7 steps that make a satisfying ending

Claire searches for the truth and risks her life in What Lies Beneath - 7 steps to make a satisfying ending - Charles Harris

In 2000 the movie What Lies Beneath opened to mixed reviews. Despite a strong opening, cast (Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer) and director (Robert Zemeckis), reviewers talked of its “decomposing script” and said it “ran off the rails.”

So what went wrong? And what does it take to find an ending that satisfies an audience?

1. For a satisfying ending: answer the big question

Every narrative – film, play, novel or short story – has an “outer” story. That’s what the protagonist or protagonists want in the outer world. It may be more or less obvious, depending on genre, but at its heart is a question set up near the start.

In Anna Karenina the question is: will Anna find happiness through an affair with Vronsky? When that question is fully answered, the main story is over.

In Agatha Christie’s Who Killed Roger Ackroyd the question can’t be missed: it’s there in the title.

What Lies Beneath does answer the story question – who killed Madison Frank? So the problem doesn’t lie there.

2. How does the protagonist change?

With the exception of two genres (see below) a satisfying story also requires the protagonist to change in a meaningful way. A story ends satisfyingly when the “inner” story of the character finds its completion at the same time as the outer.

Anna Karenina’s development is subtle and nuanced but involves – among other elements – her fight with her own insecurities.

If she overcomes her flaws, then you get a happy ending. If she fails, then the story becomes a tragic one. Meanwhile, some stories find a middle way – a partial success and partial failure – yielding a mixed or bitter-sweet ending.

(The two genres which don’t have a inner character arc of this nature are satire – because the satire arises from the very fact that the characters are stuck in their flaws – and adventure stories, such as James Bond or Indiana Jones).

This is where What Lies Beneath ultimately fails. Claire, the protagonist who is trying to find out what happened to the missing Madison, has no significant inner growth. As a result, there is no obvious reason for the movie to end.

Zemeckis along with screenwriters Sarah Kernochan and Clark Gregg could do no more than pile twist upon twist, in the hope that a satisfying ending would emerge – but in the end the movie doesn’t so much end as expire.

3. Provide a solid emotional climax

Any story needs to end with a climax – but it has to be logical and well-earned.

A major flaw with many stories I’m seeing nowadays is a failure of logic. A satisfying climax is more than strong emotion or fast action. You need to feel that the dramatic rise builds credibly on what went before.

The climax of Jed Mercurio’s TV thriller series Bodyguard depended on the hero concealing the fact that he knew a man he’d been in the army with. He gained little by doing so and it must have been blindingly obvious to him that the truth would come out. There was no reason for him to lie, except to manufacture a dramatic ending.

By contrast, Anna Karenina‘s famous end in the railway station arises naturally from the dramatic outer and inner struggles that Anna has endured up to that point.

4. Give your ending resonance

A satisfying ending doesn’t just finish the story, but provides themes and resonances that continue in the mind of the reader or audience afterwards.

Hamlet focuses on the tragic hero’s fear of taking action – a theme everyone can recognise in themselves. Shakespeare then expands this theme until it encompasses the very nature of being human.

A writer will often go back over an early draft, looking for themes buried in hints and fragments, bringing them to the foreground and ensuring that they blend meaningfully into the story’s end.

5. Tie up your subplots – mostly

Any narrative longer than a short story will need subplots to help bring out character, relationships and side issues.

In my novel The Breaking of Liam Glass, the main story focused on manipulative and ambitious journalist Jason Crowthorne as he fights to get Liam’s big story onto the front page of a major tabloid.

But interwoven with that, we have a number of subplots. There’s Jason’s hope that he can reignite his relationship with his ex and his little daughter. And his friend, the policeman, who is chasing him for withholding evidence.

There’s Liam’s mother, desperate to help her son. The gym owner who wants to aid the police, but is afraid to stick his neck out. And the local councillor who hits on Liam’s case as a way to get herself re-elected.

Sub-plots like these also need to have satisfying endings – and in most cases these endings should tie in more or less with the end of the main plot itself.

6. Return to the world

Just as a good opening pulls us into the story, a strong ending leads us back out. It won’t draw things out too long, but points the reader back to the real world. Often this will involve the resolution of a remaining sub-plot.

Hamlet doesn’t end with the death of the prince (sorry SPOILER there) but gives us a brief coda, that allows us to get our breath, nods to the future and reflects on the tragedy we’ve seen.

Anna Karenina has an unusually long section at the end where we move from Anna’s tragedy to the more positive story of Levin, whose life has been running throughout as a more uplifting parallel to Anna’s own.

However in lesser hands than Tolstoy’s such an extended finish risks turning into an anticlimax. Normally this coda is (rightly) much shorter – a few lines to pause, to look back and to leave us with food for thought.

7. Satisfy expectations – or else

To some extent, a story is a contract between writer and reader/viewer. The nature of the contract differs from story to story. In a detective novel, the contract says that the detective should solve the case. In a romantic comedy, the writer is supposed to supply a happy-ever-after.

At the same time, the solution, the happy-ever-after ending, must also be surprising. But if the writer doesn’t fulfil those expectations at all, all hell can break loose.

Of course, it is possible to break the contract – and many books and films do. But if you do, then make sure you warn your audience as early as possible.

The film Zodiac tells the audience in a card up-front that the case remains unsolved. No possible confusion there. The novel (and film) American Psycho makes it clear from the title and opening scenes that nothing in this story is going to be conventional, including – by implication – its end.

(I go into this in more detail in a previous blog)

Whatever the ending, a good writer takes care to guide the reader/viewer’s expectations and fulfil them in a satisfying and surprising way.

To infinity and beyond…

One question that comes up regularly is whether a writer should plan for a second series.

My view is that you should always choose the best possible ending. If a tantalisingly hanging ending feels totally right for the story, that’s one thing. But editor, producers – and audiences – will feel manipulated if you just stick it on in the hope of more episodes to come.

Allan Cubitt’s TV thriller series The Fall was heading towards a satisfying ending at the end of the first season. But suddenly shifted towards what felt to many like an imposed cliff-hanger ending, written in after the producers discovered how successful the series had become.

Whether or not that is true, the fact is that the second and third series were thought to be padded out and – while still popular – received decreasing audiences and less positive reviews.

Personally, I feel it’s best to go out on a high, and deal with writing that difficult second series after you’ve picked up your Bafta for the first.

But that’s for another time…

Further reading

Amber ending: how they could have broken the rules and succeeded

Anna Karenina

More on endings