Few things are more disappointing than making it all the way through a story, falling in love with a character, the tension ratcheting up and up, and then… the author can’t land the story’s ending.
The ending lands with all the grace of a skydiving wildebeest minus a parachute.
- Unfulfilled promises to a reader
- Tension is resolved too early.
- The beginning of the story doesn’t match the end of the story.
Let’s break these down one at a time.
You can’t land the ending if you don’t fulfill your promises.
When you start a story, whether you realize it or not, you make an awful lot of promises to your reader.
You promise a character, a character arc, genre expectations, world-building, setting, conflict, and a resolution. And these are just the primary promises. Tucked in between the dialogue and exposition are a host of other tiny promises you make to your reader about themes and subplots, side characters, red herrings, and any number of other story details.
You promise the reader that if you draw their attention to something, it will pay off in the end. If they invest their time and emotional energy into your story, they’ll have a satisfying experience when closure is reached.
Our everyday lives are chaotic. Tumultuous. And we all know there’s no such thing as closure in our daily lives.
But in fiction, there is.
And we, as humans, crave it. We want the neat and tidy ending. There’s a chemical reaction in our brain that releases feel-good neurotransmitters when we reach a satisfying point in a book or story.
Why do you think we return again and again?
Major promises make for major landings.
If you’ve read widely across genres, you know there’s a big difference in the way a romance novel is structured as compared to a mystery. A science fiction story is different from fantasy.
Can you blend them together and mash them up? Certainly. But you still have to address certain promises.
For example, in a science fiction story, there will be a future technology not available today, and this technology will be pivotal to the plot. The future technology will influence the main characters and introduce a conflict into their everyday lives.
In fantasy, magic or some form of the supernatural must be present. You can’t write a fantasy novel and then have everything be as it is in our day to day lives. That’s not fantasy.
So when you start a story as a romance, a reader expects a happily-ever-after. You can try to write a romance without one, but your readers are going to be unsatisfied with your ending. That’s why they’re reading romance after all. If they wanted sad or horrible endings, they would have chosen a different genre.
Characters have to change over the course of your story. If they remain static, unchanging, a reader will feel unsatisfied at the end. Seeing a character’s growth is a fundamental part of telling a story. Take it away at your peril.
There must be conflict. If you’ve ever read a story where there is no conflict, you were probably bored out of your mind. There is a small percentage of the population who likes to read sweet stories about cats sitting on ledges in the sun. But that’s a very tiny percentage. Something has to be wrong. How wrong differs drastically. But there has to be a problem for your character to overcome, and by the end of the story, this situation is resolved. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but it has to reach some resolution.
Minor promises add up to meaningful promises that must be fulfilled for the story to land.
“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” – Anton Chekhov
This is the famous Chekhov’s gun.
If you put a detail into the plot in the opening, you must use it before the end of your story. Otherwise, the attentive reader is left wondering what happened to that piece of the puzzle.
Readers like to put 2+2 together on their own. So when you give them a clue, intentionally or not, they leap ahead, putting the pieces together in their mind. When the story is resolved and doesn’t utilize all the clues, they feel cheated.
If your character makes a big deal out of a power word in the first third of the story, he must use that power word to defeat the major villain in the resolution.
If your heroine slams a steak knife point first into a chopping block in the opening paragraph, she darn well better stab someone by the end.
If your romantic interest doodles a name on a piece of paper, we have to find out whose name he wrote.
Get my drift?
Let’s talk about narrative tension and why it’s an essential part of landing a story’s end.
I’m from the South. I grew up with my Mama dragging me out of bed before sunrise to pick beans, squash, okra, and a whole host of other vegetables. It was far more than a family of four could eat so we’d can it.
My Mama would get out the pressure cooker–a giant, old-fashioned stainless steel vat of a thing with dials and spouts every which a way. I was terrified of it, to tell the truth, mainly because before she got it good and hot, my mother would sit my sister and me down and give us the same speech.
“Girls, that pressure cooker is dangerous. It gets hot. And I mean, hot. But more than that, it fills up with steam. And steam can explode.”
We’d nod along, all the while staring over her shoulder at this terrible, hot, steam-creating pressure cooker, my Mama had such a healthy fear of.
“Now, if I say to get outside or run.” And she’d get even more serious here, dropping her chin to her chest, as if adding more chins to the mix would make her warnings stick in our memories. “You run. Whatever you’re doing drop it and run outside. D’you hear me?”
I’ve always wondered how many of those old pressure cookers actually blew up. They got hot all right. You could hear the canning jars full of green beans or squash clattering inside like they wanted to jump out and run too. Steam would whistle out the top in a shriek.
And when the Bell Blue Book of Canning said the pressure cooker had properly killed whatever botulism or salmonella might be living in the jars, my mother would back us away, and oh so carefully and systematically unlock the system of levers holding the pressure cooker’s lid in place. She would pause for just a moment before taking the lid off as if bracing herself for whatever might happen in that split second when she lifted the lid. Had the steam really dissipated? Did a jar break? Would glass explode everywhere?
My sister and I would watch my mama, her arms engulfed in enormous oven mitts, as she lifted the lid, and….
Just a quiet whoosh of air lifting her hair off her face before she sat the lid down on the counter.
All that tension. All that pressure.
Just like that.
Stories are the same way.
If you let the pressure off too early, there’s nothing left for your ending and it falls flat.
Certain story elements release tension. When a character cries, screams, or has sex. All that tension…
You want to keep the pressure cranking all the way until your resolution. Then call it quits and get out of there.
For an end to be land effectively, it has to match the story’s beginning.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the slush pile when a story starts as one thing and ends as another.
For example, a story starts with a man sitting on a stump contemplating nature and his farm for five pages. But on page six, HAHA! The author has tricked us! Aliens appear and take over the world!
Or a first person point of view story appears to be a neglected child trapped in a cage and treated in a horrible manner, but in the last line, we’re told HAHAH! The main character is a dog, and this is perfectly appropriate all along. NO. It’s not. It’s still a horrible story that made me think the author wanted me to suffer along with a child trapped in a cage. Pulling a switcheroo in the last line isn’t a twist ending. It’s an entirely different ending altogether.
The moral is this:
If you’re going to have aliens, introduce the aliens, or at least, the possibility of aliens in your world, on page one.
If I’m reading a story about a dog, tell me on page one that I’m reading a story about a dog. My mindset when reading about dogs and abused children are drastically different.
If you’re writing a supernatural thriller, I need to know in the beginning that this is a world in which supernatural things exist.
If you start a story as a fantasy, don’t pull a switcheroo on the last page, pull the curtain back, and say TA-DA, it’s really all done with machines.
But..but…what about twist endings?
Successful twist endings must be set up properly. Merely introducing the concept at the eleventh hour won’t work. Your reader will feel cheated, and your ending will flop.