The thing about writing a novel or film is that it all comes down to the ending. A great ending is what makes a story memorable. All of the books on my bookshelf have unforgettable endings. The books that don’t make the cut may have had fascinating premises, entertaining characters, and intriguing plot twists, but the endings didn’t resonate. It’s like those books lead me to a dead end. I got there, shrugged and went, “Oh, that’s it?” I want a story that ends somewhere remarkable!
So how do you write that? I’ve been pondering this for some time, and believe it or not, I think it comes down to these two things: Character Change and Surprise.
I’ve blogged about the importance of character change in numerous posts, but it bears repeating. A story must change the hero and his life, and the hero changes because he is affected by the events of the story. And if the hero is affected, most likely the reader will be affected deep down inside, and that makes the story unforgettable.
Think about your high school memories. What do you remember? I remember the first time I heard Led Zeppelin – that changed my musical taste forever. I remember my first breakup – lost my childhood best friend in that one. I remember my second boyfriend letting me drive his car before I had my license – but I don’t remember that boy’s name. Why? Because he didn’t affect me (we only dated a few weeks), but learning to drive, that changed my life.
No one can remember every single thing that happens, but if your novel’s ending affects readers, has an impact on their hearts and/or minds, they’ll remember. So if you want your ending to be unforgettable, put your hero (and reader) through a life-altering change.
Stories with an end twist are always memorable, but you don’t have to go all Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects to have a great ending. The key is to build suspense around your hero’s quest in the form of a “will he or won’t he” question. Will he or won’t he win the heart of the girl? Will he or won’t he betray the mob boss? Will he or won’t he solve the case before the murderer strikes again? Then get him into such a pickle that the reader has no idea how the story will resolve. At that point, anything you come up with will be a surprise!
And if you also have a mind-blowing twist, awesome!
You may think this advice sounds pretty basic, and it is, but the majority of novels I read lack these two things, so I thought it was worth mentioning. Sometimes when writing all the complicated plot stuff, we forget the basics. So take this as your reminder. Put your story to the test. By the end, does your character change in a big way that affects his or her life? And did you build up the suspense enough so that the ending surprises the reader? If this story wasn’t your baby, would the ending imprint itself on your brain? Or would you forget it in a few months?
It’s really hard to write unforgettable endings, even when you know this stuff and you’re trying to get it right. I’ve spent years writing countless stories with less-than-stellar resolutions, and I’m just now getting the hang of it. I’ve learned it helps to figure out the ending before I start writing – not every detail, just how the hero will change and what the surprise resolve will be. Armed with these two things, hopefully I’ll never again write a story with a lackluster ending!
What do you think makes an ending unforgettable? Let me know in the Comments!
For more on writing endings, check out 3 Steps to Make an Ending Right – i.e. don’t pull a fast one on the reader by plucking an ending out of thin air!
Next Up from Heather… How writing script treatments can help your story.