I’m currently working on my second edit of my fourth Peace Child novel. I call this edit “Is the resolution satisfying?” The Peace Child novels are YA or new Adult so a somewhat open ending is possible and actually desirable. But “open” doesn’t mean dissatisfying.
A common fault
I note that new writers often do not make their endings satisfying. This is in fact one of the most commonly occurring faults in new writing. I notice this often as a publisher and as a creative writing teacher in higher education.
If the ending isn’t right the story isn’t right. As a publisher I reject most often because the story is not well-formed. My students get lower marks when their ending is poor as they are not showing that they understand story.
What constitutes a poor ending
I’ve established three main faults:
1. Nothing much happens
2. The ending is melodramatic and improbable
3. The writer has used a ‘deus ex machina’. This is another improbable ending. This expression refers to Greek drama when a god appears in the story and is whisked on to stage through some clever contraption. The god makes everything all right. In the 21st century this often translates as a hurried ending with an unlikely set of circumstances solving all of the issues.
Where an how open-ended can be fine
Indeed young adults like to have some control over the ending. They like to interpret what has actually happened and what will happen to the protagonist after the story has ended. Endings for this reader tend to be upbeat but inconclusive.
If the work is part of a trilogy or series, the ending of one book may point to the beginning of the next. Even if some matters are resolved news issues may be raised at this point.
At a book reading of a so-called literary novel, tongue in cheek, I asked the author how one defined a literary novel. He explained that if you turned to the last page before you’d finished the book you didn’t get a spoiler. Well, well. Let’s see.
How to avoid poor endings
Make sure there is growth in your protagonist. Are they different at the end of the novel / story from how they were at the beginning?
Make sure that throughout the story there is cause and effect and that this is logical.
If you’re a planner, you should know how your story is going to end. Make sure you work towards that ending all the time.
If you are a panster you should at least know what your story is about. Keep that in mind all the time. Maybe have a post-it note stick to your computer screen.
The second book of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses trilogy ends with us not sure whether someone has died or not. Actually though you only have to read the blurb for book three to find out the answer.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles has a surprise ending. We don’t see it coming and we wouldn’t have thought it of the protagonist. However, you soon realise that all the clues were there. The has been cause and effect.
Maggie Gee’s Virginia Woolf in Manhattan has a surprising premise; Virginia Wolfe comes back to life and must learn to live in the 21st Century. The ending provides a plausible explanation for why and how this has happened.