Troubleshooting Your Story’s Ending

Hello, everyone, today we’re going to be talking about how to troubleshoot your story’s ending. Today’s post (which is a transcript of the video linked below) is in response to a couple of questions I received about endings. One is from Ayesha Ali:

How about some posts about crafting endings. I just reached the end of a manuscript, and I realized that my character arc and themes weren’t strong enough to craft a compelling ending. I wrote as much as I could, and jotted down the last few lines I’ve been holding on to, but filed it away to look at in another few months. So, whether you have a strong enough arc or not, how do you decide which bits go in the climax? How do you structure on a smaller level those beats? How do you avoid the climax being a string of sequel scenes and explanation?

Another question was from Esther Gonzalez Bertran:

I support this topic, I would like to know more about how to outline a good ending, and how to write a beginning that is reflected in the ending, or is it the other way around?

The #1 Reason Your Ending Doesn’t Work

Over the last couple of months in the last few videos, we’ve talked about beginnings, starting with the importance of setting up character and then with the importance of setting up plot. We touched on how setting up the beginning is always something you’re thinking about as you’re building into the ending. If you know the ending, that can help you set up the beginning. And vice versa, if you’ve done a really good job in the beginning, you can bring that full circle by the time you get to your story’s finale.

The most important thing to understand about troubleshooting your story’s ending is that if the ending doesn’t work, the ending probably is not the problem. The problem is probably that things weren’t set up in the right way throughout the book. The problem could be just that the Third Act isn’t working, but it could also be a problem that goes all the way back to the First Act and to the beginning.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

You have to take a bird’s eye view of how your story is coming together structurally and how that’s building into the ending you want to create. It is important to hold this idea in your head that the ending is in the beginning. Whatever you write in the beginning—even if it’s very far away from wherever your characters get to in the ending, and even in some instances, if you don’t know yet what’s going to happen in the ending—whatever you’ve set up in the beginning, whatever seeds you’ve planted, even down to the imagery sometimes, that setup will create the cohesion and the resonance that needs to come full circle in your story’s ending.

If your ending isn’t working, it’s either because it wasn’t the ending that was actually set up in the beginning or because the beginning and/or subsequent parts of your story failed to set up the ending by the time you get there. Again, the problem with endings usually isn’t something that’s happening in isolation

The Climactic Moment Defines Your Story’s Ending

It’s important to understand what is the function of the ending.

What are you trying to build toward throughout your story’s entire structure? The point of the ending simply is that in the Climactic Moment, your protagonist definitively ends their relationship to the plot goal.

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

Very often, this is because they definitively gain the plot goal (i.e., whatever they’ve been seeking throughout the entire story). It could also be that the antagonist definitively gains the plot goal, keeping the protagonist from having it. In other stories, it can be perhaps that the protagonist has the plot goal within their reach, but they choose to let it go because of their character arc and how they’ve evolved over the course of the story, they realize this is no longer in alignment with who they are and who they’ve become. So they choose to let it go. Regardless, they are no longer in pursuit of the plot goal that they have been moving toward throughout the story.

As a result, there is no longer any reason for there to be obstacles between them in that plot goal. That’s what creates the conflict. Once you have no conflict, you no longer have a plot. No plot, no story. The story is at an end.

The purpose and the focus of your story’s ending is the Climactic Moment and how it definitively determines whether or not your protagonist will get the plot goal they’ve been chasing throughout the entire story.

Analyze Your Story’s Structure to Troubleshoot Your Ending

Once you know what your Climactic Moment will be, that allows you to look back over your story’s entire structure and particularly the main structural beats.

Click to enlarge.

Pull out the main structural beats and look at them in isolation. We’re talking about things like the Inciting Event and the First Plot Point, the Midpoint (or Second Plot Point), and the Third Plot Point. and making sure they all have thematic unity. They should all be about the same thing. They’re all specifically about the character’s relationship to the plot goal that will be decided in the Climactic Moment. Your Climactic Moment is always going to prove what your story is really about.

