If you have read the articles on plotting a novel's beginning and middle, you will have noticed that the two stages are quite different in nature. The ending of a novel is completely different again.
The casual reader probably doesn't even notice the transitions from one stage of a story to the next, but you now will.
To make this final stage of plotting a novel simpler, I have divided endings into four steps. I will run through them in detail in just a moment, but first a few thoughts on endings in general...
Let's be honest: so far you have taken a perfectly decent human being and made their life hell. You will be pleased to know that it is time to start turning things around for them at last.
A good ending should satisfy the readers - reward them, if you like, for sticking with the story. A satisfying conclusion to a novel happens when...
Of course, there are degrees of fittingness and definitiveness. The good should be rewarded, yes, but that doesn't mean to say that their experiences won't also leave them with scars.
The ending should be clear and definitive, yes, but that doesn't mean that you have to spell out everything for the readers. Leaving something to their imaginations and their curiosity, or even ending with a touch of ambiguity, is not a bad thing.
Okay, now for the final four steps. The beginning and middle, remember, accounted for 3 steps each. Just to remind you, here is where we have got to...
Now for a close-up look at the last four...
Reaction to what? Well, the end of the middle section of the plot was marked by the main character hitting rock bottom - this is what they must now react to.
Things looked about as bad as they could get for the protagonist, and their hopes of achieving their novel-length goal were as good as finished.
What happens next? Just like in all the "mini plots" earlier, the protagonist goes away to lick their wounds, so to speak.
They have been experiencing these moments of emotional reaction all through the middle section of the novel - every time that they failed to achieve a mini goal and found themselves in a worse position.
The "worse position" that they now find themselves in is much greater than any they have found themselves in before.
Before, they had merely failed to achieve one of those minor, intermediate goals. Now, they have failed to reach their overall goal - meaning the game is up for them and they are as miserable as they have ever been.
They are metaphorically dead right now, and this reaction phase should reflect this.
One option here is to have them cry, take to the bottle, react violently - something like that.
More often, though, this final emotional reaction is marked by a kind of quiet resignation and spiritual emptiness. The character gave everything they had to give, and they lost. They have nothing left inside, not even the energy to bemoan their fate.
If the character hitting rock bottom was about them dying a spiritual death, and the reaction phase was about them acting spiritually dead, this is where they are reborn. What triggers this change?
Earlier in this guide to plotting a novel (when I was talking about "mini plots") I said that a character often comes up with a new plan of action based on something he or she has learned from their previous mistakes?
Well, an epiphany in fiction is essentially a realization of all their past mistakes throughout the novel. It is a moment of understanding in which the character finally realizes where they have been going wrong all this time and, as a result, what they must now do to succeed.
The only thing to beware of here is making this moment of realization and change appear right out of the blue.
Ideally, whatever it is that they now come to understand, it should have been staring them in the face all along (and you, the writer, should have hinted at it in the form of "clues").
Right at the very beginning of the novel, your central character committed themselves to achieving an overall, novel-length goal. And finally, right here, they seize the prize.
How does it happen? Simple. When they experienced their epiphany just now, they realized where they had been going wrong all this time and what they now needed to do to win.
So now they just go ahead and take whatever action is required!
But there is an alternative way in which this penultimate step can work out. It certainly isn't a common way for novels (or movies) to end, but it is worth mentioning as an option.
In a nutshell, novels in which the prize is not seized at the end look like this:
Needless to say, plot endings of this variety will not be happy ones (unless the thing they wanted was a dumb thing to want in the first place). Such endings might even be tragic. But, still, bad outcomes are just as artistically relevant as good ones.
Here are a couple of movie examples...
The most important thing to understand here is that this final step of a novel's plot is not obligatory.
Why not? Because you have actually already given the readers a glimpse of the new status quo (i.e. the way things will be from now on) at the end of the previous scene.
It is perfectly acceptable, therefore, to end the plot at this point. But you might choose to write a final chapter - a kind of bookend to Chapter 1 - in which you demonstrate the new status quo and perhaps tie up any remaining loose ends.
The choice is yours.
If you need the space to tie up any loose ends you couldn't deal with earlier and to hit the right "note" to finish on, include this final brief chapter.
If you said all you wanted to say at the close of the previous scene, end your novel there. It is never a bad idea to leave the readers wanting more.
Next Up: A visual representation of all the ten plotting steps in this plot diagram.