We’re mere weeks away now from the start of a new year. But if January is traditionally a time of new beginnings, December seems like the perfect opportunity to talk about endings, particularly how to end a story.
It’s easy to lose sight of resolution when talking about narrative structure, because our focus is frequently on the inciting incident that sets the story into motion, and the rising action that covers the majority of the story, and certainly the excitement of the climax to which the rising action builds. In the process, we might forget about the two final components of narrative: falling action and denouement. Collectively, the resolution.
It’s not difficult to see why. The climax is the moment we’ve been building toward. After that, isn’t the narrative basically over?
Yet the last impression is crucial in leaving the reader satisfied with the story they’ve just read. And that last impression comes not from the climax, but from resolution. So it’s important to consider what comprises effective falling action and denouement—and what doesn’t. Here are three tips to help you navigate how to end a story and satisfy readers of your novel or memoir.
Cause and Effect Drives Falling Action Too
We’ve discussed in past articles how cause and effect drives all narrative, each plot beat (starting with inciting incident) the effect of what precedes it and the cause of what follows. When discussing how to end a story, it’s important to understand that this process doesn’t come to a stop once we reach and pass the climax.
The reason is simple. A climax isn’t a climax because it’s bigger or more exciting than the action that precedes it—though it often is—but rather because it’s the moment toward which all preceding action has built. Similarly, falling action and denouement only work as resolution if they address and follow from plot beats established over the course of the narrative.
If the climax is such a big development, then naturally it prompts subsequent events. Maybe the hero stops the bad guy before the world is destroyed—but there’s still a lot of damage to clean up. Or maybe the hero has grown such that she can now reconcile with her parents. Or maybe the falling action is more substantive still: The planet is saved, but the criminal mastermind still needs to be tracked down and captured.
The point is that we’re still in the same story. A climax is not an ending. It only sends the story in that direction.
The Rules of Narrative Continue
What else do we know about narrative?
Well, for one thing, each plot beat is not just the effect of what precedes it. It’s also different than what precedes it. If you repeat basically the same plot beat again and again in the rising action, your story isn’t developing. In the same respect, if you repeat basically the same plot beat again and again in the falling action, your story isn’t resolving.
As a book editor, this is something I see not infrequently in novels looking to emphasize their characters’ “happily ever after.” We see the resolution of the conflict that kept our protagonists apart. Then we see them enjoying a pleasant vacation together, and then their marriage, and then their honeymoon. Now, to be fair, sometimes this is in the romance genre and the romance genre allows us to dwell on the happy moments at the end of the story. But eventually, you’re just telling readers the same thing again and again: Our characters are happy and the conflict is resolved.
If the conflict is resolved—truly, genuinely resolved—then the novel really should be finished.
Conflict, then, is an important consideration as well. Another narrative rule grounded in causation is that conflict should emerge naturally through our chain of cause and effect. So, it’s critical to effective falling action and denouement that we don’t introduce brand new conflicts at this time.
Yet, this happens sometimes, whether in an effort to add more compelling drama to our later chapters or simply because an author has lost sight of their central conflict. But a new conflict at this late stage doesn’t feel like part of the same narrative—because it isn’t. Readers are less invested in new conflict. And given we’re near the end of the novel, this new conflict is also likely to resolve very quickly and abruptly (or not at all).
If your falling action is feeling slow, you may be missing some already existing fallout from the climax, or you may benefit from establishing a subplot early in the novel that can pay off at the end. But introducing brand new conflict outside our chain of cause and effect is not how to end a story.
There’s More Story to Tell
All of that said, you don’t want to rush your resolution either.
Recently I edited a terrific science-fiction novel that built to a genuinely compelling climax—and ended about two pages later. But there’s only so much you can resolve convincingly in two pages. The protagonist had been on the run for two years, believing his friends and allies were likely dead. He confronted a monster that destroyed his home. A well-crafted character is affected by these things, so ignoring that in favor of a quick conversation that tied up a few dangling plot threads felt abrupt and frustrating rather than the best way to end a story.
But the quick conversation is important too, because it represents another frequent problem with resolution. Sometimes the later beats of a narrative aren’t ignored—but they are rushed, or even forced. The author is aware of the plot beats that need to be addressed, but also so determined to reach the ending now that we’re beyond the climax that they come up with resolutions too pat to convince readers.
If you’ve crafted your manuscript effectively, readers care about your characters enough to give them the time they need to tackle the lingering threads of your narrative. So slow down. Don’t repeat yourself, but do take your time. Give resolution its due.
A reader’s first impression is important. But a reader’s last impression, again, is crucial—because that’s what gives them the final push to give you a good review, or a bad one, or to recommend or not recommend your book to a friend. When it comes to how to end a story, a compelling and well-crafted resolution will make all the difference.