Length of story comes in here. A short story is finished when you reveal the twist. A novel should finish at the point where the goal is achieved and you’ve tied up the loose ends.
A literary novel might end ambiguously, but genre readers want things neatly sorted by the end. In Romance, you’re allowed a wallow with the lovers: the HEA – happily ever after. An extended final scene exchanging vows of love ties up the loose ends. A series novel, of whatever type, still ends when the goal is achieved, but a few loose ends may be left, along with a hook for the next book.
You don’t want to keep going beyond the point of reader interest. When the story is over, it’s over. Don’t be tempted to indulge your involvement with the characters by taking them beyond the end. You will set up an expectation in the reader for another twist or turn which you are not going to fulfil.
This is good news for kids, who never think beyond the high points of action. You’ll probably have a job persuading them to tie up the loose ends!
So how do you know when the story is done? Here’s an example.
Jack has been chasing Harry and getting stopped by his henchmen. Finally he catches up with Harry for the showdown – the climax of the story. Once Jack wins this battle, that’s the end. Harry is defeated and Jack is calling the cops or slipping on the handcuffs.
The reader is capable of imagining the rest. He knows the cops will arrive, read Harry his rights, take him off to jail, give him a trial and send him down. We don’t need to follow these sequences.
Do we end the story once Jack has won? No, because there’s a loose end. Jack’s got to handle things with the girlfriend who’s left Harry and helped Jack to get him.
Author choices comes in here. With Harry down and out, Jack could think about the girlfriend and how he’s going to persuade her to go out on a date. Or – better – the girlfriend could be involved in the showdown and they could hint a plan to start dating.
Or, a short final scene could have Jack telling the girlfriend the outcome and asking her out. I would only pick this scenario, however, if there were other loose ends: other people to tell, money to collect, a debt to be paid, a boss to be appeased. Then the two things could be combined in the one scene. And I would keep it very short.
The point is that you don’t need to give the reader chapter and verse about what’s going to happen now. You just need to tie up any loose ends and hint at the probable future. The reader will do the rest. Plus, if he’s satisfied and wanting more, he may go and buy your next book!
Guest Blog by Elizabeth Bailey
Coming from professional theatre, Elizabeth Bailey taught drama for many years alongside her writing career. Multi-published, she now writes full time, both her own novels and ghostwriting, as well as critiquing for other writers. Find out more at www.elizabethbailey.co.uk