Novel ideas are a dime a dozen. Ask any agent, publisher, editor, or movie producer.
It’s true. Everybody’s got one, maybe more than one. Even you, am I right?
Of my nearly 190 published books, more than two-thirds have been novels that started as ideas, so I know what most everybody in the business knows:
The idea is the easy part.
Want to know what’s second easiest? Starting.
I know. That one surprises you, because maybe you’re stuck. You’ve been sitting on your great idea, idling in neutral for too long.
So what’s keeping you from getting going?
But fear of what?
- The marathon of the middle—which is a topic for another day (it’s that tough, for me too, and that important)
- And coming up with an ending that does justice to that great idea of yours
That’s why publishers rarely hand out contracts and advances to first time novelists before they see entire manuscripts.
You may have the best novel idea since Chicken Soup for the Left Behind Amish Vampire. But until you prove you can finish—and I mean close that curtain with a resounding thud—all you’re getting from publishers is Fifty Shades of Wait and See.
So how do you ensure your story doesn’t fizzle when it should be delivering a thrill?
Keep the End in Sight the Whole Way
Don’t play the wishing game, hoping it will simply work itself out when the time comes.
Whether you’re a meticulous outliner or write by the seat of your pants, have an idea where your story is going and think about your ending every day. How you expect the story to end should inform every scene, every chapter. It may change, evolve, grow as you and your characters experience the inevitable arcs, but never leave it to chance.
And if you get near the end and worry something’s missing, that the punch isn’t there or that it doesn’t live up to the power of the other elements of your book, don’t rush it. Give it a few days, a few weeks if necessary.
Read through everything you’ve written. Take a long walk. Think on it. Sleep on it. Jot notes about it. Let your subconscious work on it. Play what-if games. Be outrageous if you must. Force that ending to sing. Make it unforgettable.
- Be generous with your readers. They have invested in you and your work the entire way. Give them a proper payoff. Don’t allow it to look rushed by not allowing it be rushed.
- Make it unpredictable but fair. You want readers to feel they should have seen it coming—because you planted enough hints—but not feel hoodwinked.
- Never settle. If you’re not happy with every word, scuttle it until you are.
- If you have too many ideas for how it should end, don’t despair. Just make yourself find the best one. When in doubt, go not for the cleverest or most cerebral. Readers long to be moved. Go for the heart.
- Rewrite it until it shines. I’ve long been on record that all writing is rewriting, and this is never more true than at the end of your novel. When do you know it’s been rewritten enough? When you’ve gone from making it better to merely making it different.
Nothing Can Follow the End
This goes without saying. But I say it anyway, why? Because too many beginners think it appears sophisticated to leave things nebulous, or they want to save something crucial for the Epilogue. Avoid that mistake.
Modern readers raised on television and movies like chronology—beginnings, middles, ends. They expect the end to do its job. Artsy types may think it hip to just stop and enjoy gassing on talk shows about how life isn’t so tidy.
Well, terrific. I’ve seen enough movies like that, and I can tell you that most people don’t like sitting there shaking their heads as the lights come up. They scowl at each other and say, “Really? That’s it? We’re to wonder what happens now?”
All that does for me as a novelist is to remind me that I have one job, and I recommit myself to doing it again every time. Invent a story world for my readers and deliver a satisfying experience for them. They have invested their time and money, believing I will uphold my end of the bargain—and that means a beginning, a middle, and an end. One that satisfies.
That doesn’t mean every ending is happily-ever-after, everything tied in a neat bow. But the reader knows what happened, questions are answered, things are resolved, puzzles are solved. And because I happen to have a worldview of hope, my work will reflect that.
If you write from another worldview, at least be consistent. End your stories with how you see life, but don’t just stop.
That said, some stories end too neatly and then appear contrived. If they end too late, you’ve asked your reader to indulge you for too long. Be judicious. In the same way you decide when to enter and leave a scene, carefully determine when to exit your novel.
Don’t Forget Your Hero
This may seem obvious, but I’ve seen it violated. Your lead character should be center stage at the end. Everything he learned throughout all the complications that arose from his trying to fix the terrible trouble you plunged him into should by now have made him the person who rises to the occasion.
Maybe to this point he has been flawed, weak, defeated. But his character arc is about to resolve and become complete.
The action must happen on stage, not just be about or remembered or simply narrated. It can’t be resolved by a miracle or because he realizes something. He must act.
That’s what makes a reader respond emotionally, and if it moves you when you write it, it will move your readers exponentially.
See yourself as the captain of a mighty airline. You’ve taken your readers on a long, eventful journey. Now bring it in for a landing.
What will you do to ensure a great ending to your novel?