From a physics standpoint, flying a plane is pretty straightforward. Because a plane is designed the way it is, all you really need to do to take off is to apply enough forward thrust, and then gently pull back on the stick. The Bernoulli effect kicks in and creates lift, and you’re up, up, and away. And once you’re in the air—barring any major problems—maintaining level flight is relatively simple as well. Shoot, planes basically fly themselves. The real challenge isn’t in the takeoff or cruising, but in the landing. Pilots will tell you that landing a plane is always the most challenging part of any flight, and it’s not hard to understand why. After all, you’re trying to wrestle a giant metal tube with wings traveling several hundred miles an hour down to the ground without crashing into a giant fireball.
Writing can be likened to flying in this regard. You have the takeoff, the flight, and the landing. I don’t know about you, but I personally don’t have a problem coming up with story ideas. I have a whole folder on my computer filled with great beginnings to stories that I’m constantly adding to. I see a sad news headline about police arresting a woman who was pushing the body of her dead toddler on the swings, and I see the beginning of a horror story or mystery novel. I read on Wikipedia about the “Dancing Plague” that occurred in Strasborg in 1518, where hundreds of people suddenly and mysteriously started dancing for days on end, and my mind starts sparking with ideas. Just the other day I thought up the opening scene to a crime thriller based off the recent “Pokemon Go!” game that’s so popular at the moment.
So yeah, I’m awesome at story beginnings. The story I’m currently working on is a good example. I had a solid idea and got the plane in the air with very little problem. And I’ve been cruising along smoothly for a while writing the middle parts. It’s ending the darn thing that has turned me into Ted Stryker sweating buckets in the cockpit while trying to land the plane.
You know the feeling, I’m sure. Once you’re up in the air, so to speak, your story will only end one of three ways. One possibility is that because you’re not sure how to end the story, you’ll putter around in the air until you just run out of fuel and crash. Another possibility is that you’ll do something terribly wrong during the ending, and you’ll crash. Neither of those options are acceptable, and your readers will never forgive you if you ruin their flight by crashing and burning the ending. 10 Cloverfield Lane is an amazing story that kept me on the edge of my seat with suspense, but fell apart in the last ten minutes. Lord of the Flies was all but ruined for me because of the very last line of the book. TV shows such as Castle, How I Met Your Mother, and LOST are other examples of otherwise excellent storytelling being hijacked by weak and/or terrible endings.
To avoid these same kinds mistakes, let me suggest a few ideas to help you land your story in one piece.
It’s all about conflict.
Your story’s ending should be a natural extension of the primary conflict. It’s the answer to the question the story has been asking all along. Will the homicide detective catch the murderer? Will Alan finally get up the courage to confess his love for Stacy? Will Blast Ironsteak find a way to save the world from the nefarious schemes of Dr. Darkbad? That question is the reason your readers have been following along, turning pages with ever increasing speed. If the ending doesn’t answer the question the story has been asking, then there’s going to be trouble.
In the story I’m currently working on, I was having a difficult time trying to figure out the ending. I went through draft after draft of unsatisfying endings before I made a stunning realization. I hadn’t introduced the primary conflict early enough in the narrative. I had stuck it in towards the end, and the story literally was ending two paragraphs later. The story was starting off well enough, but then was just in a holding pattern for several thousand words until I decided to essentially say “and then this happened, which was bad, but it was okay, because they did this, and everything was okay. The end.” I had written the equivalent of the Snow White ride at Disneyland, which sets up the story, building tension as you ride along the darkened corridors, culminating with a huge mural showing Snow White and the dwarves on a cliff during a thunderstorm. Action! Suspense! Peril! And then you turn the corner and see “And they lived happily ever after!” painted on the exit. Lame.
Begin with the end in mind.
This is related to knowing your conflict. If you’re having trouble finding a satisfying ending to your story, it could be that you aren’t clear what the conflict truly is. If that’s the case, you might consider where you want the story to end up at, and work backwards from there. If you know you want to end with a kiss on a beach at sunset between two reunited lovers, then you have to figure out how they got to that point. What kept them apart initially? How did these two crazy kids get back together? Who or what stood in their way? When you can answer those questions, you’ll begin to see where the path begins as well as ends. This sort of structuring can be difficult for discovery writers like me who run scrambling to the airplane at the first inkling of an idea, and are airborne before we know what to do next, but it can really help you not get lost along the way.
This is also why a truly satisfying ending hearkens back to earlier events in the story. A great ending will cause the reader to remember clues that have been scattered all throughout the story, so that when they look back from the ending, it will be obvious this was the only possible way this story could have ended. Think of the film The Sixth Sense. Clichéd twist ending notwithstanding, that story left a solid trail of crumbs all along the way so that the viewer says, “Of course! I should have seen this all along!”
You need a resolution.
Every story needs an ending, yes, but to be a satisfying ending, it needs to be a resolution. It’s when the solution is presented, the loose ends are tied up, and the questions are answered. Cinderella gets her prince; Parzival foils the Sixers’ plans; the Spooky Spectre is unmasked and shown to be Old Man Carruthers (who woulda gotten away with it, if it weren’t for those meddling kids!).
I saw a YouTube video recently where someone edited various Pixar films to end at the sad parts. The results were horrifyingly funny. Jessie is abandoned in a box to the strains of Sarah McLachlan’s “When She Loved Me,” only to smash cut to the end credits and “You’ve Got A Friend In Me.” Mike and Sully send Boo’s closet door through the shredder and never see her again. Bing Bong fades away into nothingness, and then we get the Tripledent Gum jingle over the credits. Those endings are jarring because nothing gets resolved.
This doesn’t mean that in order to be a satisfying resolution, the ending must be a happy one. There are plenty of stories that end on spectacularly dark terms. Many of William Shakespeare’s best-known works, including Macbeth, Othello, Romeo & Juliet, and Hamlet are virtual slaughterhouses where most, if not all, of the main characters die. But they’re satisfying endings because the issues within the story have been resolved. Similarly, the film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist is WAY darker than the original story (I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen it, but . . . dang), yet King is on record saying he likes the darker ending better than the one he wrote. And dark as it is, it works perfectly for the story. It’s an emotional roundhouse kick to the gut, but it works.
The main character has to earn their ending.
Ideally, your story’s ending will grow out of the choices made by the main character along the way. Whether it’s a happy or sad ending you envision for your main character, they’ve got to demonstrate along the way through their choices that they deserve the ending they’re headed towards. Frodo has earned the right to sail off into the Undying Lands because of the choice he made to take the Ring to Mt. Doom. The Blues Brothers go to jail, but it’s okay because they got the band back together and saved the orphanage. And Hamlet has to die because he chose the path of revenge.
In the end, all the fancy flying in the world won’t mean much if you can’t stick the landing. Your readers will be angry, and won’t likely trust you to tell them a story ever again. But by following these suggestions, you can avoid all that by carefully crafting an ending to your story that leaves them satisfied. You goal should be to write an ending that makes your reader want to turn around and read the story again. But first, you have to land that plane safely. And as the author, you’re the only person who can. So my parting thought to you is what Leslie Nielsen’s character said to Ted Stryker in Airplane!: “Good luck. We’re all counting on you.”
Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults. Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers. Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.