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Plotting the Ending of a Novel

Plotting the ending of a novel can be tricky. It’s easy to ruin the entire story with poor choices. The steps below will help you create a perfect ending.

So far in the plotting process, you’ve taken a decent human being and turned their world upside down. Feeling guilty? Then I have good news…

It’s time to start turning things around for them at last. It’s time to stop giving your readers such a hard time, too.

What Makes for a Good Ending to a Plot?

A good ending should satisfy your readers. It should reward them for sticking with the story. What makes the ending to a plot satisfying? Two things…

  1. The ending is clear. So the big question asked at the beginning of the novel (“Will the hero succeed in achieving his or her overall goal?”) should be answered by the end. And any other questions raised along the way should be answered, too. No dangling loose ends.
  2. The ending is just. Broadly speaking, the characters should get what they deserve. The good should be rewarded and the bad made to pay for their ill deeds.

That’s the “black and white” advice, anyway. In reality, when you’re plotting the ending of your own novel, you probably won’t want to make things as clear cut as I have in the bullet points above.

What do I mean by that?

The good should be rewarded, yes. But they don’t necessarily have to walk off into a big red sunset and live happily ever after. Even if you do give them a Hollywood ending, scars will remain.

The bad should be punished, yes. But you don’t necessarily have to kill them or throw them in jail. Sometimes, failing to win can be punishment enough.

Remember, too, that few characters will be wholly good or wholly bad. So don’t feel compelled to provide them with a wholly good or wholly bad future.

The ending should be conclusive, yes. But that doesn’t mean you have to spell out everything for your readers and tie up every loose end with a pretty pink ribbon. Leaving something to the readers’ imaginations is good. So don’t be afraid to imply or suggest what the future holds for some of the characters, rather than state it directly.

Obviously, the points above are dependent on the type of novel you’re writing. In genre fiction, endings are more conclusive (all questions are answered in full) and more just (the characters get what they deserve) than in mainstream or literary fiction.

What About Happy Endings?

Are they obligatory? Again, it depends on your chosen category.

Fans of romances, for example, expect a happy ending. Fans of literary fiction would prefer a realistic ending. And reality, as we know, frequently results in unhappy outcomes.

If your market is more literary than genre, I’d advise you to at least consider your options before you dismiss a happy ending for your novel…

  • On one end of the scale is the “Hollywood” happy ending. You know the kind I mean. These endings aren’t just happy, they leave you with tears dripping from your cheeks and a lump in your throat.
  • At the other end is an ending that is so bleak, so devoid of all hope, that you’re just left feeling empty.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with either of these endings. Your category or subject matter or sensibilities as an artist might demand that you choose one or the other. But if you want me to make a recommendation, I’d suggest you avoid either of these extremes…

  • If you plan to give your plot a Hollywood-type happy ending, try to temper it with a touch of something not so happy – a price the character has had to pay for achieving their goal.
  • If your novel demands a downbeat ending, at least try to provide your readers with a crumb or two of hope – the possibility, perhaps, that although things aren’t great for your character right now, there’s the promise of better days ahead.

The novelist Dianne Doubtfire put it well…

I dislike the conventional “happy ending” with all the pink bows neatly tied, but I think the reader should feel there is the hope of something better in the future and that the main character has gained something of value from his experiences.

The best kind of novels, in my opinion, are natural and credible ones (or at least as natural and credible as the artificiality of fiction allows).

Ending your own novel in one of the two ways suggested above – happiness tempered by a little loss, or sadness with a glimmer of hope on the horizon – will ensure that they are natural. After all, that is the way that life itself tends to be – neither black nor white, but somewhere in between.

Plotting the Ending: the Steps

Okay, that’s enough for the general discussion on endings. Here are the final steps in the ten-step process…

  1. Reaction.
  2. Rebirth.
  3. Seizing the prize (or not).
  4. The new status quo.

And here they are in detail…

Step 7: Reaction

What is the hero reacting to? To hitting rock bottom at the end of the middle section of the plot. Hitting rock bottom marked the end of the “action phase” of the middle’s final mini plot.

Their aim in this final mini plot was to achieve their overall, novel-length goal. But they failed, spectacularly, and their hopes and dreams were shattered.

What comes next?

As you know, action is always followed by reaction. And that’s precisely what happens now, at the beginning of the ending. The hero goes away to lick his or her wounds.

They’ve experienced these moments of emotional reaction all through the middle section of the plot. They experienced them every time 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’ve faced before.

