Episode 167: Get the Ending Right

On November 27, 2021, Kasie and Rex continued their NaNoWriMo instructions with this final session on the end of the novel. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Happily Ever After and other denouement concerns


  • What makes a good climax scene
  • How to come down after the most important scene in the book
  • When a happily ever after makes sense and when it doesn’t
  • Epilogues and why they suck
Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Segment 1

Continuing our NaNoWriMo coaching series, we bring you happily ever after, or as romance writers and readers abbreviate it “HEA.” The idea of the episode is to talk you down from that all-important climax scene. So we’re going to start with the climax — where are you? What’s at stake? How to resolve the situation?

But first, we have a new interview up on the YouTUbe channel. We welcome to the WriteOnSC family, Mark Bello, who is actually a Michigan native, but someone I met through Emerald Lakes Books recent Publish With Purpose online summit. Here’s a link to Mark’s website. He’s an attorney and writes legal thrillers centered on the lawyer character Zachary Blake. It’s a fun eighteen minutes of him telling me way more than I want to know about legal thrillers ripped from the headlines. So go check that out.

In SCWA news, we’re still recruiting board members. So if you’re a member of SCWA and feel called to serve, we could use your help. Send me an email kasie@clemsonroad.com and let’s talk further about adding you to our leadership team.

Okay. Back to the topic.

No one likes a climax that hits-and-runs, or one that barely feels climactic (hence the “anti-climactic” complaint). We’ve done the end before in episode 92 but it’s been a while. We also looked at it in episode 23 and 24 but it’s been even longer since then. Today we’re going to back up a little and start with the climax scene and then walk you through the denouement.

Episode 24 actually provides this link to a blog about writing killer climax scenes so we’ll start there:

  • Keep in mind that the payoff for you as the writer and the reader are two different things.
  • Your readers don’t need the closure you need (do they?)
  • Keep the climax short and push it as close to the end as possible
  • A well written book predicts the aftermath of the climax — readers know how the characters will respond once the climax has come and gone.
  • Two effective ways to put a memorable climax in the book: 
    • 1) spring it out of nowhere — a sudden act of violence, the decimation of everything that’s been built, etc. 
    • 2) use suspense to build tension — an unsolved mystery, a secret, a revelation, something devastating.

Which have you used? When? How effective were they?

In After December I used the Sunday morning breakfast scene for Brian to confess he hadn’t spoken to Tony in six weeks, not since New Year’s. That he’d effectively frozen his best friend out in the weeks leading up to Tony’s suicide. It’s a deep regret, one he’s been torturing himself with, but one the others are unaware of until the last day Brian’s in Herndon.

There are two final acts of violence that end Being Blue, depending on which section you read first. The possibility of two climax scenes is compelling, but I’d caution against it unless you’re running, like me, two different timelines with two different but equally important outcomes. It’s a complicated story structure. Most would suggest a single but decisive act of violence to be a sufficient climax.

I’ve finished short stories with “reveals” but more often they end with someone coming to a realization, the acceptance of something. I’ve never ended a short story with an act of violence but I certainly could.

Segment 2

Why is it so hard to find the climax in the story? Does it have to be a BAM! drama moment? Or can the climax be very subtle?

Some of my experience in NaNoWriMo was happily typing away, building the story along lines of character desires and obstacles and wanting to live with these characters forever and ever and knowing it eventually had to end but not really sure how.

In truth, Brian’s Sunday morning confession surprised me, too. As I was writing that scene, I thought, “What’s something he could confess that would really solidify to his friends that Brian is the worst among them?” They already know he cheats on his girlfriends and that he takes his parents for granted. What could Brian have done to Tony that would really eat him up inside? We know he didn’t feel much guilt about the Melissa thing.

After December was not a NaNoWriMo project, but it was the first time I’d really had to structure a novel and make each sin Brian committed an escalating aggression. What could be worse than cheating on Meli twice in one weekend? He’d have to have sinned against Tony somehow.

Think through your climax. What’s at stake? For Brian, his friends’ forgiveness is at stake. What will they say? What will they do when they find out he left Tony long before Tony cut his own wrists?

Do you begin with your end in mind? Rex has said often that sometimes it’s the climax he figures out first. Like, the story needs to get to here with “here” being a specific climax scene he might have thought up or witnessed.

I’ve done short stories that way. I have one where the narrator sees a People magazine spread on fallen soldiers and recognizes one of them as a high school classmate. The climax for that story, calling the best friend who dated that soldier, is a true story. 

In “Cover Up,” it’s the protagonist telling the artist she trusts him that makes the story’s climax, “We’re in this together,” the narrator says, “and when he touches me again I know I’ll be thinking of that later.”

In “Missing Scene” it’s reminding him about that night they were lovers and the bittersweet reality that he’d forgotten.

I like there to be a moment where the characters put themselves back in the same place together and then realize they can never be that way again. I love a bittersweet climax.

So, what’s at stake? What have you led up to? What have you laid the groundwork for?

Segment 3

Here’s a list of how to end the novel from this blog:

  1. Leave readers guessing: The open-ended story
    1. Is this to leave room for a sequel? Or to let the reader fill in the ending they most prefer?
  2. Bring readers full circle: Ending where you began
    1. In “For the Win” my main character is back to brainstorming band names
  3. Pull the rug from beneath their feet: Shocking twist endings
    1. When was the last time you were truly shocked by an ending? This is hard to do.
  4. Create feel-good lingering: ‘Happily ever after’ endings
    1. I love an HEA. We know things will go off and probable get screwed up again, but the HEA lets us part ways with the book feeling satisfied.
  5. Build in ‘what next?’ – Cliffhanger endings
    1. This is a better ending for sequels and series; build us toward the next one.
  6. Create complex resolutions: Combining ending types
    1. Being Blue might qualify here; there’s a lot to unpack. You might see a subplot become more important at the end, or a side character have more control than originally thought; Lisa See’s “big reveal” endings are like this a lot.
  7. Avoid cliched and unsatisfying story endings: Ending ‘don’ts’
    1. Don’t introduce new characters or subplots
    2. Don’t change voice, tone or attitude
    3. Don’t gimmick it — twists and unexpected things can be gimicky

How much wrap up is too much?

Do series deserve more wrap up?

What is “the long goodbye” and should it be part of your hero’s journey?

Segment 4

We once did an episode on the click bait prologue, how some writers put the climax scene in a prologue to get you to read the whole book in anticipation of experiencing the climax a second time, in its natural place along the story arc. 

So let’s talk about epilogues. Can an epilogue be a satisfying ending?

Should you use an epilogue to provide additional details for the reader?

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