Congratulations to those who use NaNoWriMo to make something new. As the frenzied month of word-slinging, novel-writing, and plot-twisting comes to a close you’re probably daydreaming about typing the glorious words “The End” in your manuscript file. You might be wondering how to end the darn thing. Perhaps you already know the ending, which, if that’s the case, congratulations again! Regardless of where you are in the process and if NaNo brought you a new short story, a few molten chapters of something deliciously gooey, or a 50,000-word tidy draft of a novel, most of us fizzle out by the end, our arms outstretched across the finish line, face planted in the dirt exhausted. But not to worry! The thing you just manifested will have to be revised and not just the spell check kind but a total filleting of the book and reconstruction. When you’ve recovered from the drafting process, take time to look at how you chose to end. What does the end say about your entire book? What makes certain endings more satisfying than others? How does the ending connect to not just your plot and story but more importantly to your characters? How do you stick the landing?
Good endings are like good beginnings: they just work. When you think of how your favorite movie or book ends, what do you remember? The play by play of the plot and scene sequence, or the twisted feeling in your heart and stomach as your favorite band of misfits narrowly escapes with their lives? Maybe you remember both, but most likely your memories are connected to that feeling in your gut and heart. Endings and beginnings are all about stakes and the price a character will have to pay for their success. It’s an important magic trick in the writer’s toolbox. We make our main character’s life unbearable, keep knocking them off their path, making things harder for them, injure and kill other minor characters, which in turn makes the reader feel that maybe they won’t survive, maybe things are not going to be okay. But it’s all a ruse. In most books the main character does indeed survive, not all books, of course. Some authors are cruel, just kidding. Regardless, for a satisfying ending the reader needs to feel two things: 1) that there’s a chance the protagonist won’t survive, and/or 2) if they will survive this there will be a great cost. By really messing with your reader’s heart, they will keep reading hoping against hope for a good outcome. And as they focus on the big stuff, you, the writer come magician, can play the old shell game where you move stuff around, get them from point A to point Z, and make things go horribly wrong for them and their friends. The more doubt the reader has about the price for success, the more exceptional the ride will be for them.
As you reach the end of your novel, or as you plan your massive revision, it’s helpful to think about the price your main character needs to pay to succeed in your story. Nothing is free in any genre. Has your main character(s) learned or changed? Loss doesn’t have to be physical; it can be emotional as well. Once you figure out the price they’ll have to pay for their success, you can work backwards through your draft to make sure that this character arc connects to the plot and scenes. After all, scenes and plots points are connected in a compelling novel in a sort of “so-that” or “because-of” way not an “and then, and then” manner.
The beginning and the ending are intwined in some strange dance. Reflect on the character’s internal arc (theme) alongside their external journey (plot) and raise high the stakes. Then be sure that the ending answers the questions set up in the beginning through the character and plot. And there you go. Sounds easy? It isn’t. But you can do it. Writing is work for the brave-hearted and you are made of tough stuff. The toughest.