Before, they had failed to achieve one of those minor, intermediate goals. Now they’ve failed to reach their overall goal. So everything they’ve been striving towards since the beginning of the plot is seemingly impossible to reach.

The action phase of each of the mini goals the protagonist has been pursuing consisted of three steps…

  1. They came up with a plan of action (a mini goal) and made the decision to act.
  2. In acting, they encountered conflict – internal, external and environmental.
  3. The resolution, more often than not, was that they failed and found themselves in a worse position.

Similarly, the entire novel up to this point can be seen in terms of these three simple steps…

  1. The hero has a goal and decides to act on it. This is what the entire beginning section of a novel is about.
  2. They act and encounter conflict. Forget about mini plots for a moment – the entire middle portion of your novel is one giant action designed to take them where they want to go.
  3. In the resolution to this single giant action, they fail to reach their overall goal and they hit rock bottom.

Now, at the beginning of the novel’s ending, comes the emotional reaction to this monumental failure. They are metaphorically dead right now, and the reaction phase should reflect this.

One option here is to have them cry, take to the bottle, react violently – something like that. More often, this final emotional reaction takes the form of quiet resignation and spiritual emptiness. The hero gave everything he or she had to give, and they lost. They’re now empty.

Back to Our Examples…

You’ll remember the female detective and the lovesick boy from earlier articles on plotting. How does the reaction phase play out for them?

  • The detective, pulled off the case when she believed she was on the verge of solving it, returns home. She doesn’t take off her coat, doesn’t fix herself a drink. She just sits there, staring out the window at nothing.
  • The boy, told by his parents that they are moving towns (meaning he’ll end up 1,000 miles away from his new girlfriend), goes upstairs to his bedroom. He closes the door, sits on the edge of his bed and hugs a cold pillow to his chest.

The reaction phase may be quite brief – an hour, say. Ideally, though, stretch it out as much as you can. The longer that the hero shuts down, the greater the sense of loss and hopelessness you’ll create.

Stretching it out doesn’t mean you’ll take 30 pages to cover it. That would be both boring for the reader and difficult for the writer (how are you meant to fill 30 pages with the character doing nothing?) Instead, deal with the passing of time in a few pages or even a few paragraphs…

When Fred got home, he slumped on the couch and stared at the blank TV screen. He hadn’t slept for two days, but he didn’t have the energy to lay down and close his eyes. He just stared at that blank screen as night fell and the living room went black.

The telephone woke him at ten o’clock the next morning. He couldn’t remember going to bed, but that’s where he found himself now.

And so on. The key is to give the impression of the hero’s emptiness as the hours tick by without wallowing in it and boring the reader. If you’re writing a multiple viewpoint novel, it’s a good idea to view the hero’s spiritual death through another character’s eyes.

What happens to bring the reaction phase to an end? The hero’s rebirth…

Step 8: Rebirth

This is one of the most important steps in the entire process – not just plotting the ending but plotting the whole novel. It’s also one of the most important to get right. Why? Because you’ll seriously screw up your story if you get it wrong.

So let’s take the time to nail it!

Don’t like the concept of your hero being “reborn”? Then think of it as the moment when they simply change.

In most novels (and most movies, for that matter), the hero changes in a small or a large way – everything from a subtle shift in the way they see the world to a complete character transformation. Indeed, if the hero is exactly the same at the end of the story as they were at the beginning, you have to wonder what was the point of the story at all.

What, specifically, changes? The hero’s greatest flaw, or that aspect of their personality that has held them back all through the plot. The cowardly learn to become braver, the selfish more selfless, and so on.

Of course, heroes being heroes, their greatest flaw is never enough to make them unsympathetic or downright villainous. Nevertheless, they still start out with a character flaw that is sufficiently serious to prevent them from reaching their goal. Except they didn’t know it!

For a character to change, they need to recognize their flaw and start doing things differently. The recognition will not only make them a better person. It will allow them to succeed in achieving their goal.

What allows a character to recognize their flaw? Their greatest strength.

If that’s not entirely clear yet, don’t worry. It will be clear, particularly when we get to the concrete examples in a moment. First, though, a little more on the theory…

The moment of change, or rebirth, is the point at which the novel’s internal conflict is finally resolved. And the resolution of this internal conflict puts them into a position where they finally have the necessary inner make-up to go on to resolve the novel’s external conflict.

All novels have an external plot of action and an internal plot of self-recognition.

In the crime novel…

  • The external plot is about the detective trying to solve the murder.
  • The internal plot concerns her trying to overcome her crippling self-doubt.

