Endings: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

This is going to be a hard post to write without spoiling people. But I wanted to talk about endings, both from a writer’s point of view and a reader’s point of view. I am past two-thirds point in Promising Power, the final book in the Protectors Series. Plus, this year I’ve finished a lot of series I’ve been reading for years. So, I’ve been thinking about endings a lot.

I’m talking about the ending to book one in a series. Not the “To Be Continued” cliffhangers of book two, but The End at the close of a series (or a standalone novel). The finish line. The closing scene. As a reader, what do I think about various endings I’ve read? And as a writer, how can I make sure my series has a satisfying ending?

The Good

There are some endings that pay off. There is no other way to describe it. You felt like your time invested in that book, every second, every tear, every laugh, was worth it. Even when you doubted the author or the characters during the read, in the end, you’re happy. Sometimes characters have a happy endings, sometimes they don’t — it’s not about the character’s ending, but the book’s ending. It’s a fragile thing. I have read books where the main character dies at the end, and I was livid. But I’ve read others where the same thing happens, but it’s done so well, I still love the book.

This is the ending we all want for the book we’re reading right now. When we reach the end, we want to put down the book and heave out a satisfied sigh, even if you’re kind of traumatized, as well. This is the ending we want to write, if we’re writers. We want our reader to feel this satisfaction. That’s the best word for it: satisfaction.

In my humble opinion, I have read some really good endings. Others disagree. Others are with me. They’re endings that are sometimes even hopeless for the characters, but I still closed the book and said, “That was a killer ending.” If you trust my judgment (and maybe you shouldn’t), try The Book Thief, The Fault in Our Stars, 1984, and Chaos Walking series.

If I’m being honest, it’s usually a great book along with an incredible ending that will get a book onto my favorites list. I have a few on there who had just okay endings, but most of them were phenomenal.

Credit: Barnes & Noble Blog

The Bad

I don’t have to describe this, do I? You know those endings. They’re the ones that make you want to throw the book across the room, if you were uncivilized enough to do such a thing. Or, worse, the ones that make you feel like you just wasted a lot of time. The ending didn’t feel natural. It felt like it came out of nowhere. It was like the author was pulling a random assortment of characters and scenes out of hat and saying, “Maybe this one will work! No? Okay, how about this?”

Of course, authors are not doing that. They’re usually trying really hard to give the book a proper ending. One that they feel fits the character and the story. I think if readers think they failed, it’s because the reader had a certain vision for the story, a certain perspective of it, that the author didn’t. Maybe it makes perfect sense to the author that it should happen, it just felt inevitable, but the reader had been reading it a completely different way. Or, unfortunately, what the author was trying to convey might not have been accomplished. Maybe they wrote a different story than they thought they had.

This is an ending that, as a writer, I want to avoid at all costs. I think paying attention to your readers is important. If you see in reviews that they see something completely different than you do, then maybe your ending should go in a different direction than you thought it would.

Fortunately, I have not read too many terrible endings. Maybe I’m easy to please. The next kind, though, oh boy. . .

The Ugly

These are those in between endings. The messy ones. You’re not sure what to think about them. You put the book down and say, “Huh?” You look online to make sure you weren’t the only one. Or the first time it left a bad taste in your mouth, but for whatever reason, you decide to read it again, and it’s okay the second time around.

One ending I’ve seen a lot, especially in YA: the easy ending. It’s a good ending, in theory, a happy ending, for the characters, but there was no sacrifice. The characters just walked through the fiery pits of despair and defeated the bad guy without a scratch. They overcame all their obstacles and no one died and it was all rainbows and puppies!

Look, I hate seeing characters suffer as much as the next person, but come on! At the core of fiction is conflict. It’s the backbone of the story, and it needs to be there the whole time, even if it’s way more intense in some spots than others.

These endings are way more common, at least in the books that I read, than the bad endings. They’re ones that make me forget the story a few months later. They’re the ones that make me give 3-star reviews or just shrug when someone asks what I thought about the book.

From a writer’s perspective, that might be worse than a furious reader. At least an upset reader cared about what happened. The “meh” reader of the ugly ending will forget about my story and my characters as though she never read them. Yikes.

What do you think? What are some endings you LOVED? If you tell us endings you hated, include a spoiler warning! Don’t be that guy.

Emily Ann Ward is the author of Finding Fiona, Le Garde series, and The Protectors series. One of her first stories featured a young girl whose doll came to life. The rest is history. Aside from writing, she loves traveling and she’s the managing editor of the Rush line for Entranced Publishing. Currently, she lives in Oregon with her husband Chris and their cats. Visit her website at http://emilyannward.com

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10 comments on “Endings: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. Great essay. There have been many times where I read a novel and loved it until the last 25 or 50 pages, when I found an ending that felt rushed or anticlimactic. It soured the whole book. In other cases, I’ve read novels that felt very ho-hum until the ending, which was so powerful it elevated the entire book. One of my favorite endings of all time was the climactic duel in Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al Rassan. This was one of those books where I found a lot of the novel as a whole to be rather tedious, but the end was both thrilling and deeply moving. I even used it as a model for the final battle scene in one of my novels.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. A great ending can lift a so-so book, and a so-so ending can drag down what was a great book. Problem is, one man’s great ending is another’s ugly finish…can’t please everyone all the time.

  3. My personal preference is for each book in a series to stand on its own. As a general rule, I don’t care for cliffhanger endings in books. I don’t mind them as much in TV series, but I like to be able to fold over the last page in a book and feel like I’ve read a complete story, even if I know the characters’ journey will continue in another book.

  4. I agree with ‘amjusticewrites’; however, each book of a series should build the tension that will climax in the final book – the ‘big’ problem, which is usually (but not always) presented in book one. In order.yo make that work, there has to be a big problem resolved in each book, but none that eclipse the main one (if that makes sense). No matter if the end is good, bad, or ugly, everything should be resolved. After editing, I set my bpok aside for a couple of weeks or months – depending on my time frame – and then do a final read, making a list of problems not yet resolved. This is handy when writing sequels, but also makes sure the reader isn’t left hanging when ‘The End’ is reached for the final time.

  5. Okay, sooo… This post is excellent and resonates with my current angst. At the moment I am not sure if this (which I will leave unnamed) will forever live in the ‘bad’ column, or if I will fine a way to forgive and forget that ‘wtf’ moment I had when I realized I was reading a modern day Shakespearean crapfest. Give me emotion, heartache, laughter and tears… Anything can be forgiven if the ending gives me a sense of resolution.

    ‘The MC’s dead but I will live on, being the person they wanted me to be, I will for them even though I want to follow them to death’s door… Etc,etc,rtc’- this is infuriating. Well written, proven by the bucket of tears, the overwhelming sobs, and the anger. But 3-5 chapters of depression, only to reach the last page swearing that you will avoid the movies surly to come (no matter how hot Theo James is) and you will hide within the pages of fantasy romance, where there is always hope, resolutions, and dang it, magic to fix the world. Okay, that may be a bit, so I digress.

    I love a happy ending, Pride and Prejudice is an oldie but will always be one of my favs. Otherwise, the series I consider emotional (I enjoy a book that can make me cry, but the ending people… Give me a reason to accept the death, the tears, the pain. Lack of resolution is an excellent way to lose me as a future readers), and worthwhile are steal running strong without that final ending. This month I am re-reading Laurell k Hamilton and Katen Chance. I already know that there are point that make me laugh, while others will leave me in tears, but that spot of hope at the end of the novel pulls me back, again and again.

    Thanks for your post. Happy writing

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