Do You Know the Two Ingredients in a Perfect Book Ending?

This week’s video talks about how authors must magically combine inevitability and unexpectedness to give readers a perfect book ending.

Video Transcript:

Whether your story is a tragedy, a comedy, a “happily ever after” jaunt, or any variety and combination thereof, the one thing you want it to be is resonant. You want readers to close the book with a feeling of satisfaction. Whether they’re laughing, crying, or just thoughtful, you want them to be able to give their heads a little nod and say, “Yep, that’s exactly how it should have ended.” However, the great dichotomy of a good ending is the fact that you also want to them to say, “Wow, where did that come from?”

Inevitability and unexpectedness are the two ingredients necessary in every perfect ending. And yet they’re completely incompatible. How do you give readers the ending they’re expecting while still keeping it from being predictable? It’s very easy to play it safe and end up with a story that’s predictable from beginning to end. And, depending on your genre and your audience, you might be able to get away with this. It’s also relatively easy to throw your readers a left hook that comes out of nowhere and leaves them stunned with its unexpectedness. However, you’re less likely to be able to get away this. Readers expect us to play fair and that means any so-called unexpected elements have to make sense within the context of the story and have to be built of existing story elements.

The trick to successfully combining inevitability and unexpectedness lies primarily in two different factors: foreshadowing and complications. If we can foreshadow our resolution, the readers will feel the ending was inevitable upon closing the book. When we combine that subtle foreshadowing with enough logical plot complications to distract our readers, we can present them with the possibility of so many potential outcomes that they’ll never be able to completely predict the one we finally give them. It’s a delicate balance, but getting it right can make all the difference in the success of your story.

Tell me your opinion: Is your ending both unexpected and inevitable?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Thanks, that’s a good tip. But I don’t think we really want them to say “Wow, where did that come from?” when they are done the book, do we? More like “Wow, I didn’t see that coming!”. That is, it should be unexpected, but at the same time it should make sense. The reader should be able to look back and see that the clues were pointing in that direction but they missed them, or were cleverly misdirected to expect a different outcome. This is perhaps most important in mysteries and thrillers.

  2. Well, one beta-reader predicted the general ending from about the very start, but enjoyed the way I handled it once he got there. I don’t know too many fantasy stories wherein evil is NOT destroyed by the end, so I’ll take what he gave me ^_^

  3. Hmm, the last great film I saw that had an ending like this was “El Secreto de sus OJos” (The Secret in Their Eyes). Won’t tell you what it is though…

    • The Secret in Their Eyes had one of the most shocking endings ever. I bought it about 4 months ago because I found it in a list of movies with surprise endings. It didn’t disappoint – great movie.

  4. First of all, I love this post and this blog ( my first time visiting it)!

    Hm… by the end of a really good book, what happens TO the main character pales in comparison to HOW THE CHARACTER FEELS.

    What I mean is that I’m OK with endings that have something bad happen to the main character (such as their death) AS LONG AS the character finds some kind of peace/resolution.

    Now, as far as throwing readers a left hook, I LOVE that!

    When I’m reading, I love to be totally surprised by the unexpected (this is why I love a good script by JJ Abrams!)

    So a shocking ending coupled with the character’s personal issues resolved is the perfect ending for me!

    Thanks again for this great post!

  5. Oh so true! When I wrote my first bok, The Dragon Forest, I knew it was the first in a trilogy. So, the ending had to satisfy yet intrigue the reader into wondering what would happen in the next book.

    I honestly found that writing the ending to the first book in a series rather easy! I have completed the second book and will start on the last book later this year. Now THAT ending might be a little harder since it has to completely satisfy the readers without leaving them wondering.

  6. @R.E.: You’re right – that’s a better way of putting it. Nothing’s better than seeing the pieces fall into place at the end and realizing they were staring you in the face all along.

    @Daniel: The expectation that good will triumph over evil is usually one of the generalities fulfilled in the inevitable half of the equation. How we destroy that evil should be unexpected.

    @Matthew: I’ll have to check it out sometime!

    @Paula: Totally agree. I dislike stories that tie up all the loose ends too perfectly. I like it when the hero emerges battered and maybe even broken. But I always want a sense of a hope, a sense of moving forward, in even the saddest of endings.

    @Ruth: The endings to early books in a series are similar to chapter breaks – only more definitive. We have a lot more room to leave things hanging. In fact, we *want* to leave enough hanging so the reader will go nuts waiting for that next book to come out.

  7. My 1st book…seems to be cliff-hanger ending…which maybe is a good thing as I’m hoping to start on book 2 in the series. I feel like the end is inevitable, because good wins over evil with a little foreshadowing of more evil to come;) At least that’s my thought. Hopefully readers will enjoy that part of it:) I like what Paul said…to somehow end up with a sense of hope in the end even when the hero has been battered and bruised!
    Thanks for the post…as always very helpful!

  8. “The endings to early books in a series are similar to chapter breaks – only more definitive. We have a lot more room to leave things hanging. In fact, we *want* to leave enough hanging so the reader will go nuts waiting for that next book to come out.”

