By Paul Goat Allen
Straight from the files of Stating the Obvious comes the next BlueInk blog about the monumental importance of a novel’s conclusion. It’s a no-brainer, right? Your novel needs a memorable ending in order to have any chance at commercial success.
But then why do so many novels have weak conclusions?
As a book critic who has reviewed more than 10,000 titles over the last few decades for companies like PW, Kirkus, The Chicago Tribune—and as a writing instructor in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program—it amazes me how many times I’ve seen a well-conceived and adeptly written narrative laid low by a head-scratching ending.
Here’s something for you to consider. If I review a novel—regardless of genre category—that has solid character development, plot intricacy, pacing, etc. but that has a deeply unsatisfying ending, chances are good that the novel in question will receive a mediocre or even poor review. But, conversely, a flawed novel with a kick-ass ending could receive a glowing review.
The bottom line: a great ending makes up for many narrative inadequacies.
It’s the last thing readers experience—so it behooves you to leave your readers satisfied, right?
Reader expectation plays a role, of course. Romance readers expect a certain kind of ending, as do mystery aficionados. Thriller fans expect some kind of twist at novel’s end. Fantasy fans—used to lengthy series—may be a bit more forgiving when it comes to conclusions, but they still expect a resolution of some sort instead of a simple respite before the next installment.
That being said, there is a variety of ways to end your novel on a high note including the following popular options:
• A decisive solution to a conflict
• an explanation of a mystery
• a jaw-dropper of a statement
• a bombshell plot twist
• an emotionally intense scene
• a thought-provoking image
Virginia Nelson’s The Most Important Thing—an emotionally powerful rollercoaster ride about a woman’s struggle to come to terms with her estranged mother—features an unlikely romance that powers the novel’s narrative to a decisive resolution. It’s a deeply satisfying conclusion that ties up all of the story’s loose ends perfectly.
“He kept his word, both on the table and the bed, because Vaughn Thornton was a wonderful husband. Afterward, they lay entwined on the mattress with moonlight making their bodies look as silver as dolphin backs. “I love you, Poppy.”
‘Love you too,’ she whispered. It was a snow globe moment, she decided, touching her necklace with a smile.
It was enough.”
The conclusion of Brian James Gage’s The Sommelier—the second installment of his Nosferatu Conspiracy saga—is a great example of an ending that resolves a mystery while also ending on an emotionally intense, brass knuckle punch to the skull. One of the main characters, finally understanding exactly who (or what) he is, vows to rain hell down on the forces of darkness:
“Felix sheathed his blade as his roar echoed back from the gorge. The angst and worry that once pervaded his mind were absent. The former Russian prince—once alone and wayward—now stood triumphant, the one great hope of a world poised on the brink of destruction. Confidence and wisdom beckoned to him for the first time in his life as he stood before the world as a powerful warlock.
For my friends, for the world. I am the harbinger of light.
Felix walked down the stairs toward Nima.
Squinting into the sun and relishing the light, Felix swore an oath that this festering darkness would crumble.
For soon, his enemies would come to fear his name—Felix Felixovich Yusupov, the Last Seraph.”
A Portion of Malice by Lloyd Jeffries—the first book in his Ages of Malice saga—is what I would call an arcane thriller that revolves around a down-and-out Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who becomes entangled in a conflict between immortals. I really enjoyed this read up until the conclusion and although there wasn’t a satisfying resolution, Jeffries made up for it with a powerhouse of a statement that teased the sequel to the book entitled A Measure of Rhyme.
“You are the Antichrist.”
What a great line—and a brilliant way to tease the reader for the sequel!
When it comes to an emotionally intense conclusion, anyone who has ever read Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes will remember that iconic tear-inducing ending where the main character Charlie loses his newly gained mental capacity—like his mouse friend Algernon—and reverts back to his former intelligence level:
“Anyway I bet Im the frist dumb persen in the world who found out some thing importent for sience. I did somthing but I dont remembir what. So I gess its like I did it for all the dumb pepul like me in Warren and all over the world…
P.S. please if you get a chanse put some flowers on Algernons grave in the bak yard.”
The conclusion of A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.—arguably one of the most powerful post-apocalyptic novels ever written—has a profoundly moving and downright unforgettable ending powered by unforgettable imagery, describing a seacoast after humankind has essentially destroyed itself again:
“The breakers beat monotonously at the shores, casting up driftwood. An abandoned seaplane floated beyond the breakers. After a while the breakers caught the seaplane and threw it on the shore with the driftwood. It tilted and fractured a wing. There were shrimp carousing in the breakers, and the whiting that fed on the shrimp, and the shark that munched the whiting and found them admirable in the sportive brutality of the sea. A wind came across the ocean, sweeping with it a pall of fine white ash. The ash fell into the sea and into the breakers. The breakers washed dead shrimp ashore with the driftwood. Then they washed up the whiting. The shark swam out to his deepest waters and brooded in the old clean currents. He was very hungry that season.”
I’ve reviewed this novel multiple times—because of new anniversary editions released over the years—and the conclusion hits me like a sledge hammer every time.
Regardless of how you end your novel, ask yourself these questions:
• Does it work?
• Is it memorable?
• Will it satisfy your readers?
If you’re not certain of these answers, you may want to go back and revise your conclusion before releasing it to the masses.
It’s not just important. To many readers—and reviewers—it’s everything!
Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program.