When Your Novel Ending Isn’t Working — What Might Be Wrong And How to Fix It
Endings are harder to write than beginnings, for all these reasons
“This is the way the world ends,” poet T.S. Eliot said, “not with a bang but a whimper.”
You can usually rely on poetry to say it best. (This was from his poem, “The Hollow Men”.) He was talking about London more than anything, in 1925 after the devastation of World War 1.
This is not an article about the world ending, however. Regardless of whether it’s the planet or a marriage, a person dying of cancer or the death of a friendship, we know that in life it tends to be drawn out, messy and feels never-ending.
None of that works for a novel.
In fact, writing the ending of a novel can be the hardest part of the whole thing. Yes, harder even than the beginning. Because in the beginning, you are making promises to the reader. You’re setting out on this glorious journey, juggling your characters who are arriving with baggage, setting the plot in motion and establishing your tone and point of view and a dozen other things.
At the end, you have to wrap all of those things up. Not necessarily in a neatly tied bow. But in a way that satisfies the reader. That completes both the plot and character arcs. Your plot “solution” probably played out with the climax or soon after. So what is left to do?
Some call it resolution, some call it denouement. I often call it a settling up. You’ve drawn on the whole bank of story characters and ideas, threaded theme throughout, by the end you should have already brought any subplots to a close. What you are left with is the final moments of character arc and plot arc.
In the Hero’s Journey, the stage just before this is the final “learning of the lesson”, one last action scene that shows the hero using what they have learned along the way — what they really learned, which brings to a close their internal journey as well. The ending then is a settling of external and internal journeys for the hero or main character, and the last bit of plot. And funnily enough, by this point, the plot is very likely to be the minor element.