Protracted Ending

The impression left by a novel's ending is what readers remember after they put down the book. It influences how readily they will tell their friends that they liked it. A strong ending could well lead to buzz about your book.

Most authors understand the need to build to a climax. The 50-100 pages leading to the final showdown, or variation thereof, is the section of the manuscript I usually edit the least. By that point you know who your main characters are and where they’re going. But what you do after the climax? I often read manuscripts that maunder on for 20 or 30 or even 50 pages afterward. It’s like the author doesn’t know how to end the book. What is forgotten in these cases is: what is the reader feeling?

A quick look at the currents you are creating in the novel supplies the answer. If you build the story up to a titanic crest, what happens after it breaks? You can’t top your climax. More to the point, readers know you can’t top it, so they’re just waiting for you to let them go. This is particularly true with a physical book, in which they can clearly see how many pages are left. If the climax is reached and there are still 20 pages to go, they may rightly wonder: what could possibly be left that’s better than what I just read?

Once you’ve reached your high point in a novel, my advice is to get out of there fast. Reading is an immersive experience, and readers will continue to participate even if they don’t know why things have to be dragged out. All the while, however, the ensuing pages are diluting the climactic catharsis. Lesser material muddies the impact of better material. Why are we lingering, twiddling our thumbs, because you don’t have the good sense to consider what we’re feeling?

If you have any loose threads, tie them up in an epilogue. You should be able to accomplish even multiple tasks within 5-7 pages. We can exhale, enjoy the camaraderie of friends or lovers, find out about those loose ends, and we’re done. Good climax and the author has the sense to let us go. Now I can’t wait to tell my friends about this great book I’ve just read.

Exercise: Go to the end of your manuscript and locate the climactic scene. How many pages did you write after that scene ends? How many chapters did you write? If you’ve written more than one, consider the effect on the reader. Every chapter is a story unit. If your next chapter isn’t as compelling as the climax chapter, the reader is going to wonder why you thought that chapter should be included. Try to combine everything in one unit and tie all the threads up at once.

“Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.”
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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