You're at the end end. It would seem that the all the hard parts are over. You don't even have to worry about the intensity of the climax anymore. This is the falling action. The aftermath.
The single-most frustrating part of any story, if not presented well.
The final pages are what your readers are going to remember the most. It's like the aftertaste of any given food or drink. You don't want your readers running to the bathroom and gargling with mouthwash. (out, damned spot!) It doesn't matter how wonderful the rest of the story was that they "chewed", if the ending doesn't hold up, you're screwed.
It is so important, in fact, that many book reviewers (including myself) will rate the ending on its own merit, using this as one of the main factors for a recommendation or non-recommendation.
(Listen to Yoda. He's old. That means he knows stuff.)
To make it less scary, young padawan, focus on the basics of what a good ending includes:
1. Reader satisfaction. It has to feel like an ending. This is where many novels go wrong, in my opinion. The writer has the view that any good story is simply a "slice of life", which is true. You should be able to imagine events that happened before the story started and events that would continue after it ends. That makes it realistic.
But if you could just cut off that "slice of life" anywhere you damn well pleased, then it's not truly a story. Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends, and all of those work together. You cannot start a story just anywhere. You cannot end a story just anywhere. Each has a purpose.
2. The main plot threads are tied up, some of the minor ones are left loose. Again, this makes it realistic. Not everything gets wrapped up in a nice neat little bow at the end, but the major issues should. If not, there will be reader frustration instead of reader satisfaction.
While writing a first draft, I find it best to focus on only the main plot thread in the denouement, then add the other minor elements later (whether they be tied up or left loose is highly dependent on the individual story).
3. It is brief. The shorter a denouement, the better. This is the falling action, and it falls pretty quickly. The actual length, again, depends on the individual needs of the story, but in my experience, the newer you are to writing, the longer you tend to make your denouement. (The denouement in my first novel was, like, at least three chapters long? *rolls eyes*) The story question has been answered through the climax. There really shouldn't be much left to wrap up after that point. I find, as a reader, the best denouements are no more than a standard chapter in length, if even that. Most are much shorter. Some, only a page.
4. It has a clear circularity. This is especially true for short fiction, but it works for novels as well. Circularity indirectly enhances the feeling of reader satisfaction. You can offer circularity by revisiting the setting you started the story with. By repeating actions or dialogue or character viewpoint.
For example, in my short story "The Blade of Tears", I repeated a phrase on the final page that I'd already stated on page one, but changed it slightly to have a different meaning. The wording was similar enough that it gave the ending a nice circularity. The reader sees that and instantly remembers the beginning, and hopefully, understands how it all ties together. (By the way, speaking of keeping things brief, the denouement in that story is a single paragraph.)
The main reason for circularity is that it clearly shows the reader how the character changed over the course of the story. For instance, if he/she revisits the same place we'd seen them at the outset, yet with a different worldview now, this emphasizes the point of the story in the reader's mind. Shows them why this journey was important to the MC. Enhances reader satisfaction.
Yep. It's all about satisfying the reader. If you don't, they will NOT recommend your book to anyone.
5. It doesn't beat you over the head with philosophical parallels. If the reader finds some double-meaning in your story that applies to their personal life, that's wonderful. But a reader would much rather find it on their own than have you state it outright in your final sentences.
And not all good stories have to blow you away psychologically. Some are just for *gasp* entertainment. Good characters (read: not flat, not robots) will always learn something over the course of the story, but that doesn't mean if you relay it subtly that your reader won't pick up on it. Keep it realistic. If the MC has a mind-blowing self-discovery, by all means, emphasize it. But don't force it. That's annoying and makes you look like a pompous prick of an author.
6. Don't end on a dangler. Meaning, don't leave the ending so ambiguous and vague that the reader wonders if a page is missing. Where's the real ending? If you've seen the movie CASTAWAY then you should know what I'm talking about. The writers left it up to the audience to decide which road he went down. Sometimes this technique does work (as with the movie INCEPTION -- does the top fall or keep spinning?), but most of the time it just causes frustration in the worst way. Why? Because you didn't actually end the story! That simple.
Okay, I think that covers the bulk of it.
No surprise, the denouement in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON follows all of the above suggestions. Most outstandingly, number 4. Hiccup's dialogue clearly brings us back to what we experienced in the opening scene, at the same time that we can see how the entire village has changed since then.
This is Berk. It's twelve days north of hopeless and a few degrees south of freezing to death. It's located solidly on the meridian of misery.
My village. In a word, sturdy. It's been here for seven generations, but every single building is new. We have fishing, hunting, and a charming view of the sunsets. The only problems are the pests.
You see, most places have mice or mosquitoes. We have... dragons.
This is Berk. It snows nine months of the year and hails the other three. Any food that grows here is tough and tasteless. The people that grow here are even more so.
The only upsides are the pets. While other places have ponies or parrots, we have... dragons.
If you think of it in the way that each beat in story structure has its opposite, the ending won't be quite as tough. It should be a flip side to your beginning. So when writing your ending, refer to your beginning for clues on how to best wrap things up.
I hope you all enjoyed this series on story structure this month as much as I enjoyed writing it. I learned a lot from it, too, just by refreshing my focus. Writing is a craft in which you never stop learning.
Don't think you're doomed if you don't quite understand it all yet. It will all come together the more you practice. And sometimes we learn more effectively when we allow ourselves the freedom to screw up. It's called trial and error, and I'm pretty sure every published author has been through it, multiple times.
(aside: If any of you participated in NaNoWriMo this month, I'd love to know how you fared. #amcurious)
Previous posts in this series:
The Difference Between the Inciting Incident and the Catalyst
How To Set Up Your Story Without Boring Your Audience
The Great Debate: Should I Or Shouldn't I?
The Promise of Your Premise
What's Your (Mid)Point?
The Big Squeeze
Dropping the Bomb
The Grand Finale