In the boy-meets-girl novel…

  • The external plot is about the boy trying to win the girl.
  • The internal plot is about him trying to overcome his shyness and lack of self-confidence.

The spiritual death of a protagonist in a novel occurs when they fail to reach their overall goal. They hit rock bottom instead.

The epiphany is the moment when something related to their greatest strength makes them understand where they have been going wrong all this time.

This understanding usually takes the form of the character recognizing their greatest internal flaw. This internal flaw has been hampering their efforts all the way through the story, though they probably haven’t been aware of it.

All of the above results in a kind of rebirth. This is the moment when the character changes inside (thus bringing the novel’s internal plot to a resolution). And this internal change puts the protagonist in a position to be able to go out and bring the novel’s external plot to a successful resolution.

All clear so far on this crucial part of plotting the ending of your novel? If not, a couple of examples should help…

1. The Detective’s Rebirth

The last time we met the detective, she had been thrown off the case for a lack of progress. She was sitting alone at home, just staring out of the window, spiritually dead.

Her internal flaw throughout the entire novel has been her self-doubt. She wasn’t particularly aware of it, but it was what kept her from…

  • Questioning the suspects rigorously enough.
  • Standing up to her bullying, chauvinistic colleagues.
  • Trusting her own instincts.

(Self-doubt, incidentally, is the novel’s theme.)

The detective must now recognize her internal flaw. As you know, this happens when she experiences her epiphany, which in turn is related in some way to her greatest strength.

Here is what happens…

She is staring out of the window when she notices a blackbird on the lawn eating the breadcrumbs she threw out this morning. The blackbird is surrounded by some magpies, trying to bully the blackbird away so they can have all the breadcrumbs for themselves. But the blackbird is having none of it.

Okay, so maybe the symbolism is a touch heavy-handed (I’d probably try to find something more subtle if I were writing that novel for real). But it demonstrates the point…

  • The blackbird represents the detective (or how she should be). The magpies represent everyone who has been bullying her.
  • If she wants her share of the “breadcrumbs” in life, she’s going to have to start standing up for herself.

She’s probably known this all along, deep down. But it isn’t until this late stage of the plot that it finally dawns on her where she has been going wrong and what she must now do to put things right.

In short, she changes. She leaves her self-doubt behind. And she vows that, for better or worse, she will now start standing up for herself and for what she believes in.

What does her “greatest strength” have to do with it?

Well, these moments of recognition always work best if they do not arrive out of the blue. If this is the first time that birds have been mentioned in the novel, the “blackbird-magpie” epiphany will seem contrived.

How do we make sure that it doesn’t seem contrived? With a bit of reverse-engineering…

  • Once you’ve decided on the “blackbird-magpie” epiphany, during the plotting process, think about the detective’s strengths (the ones you came up with when you created her character). One of these is compassion.
  • A highly compassionate person is likely to be compassionate about animals as much as humans. So you give her a love of wildlife.
  • Given that this is now one of her most important characteristics, it’s perfectly natural that the detective will pay attention to the wildlife around her throughout the novel. And that includes the magpies in her garden, who are forever bullying another poor creature with their cruel swooping and squawking.
  • The readers won’t think this is important to the plot. You’re simply describing what the detective sees when she looks out the window. But…
  • When the blackbird finally stands up to the magpies and the detective experiences her epiphany (“I’ve got to start standing up for myself, too!”), it won’t seem contrived because the magpies have been mentioned a few times before.

Make sense?

It’s possible, particularly in a mystery novel, to use the epiphany to also resolve the external plot. Here’s how…

I haven’t got the space to summarize an entire murder plot, but suffice it to say that the victim was a rich man. The detective has assumed up to now that the motive was money (because that’s what her colleagues told her to think). But she now realizes that the victim, as well as being rich, was a bully (or a magpie).

She further realizes that the victim’s son (a rich man in his own right) suffered most from this bullying. She didn’t suspect him before because, being rich himself, he had no motive. But now he does.

He is the bullied son who killed his bullying father. The blackbird who finally stood up to the magpie.

2. The Boy’s Rebirth

The boy’s spiritual death (or his hitting “rock bottom”) happened when his parents told him they were moving towns. He thought he had succeeded in his overall goal of winning the girl. But now he must move a thousand miles away and will therefore lose her.

No wonder he’s down with the blues in his bedroom!

His internal flaw throughout the plot has been his shyness. Little by little, though, as his relationship with the girl deepened, she drew him out of himself and helped him to discover his confidence.

