Endings in Fantasy

I’ve written about beginnings, but now it’s time to talk about endings.

Not gonna lie, I have trouble with endings. I’m far more confident in beginning and high point middle parts. That being said, the show must go on, but it must also end.

So let’s talk about endings.

Don’t Rush It

Fast-paced does not equal rushed. A rushed ending is obvious. Either the writer needed to meet a deadline and very quickly tied up the loose ends, got bored and arbitrarily ended the adventure, or something.

You need to consider your endings just as carefully as any other important point in the story. If you aren’t being pressured by actual deadlines then don’t rush it. If you need to set it down and leave it for a bit, that’s fine.

Do what you need to get the best possible ending you can. Your characters have been through a lot and so have you when writing their story. You all deserve a well crafted ending.

The End is Connected to Everything that Came Before

Every writer makes promises to the reader, usually early on in the story. If you’re promising a war, or a big battle, then there better be one.

If your character has done everything to get what they want, and you suddenly rip it from their hands on the last page, that’s a cheat.

The ending isn’t some detached “and they all went off into sunset blah blah blah” entity. The ending has to fit with the promises you made earlier, it has to fit with the story. Otherwise it will feel out of place. It won’t fit.

Now, you can change it. If you come up with a brilliant ending, but it doesn’t fit with what you have written, then you can change some of the story to work. But keep it neat and crisp.

Have a Trajectory

I have a confession to make. Yes, I outline. I outline like crazy. But I almost never have a clear ending in mind while I’m writing. Is this bad? No. But I like knowing where I’m going so I don’t get lost in the infinite options that aren’t suited for what I’m writing.

So at least have a trajectory. Know your styles, strengths, and above all know, in some way, what you want.

For example, I tend to write darker fantasy. This usually means that the endings have some sort of tragic element. But I prefer more of a gray not completely “good” and not completely “bad” ending. So in this way I know what I want.

What that means to you is completely up to you. How you execute what you want is completely up to you. Have some kind of direction or some of idea of the tone, message, etc. you want.

The Ending is Not the Climax

This is obvious, but what I mean by this is that it’s generally a good rule of thumb to not have the same level of intensity for your climax as you do for the ending. If you remember high school English class, you know that the ending is usually the resolution part.

Your ending can be emotional, heartfelt, gut wrenching, joyous, etc. but the level of super intense action is strongest when reserved for the climax. Whether that’s your showdown or your big battle, your ending should be different.

Pick the tone you want for your ending. Pick one. Is it sad? Joyous? Tragic? Whatever it is, choose and keep with it. Don’t jump all over the place. Don’t try to shove everything in there. The simpler, the better in this case.

Keep the Character Arcs in Mind

This is the question I ask myself when I’m stuck on endings: Where does the character/do the characters start, and where do they end up? This is the arc.

Generally, the arc means that the character ends up in a different place than they start. One of my works in progress has a character who starts off in a faction, happy and content, but she ends up as a ruler of a different land (it’s much more complicated than that, but I digress). She is in a completely different place physically, emotionally, mentally, etc. than when/where she started.

This can really clue you in and narrow your choices as to where you want the character to be at the end. “I know I want my character to end up here, now how do I get there?” It doesn’t mean you have to give them a good ending or give the character what they want, but it should be in line with the arc. Where are your characters going? Where do you want them at the end?

The second thing to keep in mind with endings and characters is: How do they change? In one of my writing courses we talked about how the protagonist is the one that changes (or changes the most.) This can apply to more than just the protagonist, but I believe is especially important for the protagonist.

How did the protagonist change? What did they learn? What did they gain/lose? How does all this culminate in where they end up at the end of the story?

Go Back to the Beginning

These are pretty consistently good endings. They make the story a neater package.

Having your characters go back to the beginning of the story in some way is powerful. It shows what happened, what changed, how the characters changed. This is what is sometimes called a “bookends” ending.

Your run away royal returns to their home-castle that they ran away from in chapter one. What’s different? Is the castle still standing? Has someone else taken over? Do your characters even fit in there anymore?

Maybe some minor character from chapter one shows back up. Maybe the character finds their diary in some rubble or an object that belonged to a loved one we met in chapter one.

When in doubt about your ending, think back to the beginning. Who was your character on the first page? Where were they? What did they want? How has that changed?

Show that change by going back to the beginning.

Don’t Make it too Easy

This is a very personal thing. I like a bittersweet ending. I have a hard time believing our noble hero can go out, save the day, win it all, get the girl/guy, etc. and have this perfect ending without suffering any loss, disadvantage, etc. along the way. For me, it’s too easy.

