I have just finished planning the ending of my novel – ‘Act three’ – and I am now a couple of scenes into actually writing its first draft. 70,000 words in and two acts down, you’d think that it would be much more of the same approach that has got me this far – however, I have found this not to be the case. Act three, to me, requires a slightly different, bespoke approach to the first two, because everything that is still left to be said, and everything that still needs to happen MUST happen in this section. Act three equals crunch time.
In Part One of this article I shall cover ‘endings’ in a little more detail, listing some pros and cons of the different types of endings there are to choose from. This should be helpful to those who are unsure how they want their story to end, and should give you a good starting point when planning your final act. In Part Two, I will give an overview of the different elements that come together to create a good ending. Finally, Part Three will outline the specific approach I have taken to plan my final act using everything that I have discussed in Parts One and Two.
So, let’s get started
One of the major questions for me regarding my ending was whether to do a happy ending, or a sad ending. Until I sat down and wrote my plan, the ending of my story was still to be decided. Although I had a vague idea (or a couple) – which helped me sew hints throughout the first two acts, I had no concrete idea which way I was going to swing. This can be quite risky, as it more than likely will require plenty of editing in order to ensure the ending doesn’t just materialise from nothing, but hey, that is what editing is for! Personally, I wanted to see where the story took me and then go from there. Some of you might know your ending right from the very start – that is okay too! What I found useful in making this decision was to have a look around online and find out what people’s feelings were on happy/sad endings and see if there was a preference for one or the other. Unsurprisingly, I found the answer not to be as clear cut as I would have liked – AKA ‘happy endings are better than sad endings’ – so what I found most useful was to instead weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of each approach.
Below are a few pros/cons of each one for those of you who are facing the same dilemma as I did. There is also a list of links to further reading and resources that you may find useful. As you will see from this list of helpful resources, there are lots of approaches and varying names and definitions of endings. For the purposes of clarity and to avoid complexity, I have simplified these to just three: happy, sad and bittersweet.
The Happy Ending
Pro – To state the obvious, a happy ending will leave the reader happy! There are a lot of bad things in the world, and it can be refreshing to read something where everything works out. Many people (I included) read to escape the stress and cruelness of reality, so to be able to share a character’s happiness – regardless of the fact that it is fictional – can be a welcome relief.
Con – Taking what I have said above and looking at it from a different perspective, happiness is not always realistic. Bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people and sometimes things just don’t work out. That’s life. You should avoid making miracles happen that would be impossible in your story world, just to ensure a happy ending. This can come off unrealistic and can make the story feel less credible and genuine.
The Sad Ending
Pro – A sad ending has just as much potential as a happy ending to stay with the reader for a very long time afterwards. The emotions that come with a sad ending are overwhelming, relatable and most importantly, universal. Everyone knows how it feels to be sad. You can find a whole list of pros here.
Con – If a book has a sad ending for the sake of it, it can leave a sour taste in the readers mouth long after they finish reading the book. Killing off characters unnecessarily for dramatic effect may rub your readers up the wrong way. Yes, it is sometimes good to have plot twists but don’t feel like you MUST shock your reader. Make sure that whatever happens in the ending, happens for reasons that are supported by your story so far.
Forgive me if the next paragraph is more of a sweeping statement than anything that can be backed up by evidence, but personally, I feel that happy endings are likely to be preferred over sad ones, simply because human nature dictates that we’d rather be happy, and see other’s happy than sad. This is not me saying that you should choose a happy ending every time, I guess I am just supporting the previous paragraph by saying don’t force a sad ending where is it not needed – if your the situation imposes a happy ending, go for it! And vice versa.
The Bittersweet Ending
A bittersweet ending is a mixture of happiness and sadness.
Below is a good definition I have found describing a bittersweet ending:
“Somewhere between the Happily Ever After and the Downer Ending, the Bittersweet Ending happens when victory came at a harsh price, when, for whatever reason, the heroes cannot fully enjoy the reward of their actions, when some irrevocable loss has happened during the course of the events, and nothing will ever be the same again. A Bittersweet Ending is still ending on a high note, but one that is mixed with sadness and nostalgia. Often, such endings are the result of the plot making a completely happy ending impossible.” – source TV Tropes.
Pro – The Bittersweet Ending can often be very realistic and relatable because many people find that happiness comes at a cost. There is happiness, but with it a grounding sense of reality. As the TV Tropes definition implies, The Bittersweet Ending could be the right choice for a story that does not allow a happy ending, but where all is not necessarily lost. It is nice to give your reader hope amidst pain and loss as it can help soften the blow.
Con – Similarly to the Sad Ending, some readers may focus more on the loss and sadness of the situation, rather than the happiness. As human beings we have a strong negative bias meaning that we have a tendency to focus more on the negative than the positive. It sounds pretty depressing, but really it (was) is a pretty useful evolutionary tool hardwired into us to detect threats in our environment and to keep us safe.. but thats enough psychology for today!
From all the reading I have done thus far, the most important thing is to make sure that the ending you write is the one that is right for the story. There is no formula that can tell you whether this is a happy, sad or bittersweet ending – go with your gut and what feels right. Look at your characters, where they started, where they are now, where they need to be, the situations they face, as well as the laws of your story world and choose an ending that fits. This is easier said than done but trust yourself and spend some time getting it right. Parts Two and Three (coming soon) of this article may be useful for those who need further guidance on planning their final act.
I am working on Part’s Two and Three as we speak, so they should be published ASAP. Thank you for your patience!
Here are some further resources that I would recommend reading