How To Know It's Time To Write The End

How to Know When to Write The End

How To Know It's Time To Write The EndI wrote my first book when I was fourteen–and I had no idea when to write The End. I printed the manuscript in December 1999 (just in case Y2K crashed the world and I lost my beautiful story). This was a great accomplishment, of course. I’d just finished writing a book. Except, it turned out, I wasn’t finished.

My imagination just wouldn’t stop churning. The story kept right on going after my proud “THE END.”

And going and going… I kept working on that thing for yet another year, and it ended up tripling in size before I was done.

loved that story. I just couldn’t let it go. I lived and breathed it to the point that sometimes it felt there would never be an end.

Sound familiar?

When Your Story Doesn’t Want to End

As authors, it can sometimes be difficult to know when to end a beloved story. As long as our characters are entertaining us, we keep writing them. We have so much material to write about! That’s the good part.

The not-so-good part is realizing your word-count ticker in Word is starting to look like the National Debt Clock.

US Debt Clock

Your book is getting mammoth, and there’s no end in sight. You start panicking just a little. After all, you know you have to end this thing sooner or later. But where? How do you know when to end your story?

This is a question I receive quite a bit. Not too long ago, when I asked all you Wordplayers, “What Would You Like to Learn From Me?” (in my poll about my upcoming online writing class–which, by popular vote, is going to be all about Crafting Amazing Character Arcs), Lance Haley chimed in with his version of this quandary:

I am tackling a rather difficult topic in my first novel…. Of course, that means covering a lot of turf, which makes it even more problematic…. It’s not a question of “where do I start?” It’s a question of “where do I stop?” No one wants to read the equivalent of War and Peace again in the 21st Century, even if the topic warrants such depth and breadth. Nor am I some aspiring Tolstoy!!!

This Is Why It’s Sometimes Hard to Know When to Write the End

Lance’s question is a sound one. Sometimes, like John Irving (who writes his last sentence first), you start out with a clear understanding of the ending you’re working toward. But other times, you’re just following the characters around to see what happens, and you don’t know what you’re working toward.

Find Out What Your Character Wants Then Follow Him Ray Bradbury

This is true both of pantsers, who start their first drafts without knowing the endingand of outliners, who must necessarily navigate their outlines in the same way. Another question I receive frequently is, “How do I know when to stop outlining?” The simplest answer is: “When you reach the end.”

But, as we can already see, sometimes that’s just a bit too simplistic.

5 Ways to Find the Right Place to End Your Story

Fortunately, there are several concrete questions you can ask yourself to find exactly when to write the end to your story.

1. When Does the Conflict End?

This is the single most important factor in finding your story’s ending. As we discussed a few weeks ago, conflict is at the heart of plot. No matter how fascinating you find your character’s meanderings, the moment they cease to meander within a cohesive, forward-moving plot, that’s the moment you no longer have a story. (Remember, plot and character must work together to create story.)

However, it’s also important to remember that conflict is more than merely altercation. Disconnected arguments that exist only within the bubble of an individual scene aren’t enough to create plot. The conflict this question is speaking about is your main conflict–the conflict that powers your entire story. The moment that ends, so should your story.

2. What’s Your Dramatic Question?

Maybe you’re not sure how to identify your story’s main conflict.

Let’s narrow this down. To identify the conflict at the heart of your story, you must first identify your story’s dramatic question. This question is the driving force of your story. It’s what piques reader interest in the very beginning and what keeps them reading to the end in search of the answer. The moment this question is answered, readers no longer have a reason to be engaged by the plot–and the story ends.

Think of the dramatic question as the backbone of your story. Strip away all the subplots and nonessentials, and what remains should be the dramatic question.

For example:

Shawshank Redemption Escape Tunnel

Raiders of the Lost Ark Indiana Jones Nazis Steven Spielberg

  • Will Maxim’s second wife escape the shadow of his mysteriously dead first wife? (Rebecca)

Rebecca Daphne DuMaurier Alfred Hitchcock Joan Fontaine

  • Will the man and his son survive the apocalypse? (The Road)

The Road Cormac McCarthy Viggo Mortensen

The shorthand form of this question is simply: What’s going to happen? Once that question is answered, the conflict is effectively finished.

