As we investigated the different types of endings in my class, there became a clear theme: Earn your Endings. Everyone and everything in your book has to earn those final words. The characters have to earn it. The story arc has to earn it. The writing has to earn it.
YOU have to earn it.
So how does one earn an ending?
The short answer is: No one really knows. But that's a lame answer, so instead, let's think about a few categories that endings can fall into and how to make them work.
1) Happy or Sad?
While the final pages of your novel can be a combination of happy and sad, oftentimes endings can be grouped into these two categories. Does the novel have an uplifting end? Or does everything come crashing down, leaving the characters stranded? Whatever the case, you have to make sure the tone of the ending feels true to the rest of the story.
How to do this? Well, in a few simple words, happy endings don't work without struggle, and tragic endings don't work without hope. A happy ending does not feel true to us unless we think their might be a chance that things might not work out. We must worry for the characters and wonder how they're going to get out of this situation. Likewise, a tragedy doesn't work unless we have some hope that they'll make it through. We can't be resigned to the fact that everyone is going to die or we don't care. Remember this line from Hunger Games?
That's important story advice from President Snow. Without a little hope, we don't feel the loss. In your endings, happy or sad, a taste of what will not be makes the outcome all the more sweet. Or bitter.
2) The Great Twist
So you want your ending to be unpredictable, huh? I mean, that's what a lot of people want from their stories. They want a twist a la Sixth Sense to shock the pants off their readers. Everyone likes a good twist. But the funny thing about twists is that they're never completely unpredictable. If they are, then they don't feel true to the story. For instance, Bruce Willis, at the end of Sixth Sense, could have been revealed to be a vampire. But that wouldn't work because it wasn't built up. There were several hints throughout Sixth Sense hinting at his true nature throughout the movie. That's why it hits us so hard. Because we should have SEEN that. It was right under out noses and then it socked us right in the mouth.
When it comes to your ending, the audience reaction shouldn't be confusion. It should be "What?" followed immediately by. "Oh. Of course!"
3) Arc Completion
When you start a story, you begin an arc. So that arc, for better for worse, must come to a resolution. That means your characters have to go through some sort of satisfying change and that their story line needs to be resolved. It doesn't have to be tied up in a little bow, but if you leave things unsaid, at least tease at a resolution. That way the reader can imagine what might have happened after the 'The End'. The characters don't have to reach an epiphany. But they should reach SOMETHING and that something should be built into their arc throughout the story. If your characters earn the ending, then chances are you will too.
Those are just three tips to look at when writing endings. Obviously you could probably write a whole book on this topic. But remember, your ending is the final thing the reader sees before they return to the real world. Make the words linger. Don't let them leave completely.
A good opening hooks you in. A good ending echoes in your mind for days after.