Racing to the Finish
By: Donna Schlachter
We’ve covered a lot of ground so far as we discover the steps and craft elements needed to write a novel. However, we mustn’t relax now as we arrive at an important place in our book—writing a successful ending.
As a quick review, based on the Three-Act structure for a novel, your first act, or the opening/ hook/introduction, which comprises less than 25% of your story length, introduced your characters, setting, the problem, the lie, and the strengths and weaknesses of your hero and your villain.
Then the second act, or the middle of the story, which comprises the bulk of the book, the next 75% to 90% of the story, placed your characters into difficult situations, building in intensity, forcing them to make harder and harder decisions. You also introduced more characters and story lines, or subplots, in this part of your story.
And now you’ve arrived at the third act, where you’ll wrap up the plot lines, the character arcs, provide a satisfactory outcome (however that’s defined for the genre), and, if it’s a series, prepare the way for the next book. This third act should take up 15% to 25% of the book, but less is usually better.
One thing to remember about the three-act structure is that the first act will enable the reader to decide if they want to keep reading; the second act keeps them interested in the story and the character arc; but the third act will sell your next book. Resolving all the plot lines and questions creates a satisfying ending that gives the reader confidence that your next book will also be worth reading.
The Big Lie
What keeps readers reading is the Big Lie, what your character believes about themselves that wounds them so deeply and makes them question themselves and make poor choices, brings tension and conflict into their arc and the story. Alluding to the Big Lie in the first act, bringing it to the forefront and having it cause all kinds of problems in the second, naturally leads to the realization of the lie and the desire to overcome that belief by taking heroic measures in the final act. These actions should be based on what we already know about the character, which you would have told us previously, including any special abilities or talents. Don’t simply spring this on your reader in the final act.
Readers want your hero and heroine to confront the Big Lie and overcome it, but the process should elevate the stakes more than ever in the final act. Their final struggle is the Climax, which should take place in the final 5% to 10% of the story, where they have to make the toughest decisions and embark on the most dangerous journey to succeed. This victory isn’t all about external action; it should also include internal conflict. And it will solidify the story’s theme.
Regardless of the genre, this confrontation and victory must happen, or the reader won’t be satisfied with the outcome. They have been rooting for your hero and heroine to change, to meet the obstacle and overcome it, and to come out better on the other side for having done so.
After the Climax, now is the time to tie up the loose ends. Make sure your hero and heroine have met their story goal, which might have changed from the beginning. If there were situations where the hero or heroine made a poor choice during their quest, now is the time to right those wrongs.
Once that is done, introduce your hero or heroine’s new normal, which should be a juxtaposition of where the story began. Show that they are different, they act different, and they’ll make different and better choices going forward.
Cover Your Bases
Here’s a list to double-check your ending to ensure you have covered all the bases:
- Don’t cheat – grow the ending from the seeds you planted along the way, and don’t rely on coincidence.
- Use callbacks and motifs – have a character repeat or restate something said earlier to tie the end to the beginning; thread a motif through the story, using the motif in a new and different way because of the changes in the character.
- Highlight the theme – while you should have alluded to the story’s theme throughout, now is the time to make that final point
- Wrap up any loose ends – keep a list throughout your writing of all the issues, topics raised, plot lines, and questions, and make sure you have resolved those. If you’re writing a series, you don’t have to solve every problem or resolve every issue, but at least give the reader the promise you’ll address it again soon.
- Don’t drag out the ending – the goal of the ending is to be unique, succinct, and satisfying. If you’re finding the ending, which should be less than 5% of the book, is long and convoluted, perhaps you have too much going on in the book. Cut some plot lines and save them for the sequel or another book.
The Final Act
One you enter the final act, no new characters and no new situations should be introduced unless you foreshadowed them earlier. Your hero and heroine should serve as the primary catalysts—they drive the climax, not simply respond to it. The hero and heroine should grow and change internally, learning from their past decisions, and emerging as a better person.
You want to emotionally vest the reader in the story right from the beginning so they feel the ending through the heroism of your characters. To do that, plan the ending every bit as carefully as you’ve planned the rest of the book. Even if you’re not an outliner, make sure you’ve included all elements of a successful ending to ensure the reader wants to buy your next book. Folks love characters and settings, but it’s really the ending that they remember best. And that’s true whether they consider it a good or a bad ending. You want them to remember your book favorably.
Did you miss any installations of Producing a Novel?
Generating—and Testing—Ideas for Fiction and Non-Fiction Books – Part 1
Genre and Markets – Part 2
Building Believable Characters – Part 3
Character Sketches and Backstory – Part 4
Hooking Your Readers – Part 5
Character and Story Arc – Part 6
Outlining Your Book – Part 7
Overcoming the Muddle Middle – Part 8
Racing to the Finish – Part 9
Writing a Series – Part 10
Self-Editing – Part 11
Cover Design and Self-Publishing – Part 12
Donna Schlachter lives in Denver with her husband Patrick. As a hybrid author, she writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, devotional books, and books on the writing craft. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Writers on the Rock, Sisters In Crime, Pikes Peak Writers, Capital Christian Writers Fellowship, and Christian Authors Network; facilitates a critique group; and teaches writing classes online and in person. Donna also ghostwrites, edits, and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. Donna is represented by Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary Management.