The blurb, cover, buzz, and maybe the first few pages sell the first book in a series. But after that, it’s the ending of the last book that sells the next one. Because every reader has a choice when they reach the end of a book–continue on with the series they’re reading or go read something else.
I just finished reading a book by a new-to-me author. And it was a decent book. Interesting world, good characters, nice twists, nice fantasy elements.
Overall I was giving it a thumbs up. Not my favorite book that I’ve read recently, but solid. It was slow to start, so I wouldn’t have rushed out to buy the next one by this author, but it came together at the end so I probably would have eventually done so when book 2 was out in paperback.
Problem is, the ending. It hit the wrong emotional note.
The core issue of the book was solved, the two main characters worked out their issues, there was some hope for the future but hints that things weren’t perfect, and then…
It turned downward on the last two pages. The couple basically broke up and the future that was shown was bleak.
In a sense it was a cliffhanger. Which can sometimes pull readers to the next book because they want to know what happened. They know they have to keep reading for that emotional payoff.
But in this case it retroactively ruined the last third of the book for me. Like, “Oh, this was where you were headed? Ugh.”
So much writing advice focuses on the first pages. Write that perfect first sentence. Suck them into your story. Grab their attention. Keep them reading. But I think not near enough attention is paid to the ending of a story, which is in one sense even more important.
I can’t remember the first sentence of most stories I’ve read. But I can remember how those stories made me feel at the end.
Which begs the question, what is a good ending for a story?
For me, there has to be an emotional payoff. It doesn’t have to be romantic, but there has to have been a point to the story. The mystery is solved, the good guys win or find the thing, the couple comes together.
We have to end there for a reason. Even if the overall story arc is larger than this one book, there has to be some justification for why this was the ending for the first installment in that larger story.
And for me it has to end on an up beat. There can be that hint that more struggle is coming down the road, but I personally want it to end where things are positive, happy, or optimistic. Or if not optimistic at least resolved to some extent.
(I know some literary novels don’t end that way, but I also don’t enjoy those books.)
So, here, for example, this book could have ended five pages earlier than it did and been a much better ending for me. In my opinion, it should have ended where they solved the mystery and made the agreement that will be the subject of the next book.
Instead it stepped into the bad place. Which means when I closed the book my last lingering memory was “oh, that’s going to be grim” and I have no desire to go there.
Once more and as always, think of your audience and its expectations. Some genres like grimdark maybe are okay with a nihilistic, unhappy ending. But most genre audiences want their emotional payoff to be positive. And if you don’t deliver that, they’ll find an author who does.
Okay. Off to format some non-fiction. Good times.