Reading for Writers 101: Is Your Story Ending ‘Right’?

BookCover-MockingjayI read the first book of The Hunger Games series when it came out six years ago. Then I read the next one when it was released. Before the third and final book of the series arrived, I pre-ordered the box set.

And put it on my shelf. For years.

It’s not that I didn’t want to read it. I did. It’s just that the books literally take me away from the world for hours. I never seemed to have a whole day free to read Mockingjay. And, who am I kidding, maybe I was just scared for it to be over. Why? Because endings are hard. What if I was let down?

I stress about endings in my own writing. Is the ending impactful enough to touch readers’ hearts? Is the ending surprising enough to blow readers’ minds? Is it satisfying enough to live up to readers’ expectations? Is the ending right?

Right. This is the hardest requirement to determine. When plotting a story, there seem to be so many ways it could end, but there’s only one right way and it all comes down to the hero.

So did the Hunger Games let me down or did the ending feel right? Here’s what I think… [Warning: spoilers coming.]

First, the world Suzanne Collins set up is brutal and realistic. Humans have proven throughout history to be capable of atrocious cruelty towards their fellow man, and the past makes it clear that everything is not solved even if “the good guys” win the war. So I had no expectations of a perfectly happy ending. Second, the heroine Collins’ created is a prickly personality driven by a need to do what she thinks is right not what is nice or expected. Because of that, Katniss constantly defies authority. She never intends to become a rebel, but she’s naturally rebellious.

Throughout the series, Katniss battles with what is right, who to trust, and when to rebel. This all comes to a head in the final pages of Mockingjay when she kills the person we don’t expect. But it had to be done. It was the only way to free Panem from The Hunger Games. And only Katniss could do it.

As for how the love triangle wrapped up, this was inevitable. I admit I was a member of Team Gale for the first two books, but in Mockingjay it becomes obvious that Gale isn’t the right partner for a PTSD suffering Katniss. Only Peeta understands. Their end reunion isn’t particularly romantic, but it’s true to Katniss’s personality – she’s never been spontaneous or lovey-dovey, so it makes sense that a relationship would take time to grow with Peeta and not be instantly awesome.

So yes, the ending of The Hunger Games trilogy felt right. Resolving it differently wouldn’t make sense for the hero. Katniss was never going to lead Panem – she didn’t want to be a leader or be responsible for people. Katniss was never going to end up with Gale – living through The Hunger Games had changed her too much from the girl she was in the woods.

Yet if the ending was right, why did some people dislike it? Well, “like” is subjective. People enjoy different kinds of stories, and one story won’t please every reader. The only thing authors can do is ensure the ending is earned and true to character.

3 Key Steps to Make an Ending Right

  1. Set up that the hero has the skills to win the battle all along so that when they win, it feels earned. For example, if Katniss had always been a crappy shot with a bow and arrow but in the final moments made a perfect shot to kill the president, that ending would be unearned. A hero can develop this winning skill over the course of the story, but it cannot come out of nowhere to save the day.
  2. Respect the hero. Don’t make her do something because you need the story to turn out a certain way. Think of her as a real person and ask what would she really do? Or if you really need her to do that thing that doesn’t jive with her personality, go back to page one and redevelop her into the hero you need her to be for the story’s end.
  3. Obey cause and effect. Characters can change and surprise readers, but the authors have to lay the groundwork. I was surprised when Katniss shot Coin instead of Snow (effect), but it works because Coin reinstated The Hunger Games (cause). That was why Katniss did it – she had proof that Panem would be no better under Coin than Snow and therefore Coin was the real threat who had to be stopped.

Even if you apply these three steps, endings are hard. You’ll never please everyone! And you shouldn’t try. But as long as you’re true to your characters, the ending won’t be wrong.

 

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Next Up from Heather… I discover the Mirror Moment that will help me write my hero’s character arc.

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Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a cartoon screenwriter, YA novelist, small town fugitive, and late-blooming gymnast. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

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