    Ha. I think this will be the one thing I can’t do with the end of my novel. There’s a second (and terminal) Jinxx novel, but I can’t think of any way to foreshadow the turmoil that drives the 2nd novel’s plot without distracting from the plot of the first novel. The key elements are there in book one, but subtle enough that readers are unlikely to connect them until they read the beginning of book 2.

  9. @Lorna: Most books in a series stand alone as complete story arcs within themselves, as well as being part of a larger whole, so the same rules apply there as with a standalone book.

    @London: As a reader, I’m not a tremendous fan of series. But the thing that keeps me reading, more than any other factor, is simple enjoyment of the characters. If I love your characters, I’ll come back for more, whether you’ve foreshadowed the next book’s plot or not.

  10. Though the endings in my stories seem to be the logical conclusion.. my readers have told me that I introduce surprising twists to the ending.

  11. Great post! I don’t always comment, but I love reading your blog. Thanks for all the tips!

  12. @Gideon: I love twist endings – as long as they play fair.

    @Rhonda: So glad you’re enjoying it! Thanks for stopping by.

  13. Inevitable yet unexpected–this is dead on. I also feel like it should be (in part) somewhat unsatisfying. Too many endings spell it all out, and I find myself thinking more about the endings that satisfy in part but leave me wanting to know more. The books that leave me thinking are the books I’m going to return to.

  14. This is a very timely post!

    Has anyone been following the fan backlash to the abysmal ending to the video game Mass Effect 3? Complete and utter anguish, frustration and anger! Scorn and derision has been heaped upon the game’s creators, Bioware. A campaign to demand a downloadable alternate ending has asked fans to make a contribution to charity to demonstrate that their fury is not just a case of them venting childish feelings of “entitlement”. The last time I looked, the total raised was over $50,000. Others have demanded refunds from Amazon and around a hundred buyer reviews there have given the game only one or two stars, admitting that this low score is entirely due to the unsatisfying ending. Apart from that, they concede, the game is superb.

    Professional games reviewers have tended to miss the point and dismiss the fans’ outrage as a juvenile cry for a “happy” ending. But it’s more than that. Fans who have invested over a hundred dollars in the three games and possibly twice or even three times that number of hours in gameplay have become attached to the characters, invested in the story and eager to see just how the developer would bring its epic tale to the conclusion it deserved.

    The ending they got has been almost universally condemned as badly written and badly executed. There are several reasons why fans feel “cheated” by the ending they were presented with, but this article hits on two of the main reasons: it was “inevitable” only in the sense that the game’s bad guys were bigger and more numerous than the good guys (but aren’t they always?), and “unexpected” only insofar as it had nothing to do with the actions and decisions the player had taken to reach the finale.

    Of course, very few books will be lucky enough to have the number of fans that Mass Effect has (something around 2.5 million) and so very few writers will ever have to face the kind of backlash that Bioware is currently having to endure. The lesson is clear, though. No matter how enthralling or how well written the rest of your masterpiece is, the ending will colour the reader’s perception of the entire work. Get the ending wrong and face the consequences!

  15. To me, an ending should “seem inevitable” but only because we’ve become so involved with the characters and the world that the story shouldn’t have been able to come about in any other way. Of course, we should only feel this because we’ve become that invested in the world the author created and the people inhabiting that world…. If the ending comes out of left field after a serious investment of emotional energy, the “wow, where did that come from” better have been because the reader wasn’t fully paying attention and they can find the answer by rereading a chapter or two.

    But then, that’s me.

  16. @L.B.: I wouldn’t say “unsatisfying,” but I agree that not all the loose ends should be tied off perfectly. I always like a sense that the characters’ lives and, to at least some extent, their trials continue after the story.

    @DAJB: I’m not a gamer, so I’m not familiar with Mass Effect, beyond having heard or seen the title now and again. But what you’ve shared here is a fabulous anecdote, illustrating how important it is for authors to get their endings right. If we’re lucky enough to have readers invent themselves in our stories and *care* about what they’re reading, we have to realize they will take it very personally when we fail to deliver.

    @Eden: I agree. An author’s ability to give readers an unexpected element all comes down to misdirection. All the pieces have to be visible. Technically, the reader *should* be able to figure out what’s going to happen (and, inevitably, at least some of them will). But the author then misdirects their attention so skillfully that they never seen the big picture until the author is ready for them to.

  17. This topic really got me thinking about my third book’s ending. Hmmm, here’s hoping I dream up the conclusion!

  18. One other thing to keep in mind is that the unexpectedness is only good for the first reading. As much as we want to keep the story from being predictable, unexpectedness, by itself, isn’t enough. We ultimately want the ending to be so satisfying that readers will want to experience it over and over again, even when they already know what’s going to happen.

  19. I’m a little slow getting here, but am glad I finally made it. You reinforce what I need to remember as I battle my way to the ending of my current w.i.p. I had an ending in mind until I let my characters wander off in a more interesting direction. Now I’m challenged to pull things together again. “Satisfying yet unpredictable.” I think I need to stick that on my monitor. 🙂

  20. Characters often have ideas of their own – some of the wunderbar, some not so much. That’s why they have us around to sort everything out for them!

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