3. What Is Your Character’s Goal?

Still not sure what your story’s dramatic question is? Take a look at your protagonist’s goal. This is the engine that powers your story’s conflict and plot. What does your character want? This goal is the finish line at the end of your story. The conflict will raise obstacles between the character and that finish line–which will create the plot.

The moment there are no more obstacles between your character and that finish line–the moment he reaches his goal–that’s the moment your story’s dramatic question is answered and your conflict ends.

4. What’s Your Climactic Moment?

That point I mentioned above–where your character reaches the finish line and the conflict ends–that is your Climactic Moment. The Climactic Moment is the final major structural plank in your story. It will be followed only by the Resolution, in which the loose ends are tied off.

If you’re unsure whether or not your story is ready to reach its end, look around for the Climactic Moment. This will come at the end of your story’s Climax (the last eighth of your book) and will cap the final head-on confrontation between your protagonist and whatever antagonistic force has been placing obstacles between the protagonist and his goal.

Very often, this antagonistic force will be another person, but it can also simply be a false mindset or circumstance the protagonist finally has to face. The protagonist will either overcome it or be overcome by it. Either way, the conflict ends–and the story has no business carrying on much longer after that.

5. Have You Fulfilled Your Story Structure?

With the advantage of hindsight, I can look back on my never-ending first novel and see the reason it turned into the Energizer Bunny was I had no concept of story structure at that time. That novel was just a random, rambling collection of events. The reason I didn’t know when to write the end of the story’s main conflict was because it didn’t have a main conflict. It didn’t have an overarching dramatic question, spurred by an overarching character goal and pointing to a definitive Climactic Moment.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

In short, it had no structure.

One of the great things about structure is that it provides a solid map for your journey through your story. If you’re aware of its structure, then you always know exactly where you are within the story itself, regardless its length.

Did you just pass the Moment of the Truth, where your protagonist experiences a revelation that shifts him from reaction to action within the conflict? Then you know you just passed the Midpoint and you still have fully half your story to go.

But if you just rounded the corner of the Third Plot Point–your character’s dark night of the soul–then you know you’re headed into the final quarter of the book and the end is now in sight.

By the same token, if you can look at your story’s structure and realize you passed the Climactic Moment fifty pages ago, then you know the story should probably have ended quite a ways back.

Bonus Question: How Long Should Your Book Be?

Sometimes when authors ask the question, “How do I know when it’s time to end my book?”, what they’re really asking is: “How long should my book be?”

Of Human Bondage W Somerset MaughamThese are two distinct questions. Finding the proper ending for your book actually has nothing to do with its length. I just finished W. Somerset Maugham’s classic Of Human Bondage–which took nearly 800 pages to reach its proper end–while many short stories find the answers to their dramatic questions in just a page or two.

Now, as we discussed over the last couple of weeks in my two-part series about how to trim your book’s word count: just because your story got windy on you doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be that long. If you find yourself competing with Maugham, you might want to at least consider trimming some fat.

But–and this is super-duper important–the advisability of trimming your word count does not mean you should end your story before its proper ending. The structural cohesion of your book is what’s most important. Please don’t take a completely structured 900-word novel and divide it into thirds to create a “trilogy.” What you’ll end up with is not three complete books, but rather a mish-mosh of improper structure that fails to create a single whole story in any one book.

If you find the question you’re really asking is whether or not your book is turning out too long, you can start by examining common word-count recommendations for your genre. But don’t mess with your structure.

Sometimes it can be incredibly hard to realize you have to stop writing these character you’ve grown to love so much. But remember: readers need both character and plot. Once you identify the moment your plot ends, you can be certain you’ve found exactly the right spot to end your story in order to gain its maximum emotional and intellectual resonance.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you ever struggled with knowing when to write the end to your book? What did you do? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. BROUHAHA…I found it! Sometimes I hunt for your posts like a bloodthirsty wolf in the wild. Then when found, I let out a satisfying howl. 🙂 What a TREAT.

    First off, this is an excellent topic. THANK YOU.
    I can’t believe you wrote your first book at 14. Wowsers. There’s another author I met, Karen A. Wyle, who wrote her first one at age 10! Amazing. And I totally remember Y2K!