If all of your structural moments have been about one thing (for example, a relationship plotline), and then the Climactic Moment is about something else (for example, catching a bad guy), that is an instance where the structural throughline is mismatched. You’re really trying to tell two different stories. It’s fine to have one of those stories as a subplot. But the Climactic Moment needs to be focused on the main structural throughline as proven by what’s happening in all the structural beats.

If you feel like your ending isn’t working or it’s mismatched or the conflict has just kind of petered out, the top thing to ask yourself is, “Is the Climactic Moment in alignment with everything that’s come before?”

Analyze Your Story’s Theme to Troubleshoot Your Story’s Ending

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

You can also determine what your story’s theme is really about by looking at the Climactic Moment. In that moment, what is your protagonist’s relationship to the thematic Truth?

  • In a Positive Change Arc, the protagonist will have grown into and embraced that Truth.
  • In a Negative Change Arc, the protagonist will have grown away from the Truth.
  • In a Flat Arc, they will have maintained their relationship to the Truth, and the characters around them will have evolved into an appreciation and understanding of it.

Identifying which fits your story will also show you what your story is about thematically. Again, you can look at all of the structural beats leading up to the Climactic Moment to make sure the same theme is showing up, that you’re not proving one theme through the character’s actions in earlier structural beats and then highlighting something completely different by the time you get to the Climactic Moment. You want to achieve cohesion, resonance, and thematic unity throughout your entire story.

How to Tell if Your Story’s Ending Is Strong Enough

The answer to the question about whether or not your ending is strong enough really depends on the particular story. How much of a punch your Climactic Moment packs really does depend on just the nature of the story and how dramatic it has been. The level of impact in your Climactic Moment will correspond to how definitively the character gets the goal.

In some stories, the protagonist’s ending relationship to the goal is actually pretty ambiguous. Particularly in series, what may be a definitive enough relationship to that goal at the end of Book One is then going to evolve in the conflict in future books. And in other stories, it’s purposefully ambiguous because it’s trying to prove a thematic point. In most stories, the more definitively your character ends their relationship with the plot goal, whether they get it or not, will determine how strong that ending feels to readers.

You can also consider how strong your character’s arc is. That will be largely determined by the tension that exists between the story’s Lie and Truth. Some stories have a very dramatic arc where the tension is strong between the Lie and Truth, because they are complete opposites.

For example, the character might arc from hate to love. That’s a huge arc. In other stories, the arc is much subtler, for example moving from indifference to love or apathy to love. That’s a little baby arc. And that’s fine, depending on the type of story. Not all stories want something extremely dramatic. It depends on what’s best for your story. What do you want to have happen? What do you want to accomplish? If you knowing that, you can judge that by the time you get to the end whether or not you are able to accomplish that.

Can the Climax Be a Sequel Scene?

Ayesha asked: “How do you avoid the Climax being a string of sequel scenes and explanation?”

The Climax should never be totally comprised of sequels, reactions, or explanations. In scene structure, the sequel is the reaction part of the scene structure. The Climax is about a final deciding action, to reaction. It is the “sceniest” scene in your entire story.

In classic scene structure, we can split scenes into two halves, which we call scene and sequel, which are action and reaction. The action half is made up of goal, conflict, and outcome. And that literally describes the Climax, right? It is the job of the Resolution, the scenes that follow the Climax, to show character reactions and finish any explanations or loose ends that need to be shared.

If you feel like all that’s happening in your Climax is explanations and reactions, then either you’re misidentifying what is really your Climactic Moment (i.e., when the character definitively gets or loses the plot goal), or you’ve skipped it. In the latter instance, the Climactic Moment doesn’t exist and you’ve just kind of petered out with your story. In this case, you can go back and identify your character’s plot goal and how it can be resolved in the end. Then make sure you have a strong scene that demonstrates this to readers. The Climax, above all, is not the place to tell versus show.

