I have a shelf of my favorite books beside my desk. They’re old favorites and new discoveries that rocketed to the top of the list. They’re like old friends. It makes me happy to look at them, and when I’m looking for the comfort of a familiar story, I turn to those pages.
As an author, I’d love to see my books end up on a reader’s favorites shelf. It’s important to hook the reader and get them to read your story, but that’s just the first step. Ultimately, the true test of a great story is whether it lasts through time.
Creating a satisfying ending is a critical component to making your way to that coveted spot on the bookshelf. Let’s take a look at how to get there.
A great ending turns a good read into a favorite book.
The ending of your book is one of the most important factors in the impression that your work leaves on your readers.
This is because the ending has a disproportionate impact on how your reader will remember your story. The peak-end rule describes the framework that people use subconsciously when creating memories from experiences. The peak, or most intense moment, and the end of the experience contribute most to the memory. Everything else fades into the background.
Researchers have observed this phenomenon in varied scenarios, from evaluating medical procedures to opening gifts. In each situation, the ending has a disproportionate effect on how someone remembers an experience, even changing the tone of the experience overall. In the gift example, the recipient will remember the occasion more favorably if they open the gifts they like most last — even if, on the occasion where they opened the better gifts first, they received better gifts overall.
Conversely, great peaks and ends can convince someone to forgive a lot of pain. Think about the farthest vacation that you’ve taken. What do you remember? When I think about mine, I think about the beautiful views and magical diving experiences, and I remember a stunning waterfall that we saw on the last day. The 26-hour travel time to get there and the punishing hike to see the waterfall fade away.
In a story, that means that your Global Climax and Resolution are the two commandments that will stick with the reader. These are the scenes that will come to mind when they think about whether to recommend your story to a friend, or when they look at it on the shelf and decide whether to reread it or turn to something new.
You know that your ending is important, but knowing you need a great ending is different from actually crafting one.
We’ve all read endings that wrap up a book perfectly.
On the other side, we’ve all experienced endings that fell flat. Maybe they were too tidy or left too much unfinished. Maybe they changed the tone of the novel.
Regardless of the reason that it doesn’t work, an unsatisfactory ending can ruin an entire book. There have been books that I loved right up until the end, but because of the ending I’d never recommend them or read them again.
That’s a tragic loss because good stories have something to say. The power of story is in its ability to impart a life lesson to readers. They absorb the narrative from the novel and it gives them a template to understand situations that they haven’t lived through by empathisizing with the protagonist. The next time they encounter a similar situation, they have a little more information to go on. The character in the story did X, and Y happened. Now, they know that if they have the choice to do X, Y or something like it is a reasonable outcome to expect.
The reader needs a compelling, believable ending to draw these conclusions. If the resolution isn’t satisfying, they have no reason to think that the story, as written, is applicable in the real world.
To write a great ending, make sure that your Resolution fulfills its purpose in the story. Shawn Coyne suggests thinking of the Resolution in terms of a question: “How is that working out for you?”
This question ensures that your ending answers the question posed by your genre. Which side of the value spectrum triumphs? This will be specific to your global genre. In a love story, does love triumph or fail? In a murder mystery, does justice or injustice prevail?
Your answer to the question forms the foundation of your Controlling Idea.
However, knowing whether things turn out well or poorly for the protagonist is only part of what you need to accomplish in the Resolution. What rounds out the Controlling Idea for the reader is the understanding of what it took to get to the ending and what was involved in the choices that the character made along the way.
This is the second part of the Controlling Idea: the why and how of how things worked out. You start to establish this in the Crisis and Climax — but, like anything in a good story, the magic is in the payoff of the setup. The follow-through of taking events to a natural conclusion is what solidifies them for your reader.
You have already planted the seeds in your Crisis — you just need to show the fruit that they bear in the Resolution.
To craft a satisfying ending, search for the key to your Resolution in your Crisis question.
Let’s revisit the key points of the Crisis commandment and take a look at how it plants the seeds for the Resolution.
The Crisis is the third commandment of story. It is the critical bridge between the Turning Point, in which an unexpected action or revelation turns the protagonist’s world upside down, and the Climax, in which the protagonist decides what to do about it.
The key to creating a compelling Crisis is to present your character with a real choice. The action that your character chooses reveals which values they prioritize over others: the foundation of true character.
To make the choice meaningful, it must be believable that a character could choose either option. If everyone would make the choice that your protagonist does, then the choice does not illuminate anything about the character.
The tradeoff in a Crisis is either a best bad choice or an irreconcilable goods decision. In a best bad choice Crisis, the protagonist must choose between two bad outcomes. For example, the protagonist might have to choose between committing a crime and allowing someone to be hurt. An irreconcilable goods situation is the flip side of the coin: there are two desirable outcomes, but the protagonist can’t achieve both at once. Often, this is a choice between what is good for one person versus what is good for society.