    I love the Ray Bradbury quote. “Find out what your character wants then follow him”. YES, I absolutely love it to pieces. And it rings so true to everything I’ve learned thus far. Knowing when our story ends is related to our knowledge and application of story structure. That’s what I’ve taken away from this post.

    I really appreciated the simplicity of the examples you provided for the dramatic question. Sounds a lot simpler than imagined. Sometimes we make things way too complicated. Simplicity is bliss.
    Character+Plot+Structure+Theme are all related and make a nice sandwich. I might be overanalyzing this, but what is the relationship between the dramatic question and the thematic question?

    THE BONUS QUESTION:
    This is the cherry on top of the spoils for me. YUM. How long should your book be? What you said about not chopping up a story into a trilogy makes a lot of sense. It would dilute the necessary cohesiveness and water down the emotional/intellectual resonance. Which to me, comes back to applying what we’ve been learning about structure.

    Cool. I’ll be back with a more subjective response soon. Right now there is enough conflict in my house. The dramatic question is, will Benjamin put the kids to bed? Stay tuned……………I’ll let you know when the conflict is over and the story goal is reached.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The dramatic question deals with the plot/conflict. The thematic question deals with, of course, the theme–which ultimately is found in the crux of the character arc. The thematic question would be along the lines of, “Is hope worth the pain?” (from Shawshank Redemption).

      As for how long your book should be, there’s no black-and-white answer to that, other than the decidedly vague: As long as it needs to be. However, you can follow general guidelines for your genre.

  2. Funny I signed up. but never got a notification for follow up posts. It normally works though. Oh well.

    I have a rough idea what the end will be. Thinking it will probably be a series of books to follow. The main story goal is under construction so to speak. Originally he was avoiding his responsibility to take up rule and become the heir. Leaving his kingdom his shambles. He would resist, run, hide etc then come to his senses later. But now I’m not so sure or convinced that’s it. With conflict in view, I”m considering taking a different approach. He still struggles to kill his own brother to become the heir…but what if he faced more of dilemma? By law he must not only fight him, he must put him to death. In honor of the tradition. What if he was framed by someone to purposely lose? What if they threatened to kill someone he loves? Now he is faced with two impossible decisions. Either way someone he is close to dies. Which will he chose? The kingdom and its rightful heir? Losing his brother in the process. Or save the life of his loved one sacrificing his own life. Which of these two sound more appealing? Or has the most potential for emotional/intellectual resonance? Otherwise it will be hard know what he really wants and for readers to follow him.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      These are great questions, which would all be interesting to explore. Giving a character one impossible decision is always good. Two impossible decisions takes it to a whole new level.

  3. Excellent post that prompted me to reexamine goals, conflict, and antagonist. Fortunately, after having worked my way through ‘Structuring Your Novel’ (and almost all posts related to structure and outline), I can identify those pieces quickly. Yay! I couldn’t when I finished the first draft…

    I knew where the story ended for the female MC (the client/patient), but the ending was unsatisfying for the male MC (therapist). Not surprising as he wasn’t even supposed to be in the story in the first place!

    After learning his back story – why he’s so dedicated to helping this client, in spite of the ethical dilemma he creates, I have a much better idea of where – and how the story has to end for him.

    Lucky for me, it coincides with her ending! Now, I just need to go into the feelings, put my face to the fire as Robert Olen Butler says, and write it. Might need some ice cream for assistance 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Can’t go wrong with ice cream. 😉 It always fascinates me how we often instinctively write *almost* the right thing, even when it was completely unplanned from the beginning. Our subconscious often understands the story much better than we do. Our job is just to train our conscious to stay out the way.

  4. Hi Katie,

    Wow, there is so much I could write about your post. I will however keep it short and precise. Thank you so much for the informative, motivational and true inspiring Post above that you shared with us.

    I can truly relate to what you have shared. It would be more appropriate to write that I can really “feel” what you have written. I seem to know the end of a story before I begin the writing journey. It is difficult to describe what I feel during the writing process.

    I wish you continued success with your projects and endeavors.

    Best wishes

    Steve

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think I know exactly the feeling you’re talking about. I refer to it as “the writer’s gut instinct,” and in my experience, it’s one of the most powerful forces in art. As long as we’re in sync with it, it rarely steers us wrong.