But only when he was with her.

The trouble, he now realizes, is that his confidence is as low as it ever was without his girlfriend there to support him. When alone, he hasn’t changed at all. And that was why, as the plot progressed, he never found the courage to tell his parents about the depth of his feelings for the girl.

They knew he was seeing her, of course. But whenever they asked him about the relationship, he always downplayed it to save himself the embarrassment of having to talk about “love and stuff” in front of his parents.

The parents live for their son and would do anything for him. They certainly wouldn’t want to see him hurt. But they simply don’t realize that the move will break his heart. How could they know that he has anything of consequence to leave behind when he never told them?

So here’s the boy’s epiphany in his plot…

He realizes that it’s his shyness – specifically, his shyness when he’s alone – that has indirectly brought about the end of his relationship with the girl.

What, specifically, triggers this epiphany? When he’s sitting in his room, he finds a photograph tucked down the back of his couch. It shows him and his girlfriend in a passport booth.

He looks invincible in this photo, like he could take on the world and win. But that’s because he has his girl beside him. The frightened face staring back at him now from the bedroom mirror doesn’t look like the same person at all.

If he’s to persuade his parents not to move, he understands that he has to learn to be strong by himself. He has to find the strength to open up to his parents, however embarrassing it might be, and let them know his feelings.

How do we make the epiphany seem natural?

Just happening to find an old photo down the back of a couch may seem a bit contrived. So let’s make the boy very tidy and organized. He’s forever cleaning his room and rearranging his things throughout the course of the novel, so it will seem perfectly natural that he comes across the photo during a cleaning spree at the end.

A bit weak? Then let’s strengthen it…

It’s the boy’s tidiness and organization that is one of the things that attracts the girl to him. He’s not just like that on the outside. He has a very clear and sharp mind, too, and the girl loves that about him.

The girl’s life is a complete mess in contrast. The boy uses his sharp mind to help her think through her problems and sort them out.

And strengthen it some more…

The boy hates mess (obviously). He hates a physical mess, and he’s no good with “messy” things like feelings and emotions. And that’s one of the reasons why he never opens up to his parents. Much better to keep everything inside than to try to talk to them about something as complicated as love.

Better, right? Though maybe not perfect yet.

If I were plotting that novel for real, I’d put a lot more time and effort into the greatest strength and the greatest flaw, particularly during the early stages of the planning process, when making big changes is easy.

Hopefully the example demonstrates the thinking process, though.

Once you’ve arrived at an epiphany you’re happy with, and a way to make the epiphany seem natural, it’s simply a question of planting plenty of “signposts” throughout the novel…

For the boy’s greatest flaw, plant two or three clues along the way that the his lack of confidence when he’s by himself will turn out to be an issue later.

For example, he could make the girl come to a store with him because he doesn’t want to return an item all on his own. The girl thinks it’s sweet at the time and thinks nothing more of it. But later, the readers will remember.

Signpost concrete things, too, like that passport photo. If the boy finds the photo down the back of the couch and it’s the first time it’s ever been mentioned, the whole epiphany may seem contrived. So make a big thing of it earlier in the novel…

  • The first time we hear about it is when they have their picture taken in the passport booth. Set an important scene in the booth, one in which they have an important conversation, so it doesn’t seem like they’re in a photo booth for no good reason.
  • Later, show them looking at the photo when they’re sitting on his couch. They start kissing and that’s the last we hear about the photo. But readers will remember this later, and they’ll understand that the photograph must have been dropped when they couple started making out.

And that’s it for Step 8. The plotting process up to now has largely been about heaping troubles on your characters. But we’re all set for their final victory…

Step 9: Seizing the Prize (Or Not)

Your protagonist has changed, preferably for the better. And they’re now in a position to use their new-found strength and knowledge to finally claim the “prize” they have been seeking all along.

Right at the beginning of the plot, your hero committed to achieving an overall, novel-length goal. Finally, right here in Step 9, they seize the prize.

How does it happen? Simple…

When they experienced their epiphany in the previous step, they realized where they had been going wrong all this time and what they now needed to do to win. So they do it…

  • Having found her inner strength and solved the murder with her “blackbird-magpie” epiphany, the detective simply has to see her boss to persuade him to reinstate her. He’s reluctant at first. But her new-found belief in herself, and her new insights into the crime, means she wins the argument. It doesn’t take long for her to unmask the murderer. She feels some remorse when he’s led away in handcuffs, as he’s a fellow victim of bullying. But justice is justice.
  • Having realized that he must take the confidence he feels when he’s with his girlfriend and use it to stand more steadily on his own two feet, the boy pulls in three deep breaths and goes to confront his parents. It isn’t easy for him. But he says what he needs to say, and his parents agree to call off the move.