Part of the reality of the tradeoff is that the consequences of the decision that the protagonist makes don’t evaporate as soon as the Climax is done. The protagonist has taken risks and made sacrifices to create the Climax. That comes with a real cost.
If you don’t follow through on the stakes that you set up in the Crisis, you set the reader up for frustration.
Recently, I was watching an interactive television show, a fun format where you as the viewer make the crisis decision for the main character. Just like when I was a kid reading Choose Your Own Adventure books, I went through several times to try all of the different options and see where each story led. That’s when I made a disappointing discovery: at one critical juncture, either choice resulted in the same outcome. The risks and tradeoffs that the scene set up didn’t pay off — either choice was just fine.
When I was making the Crisis decision, I put my emotional energy into the scene, empathizing with the main character and weighing the different options. Once I determined that the choice didn’t matter, I was frustrated because the effort turned out to be meaningless.
This is how your readers will feel if they get to the end of your book only to find that the stakes you’ve set up in your Crisis have disappeared.
To counteract this, use your Crisis tradeoff to build continuity into your Resolution. I like to frame this as an addition to Shawn’s question: “How is that working out for you… and at what price?”
By calling back to the tradeoff that the protagonist made in the Crisis, you can affirm that those stakes were real. You validate the energy that the reader put into empathizing with your characters. The reader feels fulfillment because they understand the full ramifications of the protagonist’s choice.
Let’s go through a few common Crisis scenarios and how they play out in the Resolution.
Note that there are spoilers below this point! If you aren’t familiar with Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Like Water for Chocolate, WALL-E, The Lord of the Rings, Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Old Man and the Sea, The Name of the Rose, and Titanic, you might ruin some surprises for yourself in the following sections.
Crisis: Should I sacrifice myself for the greater good, or should I preserve myself at the expense of others?
This question is a common one in the global Crisis of primal genres like Action, Horror, and Thriller. The protagonist often has the ability to save others, but at great risk. Will the hero step up into the role of hero, or turn away from the masses to fulfill the drive for self-preservation?
Climax: Make the sacrifice.
Heroes who make the sacrifice take on risk to themselves to save others. The tradeoff that they make is for their own personal safety. The question that the reader is left to ask is: was it worth it?
There are two possible Resolutions for a protagonist who makes the sacrifice: the legacy and the return.
The legacy is the Resolution for a hero who dies at the Climax, either literally by giving up life or figuratively by sacrificing happiness or identity. The hero has given up everything so that others might live. Honor this choice by showing the effect that the hero’s sacrifice has had on others.
Legacy Resolutions often take the form of a funeral scene. An example of this is the Resolution to Yondu’s arc in Guardians of the Galaxy 2. He sacrificed himself in the climactic battle to save his adopted son. The funeral scene cements how his sacrifice completed his redemption arc. His son finally recognizes him as a father instead of a captor. His friends, who have shunned him because he broke their code, celebrate his life when they realize that his transgression was in service of a higher moral code — and he kept it a secret to protect the life of a child. This scene type is a powerful way to pay off a redemption plot.
These Resolutions don’t have to take the form of a funeral, though. You might show someone who lived because of the protagonist’s sacrifice doing something meaningful or remembering the protagonist fondly. This is especially relevant for sacrifices in which the stakes are not life and death. In Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, Tita sacrifices her happiness and independence with John to stay at the ranch and advocate for her niece, Esperanza. Through Tita’s influence, the family tradition of forcing the youngest daughter to remain unmarried breaks. The ending revelation of the narrative device — the story is told by Esperanza’s daughter, who would not exist without Tita’s choices — acts as Tita’s legacy.
The return is the Resolution for a protagonist who makes the sacrifice and survives. This can happen — especially if you need the protagonist around for future stories. The mistake here is to allow the protagonist to escape unscathed. That would strip the risk that the protagonist took of its meaning. The protagonist can survive, but must heal or rebuild after the effects of the Climax. For example, in WALL-E, WALL-E and EVE put themselves in danger to show the humans the truth about the potential for recolonizing Earth. WALL-E seems to die when AUTO electrocutes him, but EVE revives him and we see that he has lived. However, he is wiped clean, with no memories or personality left. EVE is able to restore his memories and the ending is a happy one, but the glimpse of the cost that WALL-E incurs to expose the truth is enough to show the reader that the stakes in the Crisis were real.
Climax: Preserve yourself.
This is less common because stories with happy endings are more marketable, and if the hero does not sacrifice, then the chances of mass destruction increase. However, endings like this do still exist. One powerful example is in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. When Frodo and Sam finally make it to Mount Doom, Frodo can’t bring himself to sacrifice The Ring — and with it immortality and power — to save Middle Earth.
Frodo’s Resolution is the aftermath. This Resolution outlines the consequences of the protagonist’s self-preservation. In some cases, it might be the destruction wrought by the villain. In Frodo’s case, the existence of a character even more corrupted by the power of the ring — Gollum — saves Middle Earth, but Frodo is left with the wounds of his dependence on its power and the knowledge that, in the critical moment, he failed to act. Sam heals after his sacrifices, but Frodo is left broken by his guilt and loss until he can cross the sea with the Elves. We learn a cautionary tale about letting the thirst for power interfere with our moral sensibility, and Frodo’s struggles, even when the world overall has a happy ending, make that lesson stick.