Strengthen Your Ending by Having It Mirror Your Beginning

Here’s one final thing to think about as you’re troubleshooting your ending and figuring out where the previous parts of the story might have gone wrong so they’re not leading up to your ending in the way you want. Think about the idea of chiastic structure.

Chiastic structure is where the two halves of the story mirror each other. The beats in the first half mirror the beats in the second half in some way. Story structure is just naturally this way, in that the beats in the first half will set up the plot, whereas the beats in the second half will pay it off. You can take this a little further and do it a little more consciously and specifically when it comes to your ending, and we talked about this a little bit in some of the previous posts about beginnings.

Look at how the Hook in the very beginning of your story and the Resolution in the very ending mirror each other. For instance, you have a Characteristic Moment in the beginning in the Hook; you can mirror that with another Characteristic Moment in the ending in the Resolution.

More to the point of what we’re talking about today, you also want to look to the Inciting Event which happens around halfway through the First Act. This is the Call to Adventure that kicks off the character’s pursuit of the plot goal. How does that mirror what happens in the Climactic Moment? How does that set it up? You can think of the Inciting Event as a question that has to be answered by the time you get to the Climactic Moment.

***

Endings are actually quite simple. Everything funnels down to one single point in the Climactic Moment. It’s actually quite a simple thing. But everything that’s come before to lead up to this is very complex.

In even the simplest novel, you’ve got chapters upon chapters and characters and themes, all these loose ends you’re weaving that have to come together and funnel down into this one single point. Everything that’s come before must make sense and be thematically related to this one point.

It’s a lot to think about and consider. We always say it’s one thing to hook readers with a good beginning and it’s another thing to hook them with a good ending—because then they will want to keep reading. It’s not just about getting them to finish this one book. It’s about convincing them you can give them a satisfying story experience so they’ll want to read on into the next book you may be writing, whether it’s in a series or not.

Endings are, as we all know, extremely important. They prove whether or not a story works. There are many stories people enjoy throughout until they get to the ending and upsets them in some way—because it doesn’t make sense or it doesn’t work or they feel like the writer didn’t play fair with them.

It’s important to understand the technical definition of what you’re trying to accomplish with a story’s ending. You need to understand how it functions structurally and therefore how it’s a part of the structure that leads up to it, in the plot, the character arc, and the theme. This allows you to bring all of these things together in a solid Climactic Moment that ends your story’s conflict.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are some of your top questions when troubleshooting your story’s ending? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast, Amazon Music, or Spotify).

