Getting to the End: How to Satisfy Your Readers
Most writers know they need to start their story with a good hook to get readers to choose their book. However, if you want to be a professional author, your ending is just as important. The saying “your beginning sells your first book and your ending sells you next book” is absolutely true. Readers want a satisfactory ending – the kind that makes good on the promises you set up in your hook and back cover copy. They want an ending that leaves them feeling something. Whether that emotion is joy, despair, horror, or hope is up to you.
How to Satisfy Your Readers
A satisfactory ending answers the questions you asked throughout the story. Many of these questions are plot related. Does Harry Potter get the Sorcerer’s Stone in J.K. Rowling’s first book? Who killed Mr. D in J.v.L. Bell’s Lucky Hat Mine? Do Romeo and Juliet escape to be together in William Shakespeare’s play? You must answer these questions to some degree in order to craft a satisfactory ending.
Not every question needs pages of resolution or needs to wait to the end of the book to be answered. Some questions will be addressed throughout the course of your story. Others only need their answers to be hinted at in the ending, but the big questions, the ones you mention in your pitch or back cover copy, need clear direct answers. Here are some of those big questions:
Were the stakes won or lost?
Has the mystery been solved?
How has the world/town/setting changed or not during the course of the story?
Which characters got what they wanted and which didn’t?
Do your characters still want the same things?
How have your main characters changed or not?
Did you teach what you promised to teach?
Did you reveal what you promised to reveal?
Did you save a juicy tidbit for the end or did you use up all of your material in the beginning and end on fluff?
Have you shown your reader how to reach their burning desire?
Answer these questions to maintain your readers’ trust. Once you prove you can deliver on the ending, readers will be more forgiving of pieces with a slower start or a bit of meandering in the middle.
Leave Your Readers Feeling Something
Books and stories that leave a reader feeling something linger with them. It’s the emotion that keeps the reader thinking about your characters, plot, world, setting, concept, or any other aspect of your book long after they’ve finished reading.
Ending with emotion is satisfying because even if that emotion is negative, it means something has happened during the course of your book. Something has changed. When you’re writing fiction, it’s a change in your characters’ lives and/or environment. When you’re writing nonfiction, it’s a change in the reader themselves.
You create an emotional ending by revealing information (answering one of the big questions) that shows how this change has occurred. I’ve avoided spoilers up until this point, but we’re talking about endings, so spoiler alert. At the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, readers know Harry managed to get the stone before Lord Voldemort and that the stone is destroyed. They also know Harry and his friends survive and are rewarded for their efforts. J.K. Rowling answers the fiction big questions and in doing so, leaves the reader with feelings of joy, excitement, and most importantly satisfaction.
In Stant Litore’s nonfiction book Write Worlds Readers Won’t Forget, he promises to teach authors how to build memorable, impactful worlds. By the end of the book, readers have learned how to use weather, buildings, creatures, society, religion, history, monuments, and more to create their worlds. Litore delivers on his promise. However, the book is truly successful because readers leave inspired. That is the emotion Litore creates throughout the book and hammers home at the end. Inspiration is the ideal emotion to leave writers with and makes the book even more satisfactory.
What emotion does your ending create? Wonder, terror, bittersweet sadness, courageous hope? Is it the one you intended? Is it strong enough or can you make it stronger? Whether you’re writing a nonfiction essay or a lengthy fiction series, a lingering emotion in your reader is necessary for a truly satisfactory ending.
Cliff Hangers Are Not Satisfactory
The opposite of a satisfactory ending is a cliff hanger. Books that end in a cliff hanger don’t actually have an ending. They have a stopping place.
Some authors love cliff hangers because to them it means readers have to buy the next book. Some readers don’t mind them. However, the majority of readers loath them. I am one. If you end a book, especially the first in a series, with a cliff hanger, I will probably never read another book you write. This Case Is Gonna Kill Me by Phillipa Bornikova and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs are the first books in their series and end in cliff hangers. I haven’t read anything else by these authors.
The problem with cliff hangers is you promised a story with an ending. You broke that promise. Now your readers don’t trust you to deliver a satisfying story or help them solve a problem in their life, so they’re going to buy from authors who do follow through on their promises.
This is true for both nonfiction and fiction. Nonfiction feels more like a betrayal of trust when authors don’t deliver because the whole reason readers bought the book was to learn something. Fiction can be infuriating when it ends on a cliff hanger, but at least it’s usually entertaining up until the ending.
The one time cliff hangers can work is if you’re creating a binge-able series. Because of Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services, people have grown impatient. They don’t want to wait a week for the next TV episode, and they don’t want to wait 1-2 years for the next book in your series. If you are going to self-publish and rapid release your books, you might be able to get away with a cliff hanger or two. A good rule of thumb is two cliff hangers per series. Because the next book is immediately available, many readers will forgive cliff hangers. However, I still hate these cliffhangers, and so do other readers, because they are still not a satisfactory ending.
An Editor’s Advice on Getting to the End
Before you can write an ending that satisfies your readers, you might have to write a couple of unsatisfactory ones, but you can’t do this if you never reach the end. You also can’t get good at endings if you don’t practice them. So don’t stop until you’ve finished the first draft. Tricks you can use to help you get there are outlines, writing the ending first, and not revising as you go along. An outline ensures you know where you’re going, so does writing the ending first. Writing the ending first also makes sure you actually write an ending. Not revising as you draft means you don’t get burnt out or fed up before you reach the end. Whether you use one, two, all three, or none of these tricks, keep writing. Answer your questions, keep your promises to your readers, and leave them feeling an emotion to write a satisfactory ending and Ignite Your Ink.
What books have the most satisfactory endings for you? Share them in comments below. For help crafting your endings, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink and get your free Revision Checklist.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.