Readers want you to tie up all the loose ends, bring things to a close, make it satisfying and logical, and they want it to feel right.
And they don’t want to hear any nonsense about realism and how sometimes in life there is no answer, no proper endings, no closure. But then, ending a story isn’t about realism.
And they all lived happily ever after... What the hell does that even mean?
The end is just a place for passengers to disembark. Journey’s end. But what you need to have achieved in order to call it an ending isn’t always so obvious.
Often, though, the type of ending that your story needs has been foretold already. In the beginning. It doesn’t really matter what happens in the beginning, but whatever the tone is, whatever the mental and emotional state of your main character, by the end of the story they’re going to be in a different one.
If you start with Little Johnny playing innocently with his friends, by story’s end his innocence will be over (a good example of this kind of book is To Kill A Mockingbird, where the first section is the kids playing in idyllic summer, fearing imagined monsters, and by the end of the story they know what real monsters look like).
Not that you need to go for the diametrically opposite vibe, but for a satisfying climax, the sense of journey and transformation a story requires will be better realised if there’s some distance between MC at the start and MC at the climax.
Because of this, if you know how your story starts you’ll have a pretty good idea of how to end it. And the reverse is true also. If you know your ending, that will give you a leg up on the opening.
Let’s say our story is about Milly and her fiancé, Dirk. Milly has a terrible temper, always accusing Dirk of things he hasn’t done or complaining about things he was supposed to, until she finally drives him away. She reassesses her life and then meets someone new—Frank. She keeps her temper in check and then on her wedding day she discovers Frank’s been having an affair with her best friend, Gladys. Milly flips out and kills Frank and Gladys and everyone in the chapel.
The story starts with Milly an angry mess, and it ends with Milly as an angry mess. While you could write the story as a dark comedy, as a genuine story about a woman dealing with her insecurity and fears it’s going to feel lacking. You could have saved everyone a lot of time and just have her kill Dirk for leaving her in the first place.
But say you like the opening. Milly’s anger drives men away and she spends the story learning how to cope with it. She meets Frank and thinks all is well with the world, but then discovers his infidelity. If I don’t have her revert to Livid Milly, where can I go? Well, since her personal journey was about learning to cope without anger and fear, I might have her see the situation for what it is—a close call where she almost married a douche. Instead of becoming enraged as everyone in the church expects, she could burst out laughing and wish Gladys good luck with the scumbag.
The events of the story are the same, but the change in her outlook on life informs her reaction.
On the other hand, if you liked the ending of the original example, where Milly loses her mind and kills everyone, then that story should start with Milly as shy and unsure of herself, maybe taken advantage of and abused. Eventually she can’t take any more and turns on her persecutors (an example of this kind of story would be Stephen King’s Carrie).
I’m using quite extreme examples to show the differences in stark contrast, but it doesn’t have to be quite so over the top. The key point is to have your MC changed by the experiences they go through during the story so they end up in a different mental state from where they were at the start.
Often, you will find that the first scene will naturally contain the character’s state of mind, although it may be buried or the scene might be a bit dull. If your character wakes up and feels crappy about going to work, then that shows he is unhappy with his life and feels stuck in a rut. But waking up and brushing his teeth isn’t a very dynamic opening, so the trick is to transfer that same sentiment into a more interesting scene.
Maybe he’s at the office hating what he does—still sounds quite dull. Or he could be out in the field on assignment—opportunities now starting to open up. Maybe he’s in a client’s small plane and the client ahs a heart attack at the controls. My point is his lack of enthusiasm for his job can take place anywhere I choose. And because I have a handle on what the character’s about, even though a reader might not immediately associate a man screaming as the plane he’s in plummets to the ground as being about not liking your job, if I know, then I can use it to create a satisfying ending to the story.
That’s not to say the way it ends is preordained. He could get a new job he likes, he could find a better reason to like the job he has, he could even accept his life as it is because of the things happening in the rest of his life—or myriad other options.
The actual specifics of what happens and how it goes down are still completely open to whatever you can come up with, but knowing where you need to get your character to mentally can help guide you. It’s that process of change that readers react to and find engaging.
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