How to End a Novel without Killing Your Characters
by Jason Black
You know what I remember most about writing my first manuscript? Writing the ending. I’d had such a wonderful time writing that whole manuscript. I loved those characters. When I wrote what I knew was the last scene, I became so choked up the lump in my throat literally hurt.
The story was done. They were done. But I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.
So I wrote an epilogue. It’s sweet. Kind of sappy. To this day I still like it. It gave me a chance to say the goodbye I wasn’t ready for in the last scene.
But it killed the characters. Not literally, of course. I didn’t kill the characters off in the epilogue. They got their happily-ever-after. But I killed them for the reader. Without meaning to, I murdered my beloved characters.
Then my writing group told me to cut it. “You don’t need that,” they said. “It’s too much.” I rankled at that piece of feedback. That epilogue had a palpable emotional weight for me. But they explained, and I saw what they meant.
I wasn’t killing the characters for myself. Nor in the story. But I was for them.
The strategic purpose of a denouement is to reorient the characters towards the next phase of their lives. That’s it. That’s all you need. Anything else is overkill. It’s how you manage the reorienting that either kills the characters or allows them to live on.
This has nothing to do with you, but everything to do with the reader.
As an audience, usually we want to leave the story with the feeling that the characters are facing a new, better future. We want to believe that they’re going to be ok. We want that same sense of an unbounded but positive future for them that we have for ourselves upon conquering major obstacles in our lives: the feeling that “now, anything is possible!”
It’s rarely true, but that’s how it feels, and that’s the feeling readers just love to leave a book with. Here’s the thing. Simply by seeing the characters turn away from the now-completed problems that led up to the climax, and turn towards something else, we know that they are now facing a new, better future.
The kicker is, we don’t need to be told just what that new, better future is.
You go beyond a proper denouement and into murder when you do the good work of reorienting the characters, but then you also follow them too far along their new paths. That was my problem. In my epilogue, I had gone far beyond simply reorienting the characters, and followed them into the distant future to see how their lives turned out.
When you do that, when you specify the characters’ future lives, you murder them in the reader’s mind by preventing them from living on for us.
During the entire story, the characters live for you because you are imagining their feelings and choices and actions and responses. Your imagination brings them to life for us.
Readers don’t have that same full freedom; we’re not allowed to imagine our own choices and so forth for the characters, because those are part of the story. Different choices would lead to a different plot. Obviously the writer has to do that part, and present those choices to us through the narrative.
This is true all the way page one through “the end.” But after the final page, the situation changes.
The end of the story should not be the closing of a door. It should instead throw the doors wide open. Properly reoriented, the characters might now choose anything. They face the infinite possibilities of their futures.
And having come to know them through the course of the story, readers are finally in a position to do what you’ve been doing all along: Imagine them into further life.
You had your turn. Now we need you out of the way so we may imagine what the characters might do next.
If you imagine it for us, we can’t. If you let us know that Mary Louise got her biology degree and went on to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work on organ replacement while Charlie eventually bounced back from the breakup and settled down to a modest life as an auto mechanic, then we don’t get our turn. You’ve killed them by preventing us from imagining those infinite possibilities for ourselves.
Reorient the Characters. Then Stop.
To end a book without the metaphorical murder, just don’t be so specific about what happens to your story’s Mary Louise and Charlie. Leave it more open-ended:
Mary Louise slipped the envelope from her purse and walked into the post office. She stood in line. Ahead of her stood a man in a familiar leather jacket.
Awkward, she thought. But worse if I don’t say anything.
He turned. “Oh. Hey. What’s up?”
She motioned with the envelope. “Grad school application.” His usual Sunday-evening stubble looked out of place on a Wednesday morning. “How are you?”
He shrugged. “Not great, really. But it’ll get better.” She glanced down. After all those years together, how strange to have nothing left to say. He held up a form. “Change of address. I’m going to Iowa.”
“Wow. Your dad’s?”
“Yeah. He’s talking about retiring. He keeps hinting for me to take over the shop. I figure I’ll give it a try.”
Mary Louise smiled. “You should. I think you’ll like it. You always were good with your hands.”
An ending doesn’t take much. Reorient: Point Mary Louise at grad school, and Charlie at Iowa. Then stop. Get out of the way, so the reader can imagine the rest. Give us our turn to bring the characters to life.
Jason Black is a freelance book editor who actively blogs about character development. He recently appeared as a book doctor at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason, visit his website at www.PlotToPunctuation.com