by Sue Brower
Executive Editor – Zondervan (a division of Harper Collins)
My editing world was turned upside down last week. I thought I knew what was best to deliver the “satisfying ending to a great story.” Hopefully, we want the reader, or movie-goer to sit back, hold on to the last moments and then let go a sigh. “Ohhh, that was good.” At the movies, the audience just sits for a moment and collects their thoughts as they quickly review what they’ve just seen. Last week, there was an audible gasp as the screen faded to black. People wanted more… a definitive scene where the couple pledged their love to each other and promised to stay together forever. And that didn’t happen. The movie ended with a promise of what was to come between the two characters, but instead of showing a little more, a few words typed on a black screen reveals how the story ends. What??
How do you know when you have satisfied your reader with a good ending? What emotions do you want the reader feel? Tears, laughter, contented, comforted-even tense or maybe a little scared? Sometimes I don’t think we consider that how you end the book is just as important as how you begin it. Imagine the reader–they turn the last page, close the book or turn off their e-reader, and take a moment to reflect. “That was good and satisfying.”
I could teach a whole workshop on The Perfect Ending (and will this May at the Blue Ridge Christian Writers Conference), here are a few of my thoughts on good endings:
1. The type of fiction (genre) you write in will influence how you end a novel. Romance ends with a marriage and a happily ever after. If you really want to seal the deal, add an epilogue with some future of the couple and their child in a happy gathering.
2. Women’s fiction ends in hope, at least it does in Christian fiction. Hope that with God things will be better, that the protagonist has become stronger, and while they may have suffered, there is hope the future will be better. You don’t have to have all happy endings, but you do need to leave them with hope.
3. In suspense, the protagonist succeeds over the bad guy, and justice is satisfied. However, in this type of fiction, there is no “norm” on how you get to this place. Good characters die, bad characters sometimes get away and there is not necessarily a happily ever after. But satisfaction is in knowing the good usually wins in the end.
4. In a cliffhanger, the reader is definitely left wanting more. The good guy saves the day, the bad guy fades to the background leaving the opportunity to rise again. The romantic couple are set for a happy ever after, but a secondary character bemoans his/her singleness. Everything leads to the reader wanting to read more about these characters and tells them there is still more plot to resolve.
In the movie I saw last week, I think the viewer was disappointed because they were not convinced of the couple’s future. As I was editing the movie-okay don’t laugh, I just can’t help it-I would have had the writer work on the woman’s character so that she was more believable, that she was worthy of the man’s love. Then when they walk off hand-in-hand, you are convinced in that end that they will be together forever. The producers broke the cardinal rule of fiction…they told us how the story ends, they didn’t show us.
Sue Brower is the Executive Editor at Zondervan, focusing on fiction and inspiration (devotionals, memoirs, gift books). Prior to joining editorial team (2006), she spent 13 years marketing in the Christian Publishing industry. Among her many honors, Sue was also named ACFW’s Editor of the Year in 2010.
Excellent advice, Sue. Thank you for sharing.
I’ve watched movies and read books that ended much like the one you shared. Even if I’m swept away for 300 pages, I’ll think twice before reading from the author again if the last few pages disappoint.
I’ve recently read two books by the same author that were (in my opinion) really let down by the author.
Another was really annoying me at the beginning (different author; different publisher). I committed the almost unforgivable sin of skipping to the final chapter, where the lack of an ending convinced me not to even bother reading the book.
Fortunately for you, they were not Zondervan books!
Sue, I was in the little girl’s room at the theater on Valentine’s Day right after watching that movie and EVERY woman in there was talking about how disappointed they were that it just ended. I think the cinematographers at least made a wise choice to pull back from the couple slowly, giving the audience time to realize we’d reached the end. But it was a bit of a letdown. Which is when I wanted to stand up and tell everyone to go read my book, The Familiar Stranger, if they wanted a satisfying ending to an amnesic book. 🙂
Oh, but I’d finished that book for about a week before I realized I needed to write one more chapter to bring a bit more closure. I’ve heard from readers that if I didn’t have that last chapter there, they would have been upset. Very wise counsel from you to stay with the perfect ending for one’s genre.
Early in my writing career, I was taught that a great opening grabs your reader, makes them want to read your current project. But a dynamite ending makes them want to read your next one. Thanks for your insights.