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Weak Endings: Why You Write Them, How to Avoid Them

I've been reading books from many genres recently, primarily because I've run out of options in my own. Humor has a very limited selection. Most humor books are non-fiction—breezy essay collections and memoirs by celebrity comedians and talk-show hosts. If you take those out of the pool, the few remaining novels labeled "humor" aren't even comedy proper. They're romances or mysteries with a few quirky characters who spout a few funny lines. Take those out, and you're basically left with three things: novels by people who think anything involving natural body parts and functions is hilarious, novels written by people named PG Wodehouse or Douglas Adams many decades ago, and children's books.

So I've been sampling bestsellers in dystopian sci-fi (Wool), psychological thrillers (Gone Girl), and cozy mysteries (this, that, and the other title featuring middle-aged divorcees with psychic powers who solve murders while savoring mountains of delicious pastries with herbal tea).

And across all genres, I notice one disappointing trend: weak endings.

A book starts out strong, with an attention-grabbing premise and dynamic characters. A quarter of the way through, it starts to lose steam. Cliches pop up like bad pennies, protagonists lose focus, the tone sinks from funny or adventurous or eerie to "meh." But you keep chugging along, thinking it will pick up soon because you're only 30% in and it must go somewhere, right?

But it doesn't. By the 50% mark it's a dull, half-baked mess. By 70% you get tired of waiting for "somewhere." You skim the rest. Maybe you skip to the last few pages. And there you find that the book simply stops. It sputters to a halt, loose ends dangling in the wind. You presume this is The End because there are no more words.

There are several reasons that weak endings are so common in literature, popular or otherwise.

1. Writers start at the beginning.

Nobody sees a fascinating story in the news, or wakes up from a strange dream, or has a nifty idea during a conversation with friends and says, "Hey, that would be a great ending for a novel!"

Writers start with beginnings. Sometimes they start with backstories. They start with promising buds of ideas that may or may not make a good novel-length story. They start with an exciting opening scene, or a particular setting or cast of characters, or some inkling of the moral or themes.

But then many don't look beyond the beginning. They just start writing, hoping they'll figure out the story along the way. Then when they run out of ideas or interest—when they've written all the fun parts and all that's left is that troublesome "going somewhere" thing—they tack on some blase resolution just because it has to end somehow.

2. Publishers and readers buy beginnings.

People don't write strong endings because, frankly, they don't have to. Beginnings sell books; endings don't matter.

What's on the back-cover blurb or Amazon product page for any book? The set-up. The cursory backstory, the inciting incident. Maybe some overinflated praise of the author's genius, if the book really isn't very good and all they have to sell it is the famous name.

People rarely talk about endings. They don't reveal endings in reviews because it's bad form to "spoil." They're also comparatively lenient about endings—a mediocre ending doesn't make or break a book the way a mediocre first page does. If people like the setup, and they like the first chapter preview, they buy. They won't see the bad ending until they get there.

So if a writer/agent/publisher needs to pick and choose where to place their energies, the ending takes the lowest priority. The hook is everything, the ending is an afterthought.

3. Writers polish the beginning and slack on the ending.

If you write somewhat linearly, like I do, the first few chapters will be written long before the later ones. As I write the rest, the early chapters have time to sit and solidify. I go back and polish them up. I reread them with fresh eyes, give them to beta readers, spot the flaws and fix them.

Then the later chapters get the shaft. By the time I reach chapter 16, I'm tired of rewrites. I just want to get them done and move on. It's like the curse of birth order. The first child gets the Baby Einstein toys, the music lessons, the assiduous fussing over every scrape and cough. The sixteenth child, well, if she stays out of drugs and jail, that's good enough.

The problem is, the ending chapters are the hardest to pull off. They need extra attention, extra rewrites that they won't get. In the final build to the climax, the writing has to tighten, not slack. The mood is fragile—you have to ratchet up the action and intensity higher, higher, until the BOOM.

Too many books are front-loaded. They're all high energy at the outset, and then they have nothing left at the end. A basic story arc should look like this:

Story Arc

But the energy arc for front-loaded books looks like this:

Energy Arc

These arcs also double as graphs of the readers' interest and emotional investment. Graph #1 is good. Graph #2 is bad.

If your early-to-middle chapters are a bit boring, people will keep reading because they look forward to the "somewhere" to come. But if you get sloppy at the climax, you compromise the emotional payoff.


Writing a strong ending is hard, much harder than writing a strong beginning. So what can you do about it?

Think early, and think hard.

Good endings don't materialize out of thin air by themselves, even if you think (or hope) they will when you get there. It's best to know more or less how a story will end before you even begin writing it.

If you're following the logical classic arc, the ending will contain much that influences the way you write the beginning and middle. As I've said before, and as brighter people said before me, the problem with a "bad ending" often isn't in the ending itself, but in the middle leading up to it. If you don't know where you're going with a story, you're certainly not going to plot it very well. It's like hopping in the car for a trip with no destination, and trying to wing your way to somewhere good. It rarely works out.

Keep at it.

Endings are hard. You won't get it right on the first try. You won't get the rest right on the first try, either, but fixing the rest won't be quite so tiring as fixing the ending.

First, you'll be sick of the book by the time you get there (see #3, above).

Second, the ending is an emotional peak—or it had better be—and emotions are tricky and draining.

Third, no matter which genre you write, the climax will be darker than the rest of the book. It will have the highest concentration of conflict, of uncertainty, of "how on earth are they going to get themselves out of this?" That's how you create excitement and tension, and that's how you can drive yourself crazy.

Don't shy away.

To write an exciting climax and resolution, you often have to deal with emotions that are embarrassing or difficult or just plain unpleasant to deal with.

If you shy away from the embarrassment or unpleasantness, rush through it because this part isn't light and bubbly fun like the rest, you've lost it. Bianca Goes to NYC pops to mind yet again. So does anything written by Jane Austen—her endings are so maddening because she dumps the whole big bang into a few cursory sentences to get all that blushing happy ending stuff out of the way.

From Pride and Prejudice:

Elizabeth was too much embarrassed to say a word. After a short pause, her companion added, "You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever."

Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.

That's it. After hundreds of pages of dancing around "Are they going to get hitched or not?," there's your answer. Now onwards and upwards.

At least in JA's time strong emotions, especially of a sexual nature, were not to be expressed directly. Modern writers have no excuse. Even today many people can't, or don't bother, to attack their climaxes head on, and then they end up with these wishy-washy endings that drag on or splutter out.


Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt (October 2, 2014, 9:43 pm)

I got my ending first. Then I scrambled to make the players in the ending have a plausible beginning. The in-between part, making it happen, has been crazy, chaotic, and fun - and always pointed toward the end.

But then I'm an extreme plotter.

I don't understand writing without a solid end. How do you answer the question of whether to keep something or not, if you can't determine whether it is absolutely necessary for the ending or not?

Each writer is different, but I generally don't like the endings the non-plotters produce, so I manage my own writing much more tightly. And, yes - I know who they are: they like to boast they don't know where the story is going when they begin.

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