How to Write a Novel: Tip #12 Great Endings Sell Books
Savvy writers of commercial fiction understand that the ending of a book must serve a dual purpose:
1) The ending is where your final (and most important) plot thread is logically resolved.
2) The ending is a sales tool for your next novel – whether that book is a sequel or a single-title.
In every fiction-writing course that I have taken, the instructors spend a great deal of time explaining how to open the book. They talk about Chapter One being the “egg” or “seed” from which all subplots or plot twists must logically derive.
But I have yet to take a novel-writing course that gives more than passing mention to the importance of a book’s ending – at least, not in terms of building sales, and therefore, careers.
“Nobody reads a (novel) to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If it’s a let down, they won’t buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.”
~ Mickey Spillane, American Crime Novelist
In commercial fiction (as opposed to literary fiction), the book’s ending is supposed to be happy. Readers expect the guy to get the girl, the murder to be solved, the world to be saved, etc. If you disappoint your reader in this fundamental way, then you’ve lost that reader for life.
Most commercial fiction writers understand this concept. What they may not understand is just how far the last few paragraphs of a book can go toward building their career.
Think of it this way: Readers indulge in 400+ pages of commercial fiction for entertainment. They agree to live “in the skin” of your hero because they want to experience the vicarious thrill of the romance and/or the adventure. Your reader wants to feel rewarded for accompanying you, as tour guide, through all the highs, lows, and twists of your plot.
If you lead your reader to a final destination that is a cliché, or worse, a disappointment, you might as well pack up your dreams of becoming a bestselling author. Your reader isn’t going to rush for his credit card when news of your next book hits the Internet.
The key ingredient for making a book’s ending memorable is the emotion on the page. Obviously, Book III in a trilogy is going to dish out a slightly different emotion than Book II. Cliff-hangers are never entirely happy.
Even when concluding a mid-series book, however, you have to leave your readers with an element of hope. Otherwise, a commercial fiction reader (who wants happy endings) is going to be squeamish about investing money in your next novel.
For me, the last paragraph of a novel is as difficult to write as the first. For weeks, I struggled to “nail” the ending of each of my books. I was searching for a pithy one-liner. (Pithy one-liners aren’t a requirement for a good ending; I just happen to like them.) Unfortunately, my Writing Muse didn’t always cooperate.
At some point, you have to decide your book is finished, even if you didn’t find that pithy one-liner. In my case, deadlines always colored my books’ endings, because I was under contract with a legacy publishing house.
In the modern world of Indie Publishing, deadlines may be more lax, but deciding to move on, to let that book go, can still be a struggle if you don’t feel, in your gut, that you’ve achieved the level of sentiment that you’ve been striving for.
My best advice at this point is to stay true to your characters. Let them write the ending for you. In my own novel writing career, I discovered that my “funny” heroes and heroines provided more clever (and in my mind, more memorable) endings than my “strait-laced” characters.
Let me give you an example from my second Western historical Romance, Texas Lover. (A couple of scene logistics, first: The hero is a Texas Ranger. He is seated on his horse, and the heroine is seated in front of him, in the saddle. This excerpt is written from the heroine’s point of view.)
Ending for the Western historical Romance, Texas Lover:
He chuckled, spurring Two-Step out of the yard and into the dancing orange and yellow flowers of the meadow.
“Darlin’, I’m done chasing bad men.” His hand strayed down her ribs in the naughtiest, pulse-stirring way. “Now I just want to be one.”
In Texas Lover, the humorous innuendo worked. However, an ending doesn’t have to be a ripsnorter (as we Western writers say) to make it memorable.
More to the point, forcing humor is a bad idea.
Let me give you an example from a movie.
One of the reasons I love James Bond as a character is because he always has some witticism that diffuses the tension. But in the movie, The World is Not Enough, the name of the female protagonist (Dr. Christmas Jones) never rang true for me – possibly because the model who was cast as Christmas couldn’t act. (But I digress.)
At the end of the movie, I realized that the screenwriters invented the character’s name for one reason, and one reason only: to set up Bond’s one-liner at the end. Since the actress never sold me on the character, I groaned when I heard the one-liner.
Listen folks, even a great actor can’t pull off a writer’s forced humor.
Want to know what that one-liner was? Okay. Here goes: (Spoiler Alert!)
The moral of this story?
Don’t make your readers want to gag by forcing humor down their throats!
As a writer, your job is to give your readers a satisfying ending Whether you choose humor, poignancy, suspense, or some other emotional hook, your ultimate goal is to leave your reader with hope. Show your reader that good still triumphs over evil. Prove that love really does conquer all. That’s what your readers want from the ending of a commercial fiction novel.
And in the end, hope is what will make your readers buy your next book.
Now it’s your turn! Which novel that you’ve read (or written) had the most memorable ending, and why? Share your tips in the comments section, below.
‘Til next time, keep the faith, and keep writing!
This post concludes our 12-week series, How to Write a Novel: Tips and Best Practices.
Here are the links to the fiction writing tips in this series: