Great Endings, From The Beginning

madmenI did a dumb thing this week. After swearing up and down for months that we were going to get rid of cable, my husband and I finally pulled the trigger. Because who needs it? Waste of money.  Bigger waste of time. Good riddance.

Oh, but there’s one little catch. In my zeal for cutting that coaxial cord, I forgot that I would be missing the series finale of Mad Men, a show I have watched obsessively for the past seven seasons.

The fact that I am practically crawling out of my skin because I cannot watch the ending right now is a credit to the show’s writers. In fact, it’s the highest compliment a storyteller can earn. If your reader is so invested in the characters that it is literally uncomfortable to have the resolution of the story withheld, then the writer did something very right.

While compelling endings come in many flavors, they share a few common attributes. First, the lead character should be faced with the opportunity for meaningful change. This is what the plot has been building toward since the beginning. Whatever equilibrium was set out in the beginning of the novel was disrupted by the inciting incident—the event that set the protagonist on their journey. And, throughout the novel, the protagonist has danced with this opportunity for change, moving closer, pulling back, stepping to the side. But, in the end, the question must be answered—is this person going to change or not?

Second, even if the path toward the ending seems clear, the lead character must retain the capacity to screw the whole thing up, right until the end. This is a function of both the character’s weakness and their free will—two things that make a character realistic. A character with both the desire to move forward and the tendency to fall behind creates a tension necessary to drive toward the ending.

Finally, once the ending is revealed, it must feel inevitable. Surprises are sure to come along in a novel’s final pages, but the characters should remain internally consistent. Despite the tension described above and the twists and turns of the final act, the resolution should make sense in light of everything the reader knows about the character. It should be the next logical step in a pattern the character has been building from the beginning, both revealing the character’s essence and confirming what the reader already suspected.

Of course, none of this matters unless the writer has created characters that make the reader care. This is the hard work and the great reward of an ending. It ultimately turns on whether the writer put in the work from the beginning.


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