Stories have to end. Even if the characters could live on beyond the pages you are writing, the narrative needs to draw to a finish. Stories cannot just fade out. In much the same way as the beginning opens the curtains to set the scene, the ending draws the curtains to conclude it.
Aristotle’s Poetics is the earliest guide to writing drama that still exists. It is dramatic theory which still applies today, and the lessons within it are constantly recycled as they are all, without question, beneficial to writers. On endings, Aristotle says they should be both surprising and inevitable.
Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design.
Poetics by Aristotle
To write a satisfying ending which is both surprising and inevitable—even if that means a cliff-hanger, or an open-ended scene—you need to follow cause and effect, allowing the actions of the characters to determine consequences which, when followed, bring about change. The contradiction of this is the nuance that makes it work.
For example, (Spoiler alert!) is the death of Dracula surprising? Perhaps not to us, but for one of the first vampire novels to end with the undead dying, there would have been a surprise, yet also it was inevitable. In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett begins not liking Rhett, yet they fall in love, so the surprising yet inevitable end is that these two have become a couple yet once again hate each other, as Rhett shows when he says “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” Nineteen Eighty-Four begins with Winston already breaking the law and questioning Big Brother with his own personality and voice which grow throughout the novel. The surprising yet inevitable ending is his being broken; his complete submission to the state.
If an ending lacks satisfaction, it is likely because it was not surprising, or it did not feel inevitable, or both. Unfortunately, the only way to discover the true ending—even if the rest of the novel is plotted to within an inch of its life—is to follow the paths of the characters, observing their decisions and enacting the consequences, until you, the writer, are surprised. At that point, you have your ending.
© 2020 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.