1. Always keep in mind what is expected in the genre you’re writing. If you’re writing a category romance, then the hero and heroine must unite at the end. If you’re writing a mystery, you must solve it by the end. There are a few cases where a mystery novel doesn’t solve the mystery, and they just come off as irritating and lazy. On the other hand, if you’re writing a story that just happens to have a love story, you have much more flexibility on how the couple ends up.
2. Avoid the dreaded deus ex machina. I previously wrote about deus ex machina. In most cases, you should not take the character(s)’ destiny out of their own hands. Force them to make the tough choices.
3. Think more in terms of appropriate ending rather than satisfying ending. I know some (maybe many) will disagree with me, but I LOATHE the term “satisfying ending.” It’s a story, not a Snickers bar. You need to write the appropriate ending for the story you are telling. It may end up disturbing your reader. It may even make them mad. That doesn’t mean it’s not the right ending.
There are people who are angry to this day that Jack dies at the end of Titanic. However, there are several good reasons why he does: most 3rd class male passengers on the Titanic perished, it would have been an absurd coincidence if, out of the hundreds of people who died in the water, among the handful who survived were both the characters we were following, and Jack’s death is a catalyst for Rose’s growth as a character. Even with these good reasons, there are people who will still decry it—but even more would have been upset by the absurdity of Jack’s survival.
4. On the other hand, don’t be a jerk and write a miserable ending for your characters to no real purpose. Stephen King, I’m looking at you. Sometimes he writes endings that negate about 90% of what transpired in the book.
If you have to do something like kill off a beloved character, or not bring the romantic couple together, or have the hero not attain a goal—make sure there are very, very good reasons for doing so, as in my Titanic example.
Also, don’t compose some huge plot twist solely because it seems like that’s the kind of ending that gets people talking about it. Unless it’s appropriate to the story, they’ll be talking about what a terrible ending it is.
Ask M. Night Shyamalan.
5. Struggling to find a way to end things? Compose an event that brings most of the characters together. A battle, a wedding, a birth, a trial, a funeral…any event that would make most of the characters congregate is often a good way to end things.
6. If you’re REALLY struggling to find a way to end things—go back to the beginning. I can’t tell you how many times I was unhappy or unclear about how a story should end. I almost always found the answer by going back to the early part of the story. OR, I would go back and rewrite part of the beginning to help me compose a better ending. It’s a bizarre phenomenon, but sometimes writers unconsciously lay out the groundwork for the ending in the early part of the story.
7. When the story is over—STOP. You’d think this should go without saying, but some writers don’t know when to stop. One of the best (worst?) examples I can think of is the movie adaptation of Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides. The major plotline—what happened that traumatized the main character during his childhood—is resolved, and then the movie goes on for almost another half-hour, concentrating on the subplot of the romance between him and his psychiatrist.
If you have to wrap up subplots after the main conflict is resolved, do it quickly, and then get out. Few things are worse than a story that keeps on going after it has pretty much ended.
8. On the other hand, beware of too much build up with too quick a resolution. One of my biggest beefs with the Twilight series was endless build up to confrontations that were then too easily and too quickly resolved. If you keep promising the reader an epic confrontation, then you should follow through with it.
9. You don’t have to tie up every little plot string, but tie up most of them. Everything doesn’t have to be neat and pat—in fact, that usually annoys readers—but don’t forget to deal with all major points.
10. Epilogues: I kind of like them. I generally can’t stand prologues, but epilogues are a different matter. Prologues usually end up as a way to front-load a lot of exposition. Epilogues are a way to give readers a peak into the future of the characters.
Are they strictly necessary? No. But I appreciated both of the epilogues in Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows (a very hopeful tone) and Mockingjay (hopeful, but also melancholy). Both stayed true to their stories’ tone, themes, and main characters.