How to Craft Satisfying Endings


Writers can spend hours (days…weeks…) crafting the perfect opening to their novels—and for good reason, as readers may decide whether to buy a book based on the first couple lines. But the ending is just as important in the long run, as it strongly influences how the reader will remember your book when it comes time to review and recommend.

I can’t tell you exactly how to end your work, as it depends on the genre, whether it’s a standalone or in a series, and the specifics of your story. But I hope these guidelines spark your imagination and help you create the perfect ending for your WIP.

1. Don’t forget the denouement.

At the end of the plot pyramid is the denouement, a French term that literally means untying and functionally means the resolution of the story, which should flow from the climax. If you think of the climax as the turning point of your story, you don’t want to turn your reader into a brick wall. Sometimes I read manuscripts that only have a couple pages after the climax, and while you don’t want to go on for another hundred pages, you do want to fully resolve the conflict and allow time for the dust of the climax to settle.

2. Make sure all loose ends are tied up.

Or…untied, as the case may be. Check to ensure you’ve followed through with all the dangling plot threads. Writers sometimes get tunnel vision and resolve their protagonist’s conflict neatly but forget that they left their main character’s sister deciding whether or not to leave her husband. This is where outlining can be of use, whether you do it before or after you write your first draft.

3. Consider what feeling you want the reader to have as they close your book.       

Second only to the feeling of beginning to read a book and realizing instantly that it’s going to be one of your favorites is the feeling of satisfaction as you finish that book and reluctantly lay your new friend aside—and this feeling is only secondary because it comes with a tinge of sadness that you can never again read that book for the first time.

But that feeling of satisfaction isn’t derived from just one emotion. To give you a partial list, when a reader finishes a book, they may feel overjoyed, content, peaceful, energized, or heartbroken. So the question is, how do you want your reader to feel? Which emotion is the right fit for your story? That’s not to say every emotion is a possibility—I’d try to avoid feelings of confusion or disappointment—but if your climax hits a dark emotional note, it might not make sense to swing the resolution all the way back up to an ecstatic tone.

4. A satisfying ending doesn’t have to be a happy one…

To expand on this discussion, my all-time favorite ending is from The Sun Also Rises—bittersweet in its best interpretation and downright depressing in its worst. If you haven’t read it, two of the main characters, Jake and Lady Brett Ashley, love each other but can’t be together, in part because of Jake’s impotence from a war injury. The book closes with the two of them:

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

To me, it’s an exceptionally poignant ending (add that to the list of possibilities above!), and it also rings true, to the characters and the overall mood of the work. But it isn’t happy; there’s no real hope that Jake and Brett are going to find a way to work it out.

 5. …unless your genre demands it.

The big caveat to the possibility of ending your book with a less-than-happy ending is that some genres require a happy one. If you aren’t already familiar with them, you’ve probably seen the romance community using the acronyms HEA and HFN: happily ever after and happy for now—the latter a response to the fact that romance no longer necessitates a marriage at the end of the book. Though there’s been much debate (as always), according to the Romance Writers of America, a book must have “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending” to be a romance.

And even if it’s not a strict genre requirement, think about your book in the marketplace. More commercial novels usually have happier endings than more literary novels, which deal more in ambiguity.  

6. Avoid cliffhangers.

With most books, you want to dot all your i's, cross all your t’s, and not leave your characters marooned on an island. Some debut writers end with a major cliffhanger in the hopes that they’ll be able to turn their book into a series. Depending on your genre, though, that may be unlikely: trilogies are relatively common in YA SFF, for instance, but rare in YA contemporary. And a publisher may buy just one book to see how it does, with sequels dependent on the performance of the first book. The safer bet is to craft an ending that may leave room for a continuation but is satisfying on its own.

Even when writers know a sequel is guaranteed, they tend not to end books in moments of peril. I recently read Holly Black’s The Wicked King, and I am DYING for the third book in the series. The conflict between the main characters doesn’t feel fully resolved, and I know there has to be another twist to it. But even so, Black ended this second book with her protagonist in a safe spot—a natural pause to the story and an ending to this particular vein of it, even though it’s not a full stop to the overall tale.

I’ll pause myself now, but to continue the conversation, this month’s newsletter will be talking a bit more about endings from the perspective of your characters—subscribe here to receive it.

And you should know that this blog post came at the suggestion of a client. Hyphen is here to help you, so if there’s anything you’d like to see covered on the blog, please reach out with suggestions.


