Three Elements That Every Ending Must Have

No matter what genre you write, the three elements every ending must have are the climax, the denouement or wrap-up, and the last lines. If one of these three things are missing, readers walk away unsatisfied, perhaps not realizing why, just aware that a particular story let them down, and they will tell their friends that it “didn’t have a good ending.”

Since I’m focusing on endings this month, I’m reposting the explanations for these three elements of an ending so that in future posts, you’ll understand what I’m writing about.

The Climax

My Webster’s dictionary defines the climax as “the point of greatest intensity in a series of events.” As I wrote to the climax of my novel, A Shadow on the Snow, 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 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 fireworks 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 Kingwhen 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 struggled with this in 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, or 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?

8 thoughts on “Three Elements That Every Ending Must Have

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  1. When I was younger, the end of Rescuers Down Under drove me insane, too! XD
    Some people like more ends tied up than others, I suppose… but as a kid’s movie, that definitely should’ve been an end they dealt with.

    1. You’re right. Kids like things wrapped up at the end. That’s true for mysteries too. If a character acts suspiciously but isn’t the criminal, I have to explain at some point why that characters seemed so suspicious. Mystery fans expect it.

  2. Thank you for laying these steps out like this! It is very easy for me to drag the denouement on too long (because I want every tiny detail wrapped nicely and completely with a bow!), so I’m trying to get better at hitting enough in the wrap-up without starting the sequel in the last two chapters. And yes, the last line is sooo important!

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