There’s nothing wrong with not giving your characters what they want. You don’t have to have a perfectly “good” or “bad” ending. You don’t have to choose between a tragedy and comedy. You can have it all.

Lord of the Rings is considered to pretty “tropey” (a lot of tropes were invented there, but I digress). Sauron was defeated, the day was saved, Sam gets the girl, Merry and Pippin are heroes, Aragorn becomes king, and all our favorite characters get a happy end. But they don’t. Frodo was unable to fully recover physically and mentally from the burden he carried with the Ring and the ordeal he went through. He ends up leaving Middle Earth to find peace. It’s bittersweet, but it’s beautiful. It’s exactly the ending that is deserved and that fits. And it wasn’t an easy road to get there.

Even if your characters win, they can also lose. This is part of what I talked about with having them change as they go. Let them feel loss, pain, grief, regret, and sadness alongside their relief.

Avoid Tricks and “Gotcha!” Endings

The most common example of this that drives me up a wall is “it was all just a dream.” NO NO NO NO NO NO!

Has this been done well? Yes. Can it be done well? Of course. But be warned, this has the risk of driving people nuts. You want to move the reader, but you don’t want to make them pissed at you, the writer.

Why do gotchas and cheap tricks suck (most of the time)? Because nothing mattered. The characters we loved and shared this adventure with aren’t real/don’t matter. The lessons, the loss, the joy, none of it mattered. If a character (or even worse, someone in our world who had this fantastic dream) just gets up and goes to work smiling about this awesome dream they had, then what was the point? The person who woke up learned nothing. The characters were just fake. That’s it.

It doesn’t make the writer seem profound. It completely negates the story you were trying to tell. A writer spent all this time on this beautiful story just to rip it from our hands? Not fair.

Don’t trick your readers with gimmicks and gotchas. Move them instead.

The Ending is Still Part of the Story

Looking at you, epilogues.

Epilogues can work and be good, but remember your final chapter, epilogue, or what have you is still part of the story. I don’t care if it takes place an hour after the climax or 50 years later. The problem is it turns into a narration of what happened after the climax. All sense of any action or change is halted, and the characters sit there musing about life and death or there’s some weird, out of place narration of “Lady SideCharacter married Lord Never-Heard-of-Him and she ruled with peace and love for the common people, while our hero rode off into the sunset never to be heard from again.”

Boring.

Keep the ending a part of the action. Maybe the action isn’t as intense. Maybe it’s calm, but at least have the characters doing something. Don’t shove in a bunch of exposition ridden conversations. Keep it character focused. What changed in the world from their viewpoint? How do they feel about it? What do they care about?

The world doesn’t end just because the story did. The characters will be doing something else now. Whether that’s returning home, starting new careers, moving on in some way, etc. Show the change. Show where they’ll be heading once the story is over. If they do nothing, show that.

Avoid the Urge to be “Profound”

You can have an incredibly moving and profound ending without forcing it. Remember you’re number goal shouldn’t be to teach the reader a lesson, it’s to tell a story. Even if there is some moral lesson involved, the higher purpose is storytelling. That’s why I encourage you to avoid some obvious statement like “And Protagonist McGee realized that elves and humans could live in peace, if only they saw the best in each other.” Boring.

Even if that is your lesson, don’t tell us like that. Show it. Or don’t have a lesson at all. Just focus on telling a story.

You can have a deeper meaning that’s wrapped in all sorts of pretty symbolism and what not, but remember the reader wants to know first and foremost what became of their favorite characters. That’s your number one priority, in my mind. The other stuff is cool, but secondary.

Show it, Don’t Tell it.

If your world is now at peace, don’t tell the reader the that by saying “FantasyLand was now at peace.” instead show it. Have your character seeing or interacting with people from some previous “enemy” nation and it’s not a big deal. Show the character moving safely through the world without fear for their life.

Instead of saying “Protagonist McGee decided to take on the life of an adventurer and preferred to not to settle down.” show me. Show them setting up camp and sitting down to read letters from their companions who moved on. Just something, anything other than stating it.

Keep it Sensical

As with anything in writing, you’re going to have to justify your choices. This is another “don’t cheat/trick your readers” point.

This is my big gripe with The Hunger Games. Katniss, the main character, said in the story she didn’t want to have kids. But she settled down with the love interest and in the epilogue he wanted babies and she was just cool with it. Now, it’s fine that she changed her mind, but the problem is nothing in the story proper made me believe that Katniss would do or want that.