Crisis: Should I take the uncomfortable step of revising my worldview/position in the world/sense of right and wrong, or should I risk losing the thing that I want most?
When an internal genre is at play, the Crisis question hinges on whether the protagonist will adopt a new self or stay in their existing identity.
Climax: Take the risk.
The protagonist who takes the risk needs the Resolution of the new self to show off the result of the transformation. It is important that this Resolution type give a nod to the old self, acknowledging the roots of the protagonist’s new identity but reaffirming that the old way of thinking would not have worked. In Bridget Jones’s Diary, Bridget must choose between being vulnerable and expressing her feelings for Mark and risking losing him forever. If she speaks up, she risks looking foolish in front of everyone she knows — a fate that she has suffered more than once throughout the story. Bridget does stand up for her feelings, and she wins Mark. It looks like she has escaped the Climax with her pride. The happy ending isn’t all roses, though. Brilliantly, the Resolution nods to Bridget’s decision to take the risk when Mark reads her diary. She knows that she looks foolish, especially in her earlier entries. Mark buys her a new diary and the two of them symbolically shed Bridget’s old self and embrace her new one. The ending of this story works well because we see that the stakes of her choice were real — we know what she wrote about Mark, after all, and it wasn’t flattering — but we see that she can move past that because of her personal growth.
Climax: Stay the same.
Protagonists don’t always change. In Testing: Triumph plots, the hero undergoes trials that threaten their core identity, but at the end the hero is the same as before — just with more experience and maybe an external win to show for their internal success. Santiago, the titular Old Man in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, must choose between giving up hope and resigning himself to the loss of his fish or retaining his hope and fighting for his prize the best he can. Santiago chooses the fight, rejecting the transformation into disillusionment.
Santiago’s Resolution is the affirmation of the old self. The old man’s legendary catch ends his unlucky streak even though the sharks stripped the fish bare. Manolin rejoins him, and the two reminisce about how they used to fish in the old days and plan to fish again in the same way. Santiago’s refusal to give in to despair has won him the chance to live in his truest identity once again.
Crisis: Should I expose the truth or preserve the peace?
This Crisis question is prominent in mystery genres like Crime and Thriller. The narrative drive of these stories draws its power from dark secrets. Once the protagonist uncovers them, they face the choice of whether to expose the secrets or let them live on.
Climax: Expose the truth.
If the protagonist chooses to expose the truth, they must deal with the chaos that follows in the Resolution. If everyone accepts the secret and goes on about their lives, the choice is meaningless. The secrets must be disruptive. In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Adso and William investigate a series of murders. William is fairly certain that he knows the identity of the culprit — but the Abbot and the papal envoy put an end to the investigation. William and Adso must choose whether to comply with the rules of their society and give up the chase or see the investigation through to the end. They decide to pursue truth, and they find it — but in the process, the Abbot dies and the monastery burns. This shows us the power of the secrets that they uncover to wreak real destruction.
Climax: Preserve the peace.
The opposite of this choice is the decision to let the secrets live on, with only the reader/viewer privy to the truth. This is a common decision for narrators who have been telling the story using a frame story narrative device.
Sometimes, this choice lets the criminal off the hook, but it’s not always a bad outcome. In Titanic, the old Rose who is narrating the story must choose whether to reveal her possession of the Heart of the Ocean necklace.
Rose throws the necklace into the ocean, and later that night she finally finds peace in death, revisiting the ghostly form of the wreck and joining Jack and their friends. The lost necklace symbolizes her love story with Jack, hidden forever beneath the sea.
Her Resolution shows the memories that she has preserved intact by hiding the continued existence of the necklace from the treasure hunters. She has saved her love for Jack from commercial exploitation, and when we see them together we understand what her sacrifice of the necklace has gained her. The depiction of what has survived because the secrets stay hidden, plus the focus on the part of the peace that would have been destroyed if the secrets had come to light, make this a preserved peace Resolution.
Not all preserved peace scenes are so peaceful. Examine your own Resolution and determine whether you need to illustrate the power of the secrets still at work, or perhaps show a character who has a haunting suspicion of the truth. This suspicion could play out in their eventual downfall (illustrating the payoff of the choice of keeping secrets hidden) or serve as a teaser for a future book if you are writing a series.
These are just a few examples of the Crisis questions that might play out in your Resolution.
Take these as a starting point to explore your own Global Crisis, and see how you can nod to the protagonist’s choice in your Resolution. The ending of your story will feel satisfying and complete, and you might just make it onto your reader’s shelf of favorite books.
Did this article help you to understand the link between your Crisis and Resolution? How does this relationship play out in your favorite masterworks? Let us know in the comments.