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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. I try to engineer a double ending, where the plot is satisfactorily closed, then a twist in the tail in either a very short last chapter (often only a page or two at most), or an epilogue (if it’s substantially after the action chronologically).
    This might reveal the unknown and surprising actions of one of the characters and the effect those actions had on the way things turned out, or it may be something happening, or discovered, after the conclusion of the story, which changes things somewhat… either in the final outcome, or in the mind of the protagonist.
    Occasionally, I’ve seeded the end with the prospect of more to come (e.g., has a character died, or not? Was the guilty person really guilty of ‘everything’ or were some of their crimes actually perpetrated by someone else?). This is particularly if I’ve already got the next story in the series fermenting and bubbling away in my mind. In these cases, I’ll use a short piece from the end of the book as a prelude to open the new book.
    Here’s an example:
    Epilogue
    Sweden.
    It was almost three months since the girl had watched the funeral of her lover take place in that sunny country cemetery in the hills, away from Milan’s bustling metropolis.
    Watching it from a distance had initially been enforced on her by family politics, but on the day, other more important reasons had made it necessary. There was never going to be any likelihood of her throwing a symbolic handful of dirt into the grave, to rattle noisily onto the lid of his coffin. At least Angelo’s grieving father and brother had understood her absence from the graveside.
    Somehow that whole, all too brief episode of her life, the happy, exciting time spent in the company of her dear Angelo, it all now seemed to her as if it had been a very, very, long time ago.
    The dark eyed brunette drew admiring looks as she made her way forward, between the tables, to climb a short flight of steps up to the stage in a small functions hall in a Swedish country town.
    To the polite applause of the gathering, replete after their annual presentation dinner, she shook hands with the club’s president and accepted her award.
    She nodded an acknowledgement to the spread of occupied tables below. Her perfect teeth seemed to flash as she smiled, before she returned to her place alongside her proud father. He’d seen her take various women’s trophies from the gun club before, but to take the club’s premier award was an honour, and a real achievement. He leaned over and kissed his daughter on the cheek as she sat back down beside him.
    She smiled at him and squeezed his hand gently, but she felt sad that her dear Angelo couldn’t have been there beside her, as he had been on that other special occasion earlier in the year. On that evening, it had been formally announced that she’d been selected to compete internationally in the 300 metre class.
    He’d commented at the time that, with her dark Mediterranean looks, she’d stood out amongst the other almost stereotypically flaxen haired Swedish members of the team as they lined up for the official photograph.
    Memories of her Italian lover threatened to bring forth tears. She reached for her glass, hoping it might help to hide the fact. She hoped that the strong brandy might be blamed for making her eyes water.
    Her father could see her eyes beginning to moisten, but he simply mistook it for the emotions of the evening. After only a relatively short period of time, the unfortunate death of his daughter’s boyfriend had slipped, if not into history, then at least a little into the background.
    After sipping at her drink, she excused herself, saying that she was going outside for a smoke. She took a pack of Marlboro and her cigarette lighter from her handbag, then dodging an approaching club member who may have been merely intending to congratulate her, but had made his ambitions apparent on a number of previous occasions, she left the room as the tears began to well up in her eyes.
    As the girl stood outside in the cool air, she watched the smoke that curled from her cigarette. She was thinking to herself about what this evening’s awards dinner should have meant to her.
    Somehow, though, it had all paled into insignificance when she thought back to a particular single long shot that she’d taken, using an unfamiliar rifle provided for the purpose, at a target that to her had been far more important than any mere bullseye on some distant board.
    She would never, she hoped, be publicly acknowledged for that performance, but that was immaterial. It had been a perfect shot. It had needed to be, and there had been only one chance for it to be taken.
    She took a last draw on the American cigarette, then after gazing out across the lights of the town, she let her eyes raise up to look at the stars above. She smiled to herself, before muttering quietly under her breath.
    “Riposa in pace, Angelo… Ciao!”
    Somehow the honour that was represented by the trophy sitting on the table inside, being proudly guarded by her father, seemed meaningless compared to the honour that had been served by that single shot at a black clad target in a sunlit Lombardy cemetery.
    Stubbing out her cigarette, she shivered slightly as the chill air overcame the lightweight evening dress that she was wearing. She turned around and made her way back into the building.
    After checking her eyes for streaks at a mirror in the ladies’ room, she used a saliva moistened finger to make any corrections, having left her bag at the table. Satisfied, she returned to the hall to rejoin the gathering of her sporting friends, and her occasional rivals, along with her proud waiting father.
    Life would have to go on, like it almost always did. She had already accepted that, but she also knew that it would be unlikely for it ever to be quite the same again.
    ~ END ~

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, series do present a different set of challenges, since the story is, in fact, *not* over. Epilogues can be effective for this.

  2. The ending in my current novel has been and remains a difficult and unsolved problem. My protagonist is a man of strong skills and wide experience, but immature development. His female mentor is kidnapped. Many adventures mark his efforts to get her back.
    My dilemma is whether he and the mentor become romantically involved or not. Do they enter into a platonic business relationship? What other options should I consider?
    The story is strong and interesting. The ending is unclear.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I would consider, first, which option is most thematically pertinent. Which best comments upon or reinforces your story’s thematic exploration? Second, consider which option your target audience will find most satisfying. Beta readers are always helpful for testing options.