If your character is a run-away teenage royal spent his/her whole arc avoiding politics and marriage, then it makes no sense for them to be all “Just kidding!” and go back and marry and rule. If you had showed me in the story that he/she considered it, or was willing to sacrifice their desires for that, or whatever, then I might believe it. Otherwise it’s sudden and weird.

Build on What Happened Before

This is a part two of the former point, sorta.

If you have some out of the blue ending, then it’s going to be hard to pull off. However, if that’s the ending you want/need. You have to weave those hints and clues throughout the story. This could be foreshadowing, this could be the characters doing things that authentically lead to that ending. That’s fine. But you need to clue the reader in on it.

If it’s mysterious, then you have to establish that at the beginning. Again, it will feel too sudden and senseless otherwise. The ending is an authentic resolution of the events that came before it. Changing all the rules that you worked so hard to establish just for the end is cheap and inauthentic.

This is the problem with Deus ex Machina. This is the problem with epilogues that say “And 10 years later our outlaw who hated authority, and passionately detested the law became leader of the guard, well respected by all!”

If you want a character to change significantly, you have to show them changing as they story moves on. You have to follow their arc in that way. If you’ve established rules of the world and for the characters, having them suddenly change their mind because of some weird internal epiphany, the reader will feel tricked or angry. It’ll look like that character went off the deep end in some way.

Now, if you have a character who significantly changed for no reason like this, show other characters reacting to this. “Man, Protagonist McGee really lost it after the Big Final Battle.” it might make more sense because the reader will see “Oh, Protagonist McGee really lost their mind.” But be warned, this is tricky.

Ambiguous/Open Endings

Not gonna lie, a lot of this is personal preference. It’ll depend on the individual reader whether or not they like this kind of ending.

Personally, if I invest time and emotions into a story, especially an epic fantasy, I like to know what happened. I want clarity. Do I need a detailed explanation of things that don’t impact the characters? Not really. But I do want to know something of what became of them.

I know people that hate open endings with a passion. I’m sometimes one of them. But it all depends.

Does this ending make sense? Is this the ending you want, or did you choose it because you got bored or didn’t know how to end this thing? Does it fit with the tone you set for the story?

Politely Decline the Cheese

Remember when the final Harry Potter book came out? A lot of the fanbase thought the epilogue wasn’t great.

I’m not big into the HP fanbase, but I didn’t like the epilogue either. To me, it was too clean. There was this huge battle, the magical wizard world wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, there were big power vacuums and holes that had to be dealt with, our favorite characters had a lot of emotional stuff to work through. But the epilogue was just our favorite characters, well into adulthood and literally “All was well.”, sorry I call BS.

But I digress, the biggest issue was the cheesiness. It was a bit too cutesy, too corny.

But how do you avoid this? Go for authentic. Not corny. You’ll feel the urge to have some cutesy humor, or a corny line to end, resist it. Just end it authentically. Don’t try too hard to make it profound or clean or perfect or whatever.

Keep the Reader in Mind

This is another issue I have with the Harry Potter epilogue. Pages before, there was this huge battle of loss and triumph, but then you flip to the epilogue and the tone was so drastically different it felt really off putting. Maybe if I had put down the book after the battle, moved on from it, picked up the epilogue and read it later I would have felt differently.

Remember the reader here. If you have this huge climax with all these things happening, and it’s extremely well done, and the reader is so moved, then the ending is going to compliment that.

I’m not saying make it a sad/bad ending, but this is why bittersweet endings work really well. The reader is soothed, but it doesn’t feel like the characters are just over the big climax. This is a problem with having a huge climactic event and then an epilogue on the next page that takes place 20 years later.

Your characters might be healed, moved on and are now living mundane, normal lives. But your readers may not be in the same place. If there was this huge climactic event, they want to know how your characters are going to react, what they do to rebuild, where they decide to go. Showing the characters making these choices instead of showing how they are 20 years down the line might be the stronger choice.

Parting Words

That was a lot to take in, but keep a few things in mind. Focus on the ending you want and that works for you. Make it authentic and have it be the one that you, your readers, and your characters deserve.

Writing Prompt:

Write an ending to a current work in progress of yours. Go bold, go big. It can be anything you want. See what you discover and how it may lend itself to an actual ending of your final product.

Consider:

  • Where do I want my characters to end up?
  • Is this the ending I imagined? Is this the ending I want?
  • What happened before that could lead to this ending?

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