Not Seizing the Prize

There’s an alternative way in which this penultimate step of plotting the ending can work out. It certainly isn’t a common way for novels (or movies) to end. But it’s worth mentioning as an option.

In a nutshell, novels in which the prize is not seized at the end look like this…

  • In the beginning, the character comes up with an overall goal. This kickstarts the plot.
  • Through the middle of the plot, they struggle to reach this goal and, ultimately, fail.
  • In the epiphany, they realize that, actually, they don’t want what they thought they wanted. (Or they do want it but must nevertheless turn their back on it for the sake of the greater good.)

Needless to say, plot endings of this variety are not joyously happy (unless the thing they wanted was a dumb thing to want in the first place). Such endings might even be tragic. Still, bad outcomes are just as artistically relevant as good ones.

I’ve engineered the detective and boy stories to be ones in which the prize is seized, so it’s difficult to say how these might work out differently without completely deconstructing them. But here are a couple of movie examples…

  • In Casablanca, one of the most iconic scenes is at the airfield at the end, when Bogart says he won’t be getting on the plane with the girl. You know he wants to. But he’s realistic enough to know that she would regret it – “maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.” Still, they will “always have Paris”.
  • Another film where the prize is not seized is Brief Encounter, another black and white classic. You know that Celia Johnson wants to leave her marriage to start a new life with Trevor Howard. You know she can’t be happy unless she does. But in the end she “does the right thing” (for the era in which the film was made) and stays with her husband.

Even though the characters have ultimately rejected what they thought they wanted, they have still learnt from their experiences and grown as a result.

Step 10: The New Status Quo

Tension has been building up all the way to the novel’s climax. But the climax has passed now and things can return to normal.

The plot began with the hero living in their ordinary world, before the events of the plot kicked in. This was the initial status quo.

When the action started, this status quo was turned upside down and the character’s life was suddenly anything but stable.

Now, right at the end of the plot, the character has reached a new stable situation, or a new status quo.

It’s important to understand that this final chapter is not obligatory. Why not? Because you’ve already given the readers a glimpse of the new status quo. It happened at the end of the previous step…

  • The detective had overcome her self-doubt, been reinstated to the case and solved it. The new status quo, by implication, is that she will now continue to be a great detective who is respected and admired by her peers.
  • The boy, too, had found his confidence and persuaded his parents to agree to call off the move. The new status quo is simple enough to imagine: he tells his girlfriend the great news and they both live happily ever after. What more could the reader possibly want to know?

It’s perfectly acceptable, therefore, to finish your story at this point. But you might choose to write a final chapter – a kind of bookend to the first chapter – in which you demonstrate the new status quo and perhaps tie up any remaining loose ends. For example…

  • You could show the boy visiting the girl and telling her the great news. Up until now, it’s always been the girl who initiated their kisses. But this time the boy takes charge (further demonstrating his new-found confidence). The girl is surprised, but she likes it!
  • You could show the detective returning to the police station and being congratulated by her newly-impressed colleagues, then returning home to her husband, exhausted but happy. When she pulls into her driveway, she sees the blackbird sitting on the fence. They watch each other for a moment, neither of them moving. Then the bird bobs its head and takes flight into the evening sky.

It’s fine to include this final chapter if you need the space to tie up any loose ends you couldn’t deal with earlier in the plot. It’s also fine to include it if you want to hit the right “note” to finish on (including a perfect closing line). But if you said all you wanted to say at the close of the previous scene, end your novel there.

It’s never a bad idea to leave the readers wanting more.

Wrapping Up

And that’s it – not just for plotting the ending but for plotting your entire novel.

There’s a lot of detail in this article (and the previous ones on beginnings and middles). If the amount of detail feels overwhelming, understand that plotting a novel will soon become second nature to you. Eventually you’ll be able to construct a plot in your head, without even needing to refer to a sequence of steps.

Also understand that the ten plotting steps above are meant as a helpful guide, not a straightjacket that stifles your creativity. Follow the steps as closely as you can. But don’t forget that writing fiction is an art, not a science…

  • By understanding the rules and “more or less” following them, you’ll create a plot that hooks readers and keeps them hooked.
  • By bending or even breaking the rules occasionally, you’ll transcend the craft of novel writing and create art.

Next up, we’ll take a look at subplots

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