  3. The ending of my current novel is been and remains a dilemma. The protagonist is a man of powerful skills and wide experience, but immature in his late 20s. The story is about the kidnapping of his female mentor, with an emphasis on action and adventure. Many adventures mark his attempt to find and recover his mentor. The protagonist finds himself and matures during the course of the story. The story is strong and interesting, but the ending is unclear.
    Is it good that he and the mentor become romantically involved? Do they enter a platonic business relationship? What makes a satisfying conclusion to a kidnapping?
    I have 20 to 30,000 words available to wrap up the story. I will study this post to move forward. Thank you for this insight.

  4. Okay, I’m an outliner. I write the ending while I write the beginning. I myself can’t imagine entering a story without simultaneously thinking about what the climax will be. In my mental method, the beginning and end seem to feed off each other and provide deeper context and theme. This barbell approach (for lack of a better description) allows me to hang ornaments in the story that foreshadow and create a richer character arc.

  5. Heather Willis says

    My novel’s been getting extensively redrafted :P. I loved the ending the first time around. It said exactly what I wanted it to say (thematically) and had a few scenes in it I’d been sitting on since the beginning of the book, including a mirror of the Call to Adventure. However, as I learned about story structure I realized it had huge structural issues (not to mention plot holes). The issue wasn’t, of course, in the ending but in the rest of the book – as I’ve been doing structural edits through the rest, I’ve kept thinking “that ending isn’t going to work, I had fun with it but this is a ‘kill your darling’ moment, I’m gonna have to redraft the ending too.” But now that I’ve reached it in my edits, I reread it and found that it really climaxes the character arc I spent so much time cleaning up, ties off some loose ends I spent time developing in edits, and has the swashbuckling tone of the best moments of the rest of the book.
    What I learned from this: any story is an intricately connected beast, and if you haven’t done the connections well it will be nowhere more obvious than in the Third Act. But if you *have* done the connections, the reward is great. Also, the end is in the beginning, and vice versa – the ending was the logical outcome of the beginning, but the middle wasn’t as closely related to either as it should have been. I dragged the middle into line (more or less) and now the beginning and ending both work!
    My struggle with my endings is sometimes more conceptual than practical. I’m writing the climax of another first draft right now, and I haven’t finished it yet because I keep stopping, rerouting, saying “No, that doesn’t properly develop this” or “but it would be way more epic if they did THIS.” I know this is what I call “perfectionist’s block,” :P, but do you have any tips for dealing with that in endings specifically?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “any story is an intricately connected beast, and if you haven’t done the connections well it will be nowhere more obvious than in the Third Act.”

      So true! Writing a novel is an extremely complex artform. It is not a linear A-to-B movement. There are so many little details that have we have to consider and weave in. Writing a cohesive story is an amazing accomplishment!

  6. Rosemary Ryan Imregi says

    My historical novel can be described as a tragic love story. My protagonist is deeply in love with each other. They marry, have a child together, and have to deal with the man’s vindictive criminal father all his life. By the end of the story the son is falsely accused of cattle rustling. Along with his father he is hung for the alleged crime. This book is the first book in a tribology. The next book will be about the wife’s state of mind, and her revenge. Will this kind of ending work?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Foreshadowing is everything. You want readers to feel that a) you have played fair with them and b) satisfied with the outcome. This doesn’t mean they have to like what happens, just that they feel it fits the story as a whole. My thought would be to focus on the wife as the structural protagonist, since she is the character readers will need to continue to identify with as they progress to the next book.

  7. Mary Catelli says

    Improbably, however, it is the ending.
    I have read stories in which the climax is immensely dramatic, but does not hit the plot problem head on. A romance in which the heiress heroine was a pawn in the politics of kingdoms. A climax in which the hero rescued her from peril at great danger and suffered great injuries — which were, in fact, compatible with her great value as a pawn.
    One thing to look at is whether you have clearly set up a problem and then not let it hit full force.

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