  5. Very true. What matters is the conflict, the arc, the character’s goal… how the structure can unify that into one “story” and ending it when that’s done.

    Besides, if a story is falling into multiple stages of conflicts–and the structure says that’s really what it is–it’s probably better to clarify those separate arcs and call it a series. Or if scenes wander too far off to the side, you don’t have to destroy them; some can be recycled into whole new tales, and others look great on an author website as “hidden scenes.” (Filmmakers have been using that one ever since they realized DVDs let a buyer pick and choose when to watch what better than they could on a VCR.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Indeed. I think this is actually one of the fundamental problems faced by authors who struggle to find the end: they’ve actually got more than one story trying to happen within the same book.

  6. I’m an unapologetic pantser. I’ve tried outlining, but two things got in the way. The first was when my character drove my intentions into a different direction and I just had to follow to see where he was going. The other problem is common with pantsers: we want to discover the story as we go. We want to be surprised and excited and curious; and we want to fall in love. I can’t PLAN to fall in love.
    That said, I learned (after finishing about a dozen novel length unpublishable stories) to aim for a planned ending. This way I can aim the protagonist in the right direction, yet follow him to see how he gets there.
    Does this make sense?
    And writing this way – just as with the most detailed of plotters – I know when I reach the end.
    After that it’s just a matter of tidying up any cluttered verbosity and getting rid of any unnecessary side-trips.
    Yes, these days I know where the ending comes before I reach it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I wonder if perhaps the fundamental difference between pantsers and plotters is that pantsers view the first draft process in a right-brain way, while plotters view it in more of a left-brain way. Inevitably, we’re *both* discovering the story as we go. The only difference is that pantsers discover it during the first draft, while plotters discover it earlier on.

      • To me there are a few key questions that determine my flavor of writing:

        An ability to just wing it. I started out “pantsying” the story, got panic about halfway because I didn’t knew where I was going and started to outline in order to figure that out. (And nothing in that first “draft” remains, so in that sense pantsying was a bit of a waste…)

        An ability to handle more than a 100 000 chaotic words in a first draft. I get asthma from that much chaos in a first draft, and trying to bring order to it? Changing that much? *Shiver*

        An ability to switch my inspiration/imagination on and off at will. I think a lot of pantsers may need the whole first draft to keep the creative engine running, while outliners are just fine to switch it on for a single scene and do well at that.

        A willingness to have plans fail on you and to have to revise them several times. Another thing I think an outliner has to be good at is to accept that plans are going to fail (most plans do at first contact with reality!) and that they need to be revised in order to give the characters a fair chance to influence the story. If failing plans depresses you, not having a plan from the start is one way to go…

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Your experience sounds very much like the one that turned me into an inveterate outliner myself!

    • Yes, I thought I was the only pantser here. More like a semi- or reformed pantser.

  7. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    The battery people say it’s a good thing.

  8. I wrote my first novel in 1981. I’ve written and published many more since. Those characters are still part of my life, and I’ll think of them if something in the real world reminds me of them.

    This is my way of saying it’s okay to write “The End” for characters you care about because they aren’t dead, they are living their lives in your imagination.

    If you are very lucky, they will also live in your reader’s imaginations for a long time, too.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely. And if you never write the end for one set of characters, how can you ever move on to make friends with the new ones?

  9. Jeanette says:

    This post is interesting and informative. As I planned out the main structure of my first novel, I decided how I wanted it to end. But as I proceeded from scene to scene, things changed a bit. However, I kept the original goal in my mind to end the story in a certain way. For me, it’s a matter of ensuring that the scenes flow and are connected to get to that end point. Thanks for this timely post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I always recommend that authors be willing to be flexible within the confines of their outlines. If a better idea comes along, we’d be crazy not to follow it!

  10. Oh my gosh, I howled reading your description of your first book. I did the same. I was sailing the high seas with no idea how to sail. A compass? What’s that? It was the same with my writing. Structure? What’s that? Word count? Who cares?

    Two things helped. One was learning structure (thanks to your book) and many other essential lessons. The other was learning to write short stories. They’re a different beast in many ways, but they also forced me to constrain my tendency to pile one story atop another. I lamented those freewheeling days until the learning took hold (and continues to take hold). Now, I’d never go back. Brainstorming a tale is great fun, and still is, but crafting a coherent story a reader will enjoy is more rewarding.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      But those first novels sure were fun, weren’t they? 😀 Interestingly enough, I cut my teeth on short stories as well: about 200 of them. But I’ve written hardly a one since.