You Should Outline At Some Point! Why and How to Outline Effectively

Many of the manuscripts I see as an editor need a lot of tidying up—and no, I’m not talking about misplaced commas. While there are certainly plenty of those as well, today I want to focus on macro-level messiness: pieces that don’t fit together and loops that remain unclosed. When I talk to those writers, most of them share the common trait of hating to outline.

There’s a lot of talk online about plotting versus pantsing, and I want to be clear that both are entirely valid options for a first draft. You know best how to get those initial words on the page. (And if you don’t, experiment with different methods to see how to make the words flow faster.) But I do believe that at some point, it’s helpful to create an outline of what you’ve written to give you a different perspective on your work and allow you to see things you might miss when you’re immersed in it line-by-line.

 To further illustrate, here are a few things outlining can help you discover:

1. Dangling Plot Threads

Writers generally see the primary plot all the way through, but often subplots get left behind. Readers can easily become invested in minor characters, and you don’t what to undercut your happy ending by leaving the reader wondering what happened to your main character’s sister after she had that big fight with her husband.

 2. Character-Driven Narrative Arcs

Successful stories are more than just a succession of events; they’re comprised of events that build in intensity to a climax, and these events are driven by your main character’s actions. (For more on active characters, check out this previous post.) When you list the main action in your book, it’s easier to see how each incident is leading to the next.

3. Disconnected Subplots

Even if you’ve tied together all the threads of your subplots, those plots may not be well connected enough to your main plot. If you’re trying to outline and can’t figure out how the subplot fits in, that’s a sign that it’s too tangential.

4. Timing Issues

Timing is tricky for so many writers. You’re already juggling all these characters and plot threads, and now you have to worry about a calendar? But nailing the timing—both providing logic for the internal story events and marking external events like holidays or school breaks—can really help with your book’s pacing.


So how do you outline to avoid these problems? If you’ve only ever outlined for an academic paper, you may be imagining a sheet of paper with roman numeral headings—you’ll probably be pleased to know that’s not really the most effective method for novels. Here are a few ways to outline, before or after you’ve written your first draft.

1. Diagram

 If you read my previous post on plot, you know I’m a fan of the good old-fashioned plot pyramid. To take that a step further, I really love this resource on the three-act structure. Put that diagram on a page and then place the events of your novel along it. If you prefer to come at your novel from the character angle instead of plot, the same principles apply; it’s just a slight shift in your mindset to think in terms of how your character changes. You might also write the events on notecards or post-its if you sense some things need to be shifted around.

2. Beat Sheets

Another way to break down the three-act structure is to create a spreadsheet of the events in your novel, called a beat sheet. This post is a good overview of what that might look like. I highly recommend Googling more if this seems like a useful tool for you; there are a lot of resources out there. One popular version of this is Save the Cat!, which released a book about their method geared toward novelists.

3. Calendar

If your novel depends heavily on timing, print out a calendar and put the events on it. Mark holidays, your character’s birthday, etc. This is the perfect way to make sure you’re accurately accounting for the passage of time.

4. The Snowflake Method

This method is pretty involved and comes at your work from more of a narrative angle, helping you build from one sentence into a one-page overview into character charts into a massive scene breakdown. It can be a little overwhelming, but several of my clients really love it. You can read more about it here.


I’ll be discussing one final method that I successfully used with a client in my newsletter next week, so be sure to subscribe if you haven’t already. And if you have any favorite outlining methods, please share in the comments!

HYPHEN Around the Web

Apologies for a light blogging month! Part of it is due to a busier-than-expected January—New Year's resolutions perhaps? I'm not sure, but I'm currently booking edits for delivery in late March. If you're nearing the end of revisions and would like a quick turnaround, get in touch today to book a spot. (Shorter projects, like query critiques, currently have a two week turnaround.)

But I actually have written two pieces on writing this month for other publications, so I wanted to make sure you saw them. 

On The Debutante Ball, there's "7 Tips for Writing the (Neglected, Dreaded, Necessary) Synopsis." As both an agent and editor, I've seen writers struggle with synopses, and I know they aren't your favorite. But they are necessary if you're querying, so I hope this advice helps you get the job done.

And in the second issue of Backlog magazine, I have "The Four Types of Editing." There are many different tasks under the editing umbrella, and this piece demystifies what those are, when they should happen, and who will perform them. 

I'll have more tips on the blog in February, but in the meantime, I hope you find these guest posts helpful! Both sites have piles of useful articles; check them out if you haven't yet. 

The Four Types of Editing