The Three Key Elements of an Ending

I seem to find more advice on how to begin a novel than how to end it. Both parts of the story are critical. A stellar beginning entices readers to keep reading. But a phenomenal ending makes them reread and wanting the author’s other stories. As I’ve wrestled with finishing my YA mystery, A Shadow in the Snow, I’ve learned a few lessons about the three key elements of an ending.

The Climax

My Webster’s dictionary defines the climax as “the point of greatest intensity in a series of events.” As I wrote to my climax, I had to make sure that I kept building the tension by raising the stakes for my main character. Half way through the novel, I have an action sequence that puts a big twist in the path of the plot. I wanted to make this scene suspenseful and exciting, but not more than the climax. It’s like a fireworks display. It’s all right to set off some really big ones in the middle, but I need to save the most impressive ones for the end.

The Denouement

Or the wrap up, where the loose ends of the plot are tied up. This is especially important in a mystery. In the climax, the detective reveals who the culprit is. In the denouement, he must explain how he solved the mystery. The danger with this part is I will write on and on, drawing out the ending, deflating the thrill of the climax.

That was a complaint of many people who watched The Return of the King when it came out in 2003. The climax was when the One Ring was destroyed in the flames of Mount Doom. The movie continued for fifteen or twenty minutes, resolving character developments and plot points. I didn’t mind because I’d read the novel and expected these scenes. But other people thought the denouement dragged on too long.

On the other hand, I don’t want to end too abruptly. We’ve all watched shows or read books where the storyline doesn’t so much ends as quits, as if the writer lost interest. My kids pointed this out when they watched The Rescuers Down Under. In this Disney cartoon, a little boy is kidnapped by a poacher, who is hunting a rare bird. The boy is rescued, the bird saved, but my kids felt they should have shown the boy being reunited with his mother. It was a loose end left dangling.

Last lines

I’ve struggled with this with my novel because it’s so important. It’s literally the last thing people read and probably one of the things that sticks with them. Whatever mood, message, feeling I’m trying to convey throughout the story should be there in the last lines.

For my short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, I wanted an ending that would leave a smile on the face of readers. The climax is very emotional as my MC confronts the three men who could be her father and the one who tried to murder her mother. I wanted the last lines to be lighter but still carry the deep meaning of Rae finding her father.

I was inspired by the way Alfred Hitchcock ended The Man Who Knew Too Much. Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day play American parents, unwittingly involved in an international assassination plot. Their son Hank is kidnapped, and they chase the criminals across Europe, thwart the scheme, and rescue Hank unharmed in England. A few of their English friends have been waiting for them at their hotel. When the reunited family walks in, Jimmy Stewart says, “Sorry we were gone so long, but we had to pick up Hank.” I like how that line is perfectly honest, but the audience knows the true meaning while the friends only take it at face value.

What books or movies have great endings? Which ones have lousy ones?

5 thoughts on “The Three Key Elements of an Ending

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  1. Great tips- I’m sure you’ll get that satisfying ended perfectly crafted ! 🙂

    I looooove The Man Who Knew Too Much- If I had to pick a favorite film, it might win.

    I read a wonderful novel this year (pretty well known, too, so I won’t say which…) and loved it…until the last 50 pages. The last 50 pages turned the ending from hopeful (if not perfectly wrapped up) to a rather bleak conclusion. I’d almost rather have a few questions left unanswered than have the ending belabored- but I suppose that could change depending on which questions are left unanswered!

    1. I’ve sat through a lot of movies that open with a terrific beginning only to lose their way at some point before the end. Sometimes this happens when the writer wants to surprise or shock the audience, but if she doesn’t lay the ground work, the final twist feels like a cheap shot.

  2. Thanks for sharing these tips!
    I think I have the tendency to drag the ending out a little too long, and you’re so right that we want our readers to be satisfied. I really liked the endings in “The Hired Girl” by Schlitz and “100 Days of Sunlight” by Emmons. Both wrapped up loose ends concisely and happily. I agree with Anne Clare’s comment that you’ll rock the ending in your WIP!!!

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