  11. I don’t think I’ve ever struggled to know when to STOP, but I’ve struggled to get there. Probably one of the advantages to writing mysteries, when the case is solved, you can have a few scenes to tidy things up, but then you’re DONE. My most recent book ended up being 170,000 words (which I’m slowly trimming down) and I hit a point where I knew I needed to be wrapping it up, but there was just more story to tell than I was prepared for (even with a loose outline both written and in my head.) I hit 130,000, then 140,000, then 150,000, and it just kept going! But everything eventually led me to THE END. And I just have to figure out how to trim down what I have. 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There are definitely certain types of stories–romance is another that comes to mind–that have more definitive endings than others. But no matter what type of story someone is writing, if you can identify the main conflict, then the moment that conflict is resolved, you know you’ve found your story’s ending.

  12. This is one of the things I struggle with. I’ll start writing and befoe I know it, I have this massive (100k plus) with no ending.

    There are so many tips, ideas, and books on starting a novel but no one really talks (at least not in depth) on how to end your story. I’ve started outlining my stories to see if I could get a better grasp on things. And it’s really helping!

    This is a great post, at a time that I really need it. Just wanted to say thanks.
    Sasha

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great! I’m so glad the timing was good for you. I think the reason we see such a bulk of resources devoted to the beginning is because there are *so* many things we have to get right in the early chapters. Endings are hard too, no question, but if we set the story up right in the previous chapters, the ending will just fall into place around it. If you find yourself struggling with an ending for your story, the first place to look often isn’t the ending itself, but the story leading up to it.

  13. I wrote ‘The End’ for the first time on Sunday. What an awesome feeling.

    I always knew where the story was going, and had outlined in a fair amount of detail. Did the protagonist come into his abilities and prevent the antagonist from achieving his goals and unleashing a demon upon the world?

    Well, you’ll have to buy the book to find out 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Woohoo! You go! 😀 That is always a tremendous accomplishment. Now I’ll just have to look for your name in the NYC bestsellers’ list. 😉

  14. This is an interesting perspective, since I have always started with the idea of an ending and struggled to figure out how to get there. It’s strangely helpful to read advice for a problem I don’t have — it expands my perspective of the writing process. Really interesting post.

  15. You are just tops! Such a good post. I wish length were my problem haha. Thank you for the shout out. 😀

  16. Lance Haley says:

    Too funny!

    I read the tagline thinking this is one I really need to read . . . well no kidding Lance!!! :)))

  17. Great post, as always!

    One thing that I am struggling with right now is if, how, and when to break my story into multiple books. I suspect that it may have too much content to squeeze into one book, but it is hard to tell while outlining. Do you have any suggestions for determining whether your story is actually multiple stories before you write it?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Size is definitely a factor. You’ll also want to consider individual strings of conflict. Are there clear divisions in the conflict, where certain aspects are tied off before the rest of the story moves on? If so, those may signal good places to break the story into different books.

      • Thank you so much for your feedback.

        Right now what I consider ‘book one’ involves the character failing to achieve the overarching goal and being banished. I think this would make a logical break since the setting completely changes and his new goal is to get back to the original city (which takes a fair amount of time), before he can complete the overarching goal.

  18. For me, the main plot is about a superhero named StarGirl who fights crime, and continues to fight crime in the second book, though in two books she deals with flaws like lack of self-confidence and not trusting her instincts. She deals with robbers, aliens and scientists that want to turn her into a super-soldier against her own will and clone her a lot.

  19. I might’ve forgot to mention that in the first book, Vance and StarGirl kiss, but the battle continues in the second.

Trackbacks

  1. […] We talked above about beginnings, but how about your ending? Ash Krafton asks if you know your ending before writing or not, James Scott Bell has notes on the sacrificial ending, and K.M. Weiland shows how to know when to write The End. […]

  2. […] Weiland discusses how to know when to write ‘the end.’ Helping writers become authors. Later, she wonders, are you telling the right story? On her author […]

  3. […] know when to end your story? This link will give you some […]

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