice for my own.

      • glenatron says:

        Certainly an interesting thing to think on- a few things I have noticed people use quite effectively have included introducing a new major character who needs to come up to speed, so there is at least a decent narrative reason for a little bit of exposition and also the opportunity to give them some comment on what happened previously and maybe hang a lampshade on a few plot points.

        I just started listening to the second of the Mistborn books and I notice that he picks up about a year after the first book ended, so there is stuff to fill in for people who have just read the first book as well as new readers or readers returning after a long break.

        • Fortunately I’ve had a few bits where it made sense to have those sorts of conversations. I’ve also been finding reasons for the protagonist to think about relevant information while still making it relevant to what he’s doing now – hopefully that won’t come across as too clumsy, though there is a risk.

  4. One of my favorite writers is currently and repeatedly dropping the ball on the ‘closure’ part of his long-running series of novels; I’ve gotten to the end of about three in a row now and thought ‘nothing really happened!’ Frustrating. Meanwhile, another of my favorite writers is equally hip-deep in a long long series but concludes each book in a satisfying manner — more episodic.

    As for me, I’m now at the point in my series where I’m having to pull together the loose threads and start agonizing over whether I’ve earned the solution (however temporary). I need to plague my betas about it. Six…more…chapters…

    • Making stories more episodic is an interesting tactic. I like it, and it allows for better closure, but I’m aware that it’s not to everyone’s taste. It’s more clearly a storytelling artifice, but if that makes the story more satisfying then I’m all in favour of it.

      And good luck with those last few chapters – keep going, the end’s nearly in sight!

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