The Omega Protocol: Writing a Satisfying Ending to your Novel
The ending must be both inevitable and unexpected.
Endings are Impossible
Writing a great ending to a novel is an impossible mission and, if you have to stay within genre conventions, “this mission just got whole lot more impossible”. That’s because a great novel ending is a paradox: it has to be the inevitable consequence of everything that has gone before and at the same time it can’t be predictable.
- If the ending isn’t the inevitable result of the story the reader feels cheated.
- If the reader guesses what’s coming, the story becomes dull.
But relax: it’s much worse than you think.
It’s all about the Ending
The success of our books absolutely depends on crafting a satisfying ending. A novel without a satisfying ending is like long joke without a punchline. In the mind of the reader, a weak ending will override anything good we have achieved earlier in the book.
The climax of the last act is your great imaginative leap. Without it, you have no story.
Robert McKee, Story
Achieving the Impossible
So, are you ready to achieve the impossible? Because I think we’ve lost enough good books to bad endings already, don’t you? Here’s what we are aiming at:
The key to all story endings is to give the audience what it wants, but not in the way it expects.
Let’s give our readers what they want, but not in the way they expect. Let’s light the fuse. Let’s invoke The Omega Protocol.
The Two Components of a Satisfying Ending
All the conflicts in the novel, internal and external, converge at the climax. Depending on the story, the climax could be a choice, or a battle, or both; whichever you choose, the protagonist should fight for the prize at the climax (see the definitions of protagonist and prize). The protagonist might win the prize (perhaps at great cost) or lose it (perhaps with consolation), but the climax is absolute and irreversible. That victory or defeat delivers the emotional and physical consequences of the story for the characters.
The resolution is a chapter after the climax that ends the story. It shows the effect of the story on the world, tidies up any loose ends and emphasises the effect of the story’s events on the characters. Keep it simple, but not abrupt.
If the resolution is open-ended, final consequences might not be shown (although they should be at least signposted) leaving the reader with doubt and ambiguity. There could even be a final surprise for the reader. Whatever happens, it shouldn’t take too long or the resolution will become an anti-climax.
Basics: What Any Ending Must Do
- The climax of the story has to be shown not told.
- The writer owes the reader completion of the story within, although perhaps pushing the boundaries of, genre conventions.
- Our story should have raised a question (perhaps using the One True Sentence technique), and the ending must tell the reader the answer to that question.
- For example, if there’s a mystery at the heart of the story, the solution should be clear by the end.
Making the Ending Inevitable
Make sure the ending is set-up by earlier events: it can’t come out of nowhere or be due to luck, coincidence or new characters intervening.
Once you have discovered your ending, you should work backward to make every page of the novel support it. Even a twist ending should be set up earlier. The reader should go ‘ah-ha!’ not ‘huh?’ when the ending arrives. The clues that foreshadow the ending must be there, and if you haven’t already planted them you should go back and do so.
What the audience wants is an emotionally satisfying ending, and the writer can deliver that and make it seem inevitable by using resonance.
Resonance comes from repeating images, motifs and phrases from throughout the novel, making the reader recall characters and events and underscoring the theme of the novel. If you can, have symbols that occur throughout the novel and reference them during the ending, it will help to satisfy the reader.
Making the Ending Unpredictable
One trick to make the ending unpredictable is set up several possibilities. It should seem to the reader that the probability of failure is high, giving a ‘how can they get out of this?’ feeling.
One way to do that is to literally write several alternative endings. Brainstorm a dozen endings, as crazy as you can. Choose the best alternative and write it. Then go through the novel and add pointers to that alternative ending. Even if you actually use the original ending, the pointers to the alternative ending will remain.
They’re Running out of Time!
Another way to maintain unpredictability all the way to the climax is to use a ticking clock or ‘time-bomb’. Something that the reader knows is set to happen at the climax and the protagonist is going to have deal with or fail. Of course in spy fiction, the time-bomb might be a literal bomb, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be any kind of deadline, naturally occurring in the story or imposed by the author.
The key to using the ticking clock technique is to
- Set it running early.
- Keep the reader updated on the clock’s progress.
- Make it seem like the protagonist is falling behind the clock.
- Increase the frequency of updates as time runs out.
Tips to Boost the Ending
- Don’t rush the ending, either in your writing of it, or on the page. Take your time and get it right.
- Don’t pull your punches: the climax is where you turn it up to 11. Think big.
- Resolve as many loose ends as you can before the climax and resolution, to avoid anti-climax.
- Try to emphasise the premise of the story during the ending by emphasising its universal and spiritual significance.
- Push the language: the closing paragraphs are the place for the rhetorical flourish and the poetic phrase, and attention to meter and rhythm.
Examples of Great Spy-Fiction Novel Endings
The master of the great spy fiction ending is John Le Carré. His novels have a message and the climax delivers on it. They have emotional impact, suspense is maintained, and he is a great user of the resonance technique deploying images, motifs, and phrases from throughout the novel.
His self-declared ‘best’ books are
- The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
- The Constant Gardener
Personally, I’d rate Smiley’s People and The Little Drummer Girl above The Constant Gardener.
Le Carré’s books start slowly but he is a master of creating sympathetic characters; the slowness is part of that. By the end, the books are moving very quickly and they are structured almost perfectly to deliver an emotional climax. Because the reader has developed empathy for the characters, the impact is much higher. His books exhibit many of the other ideas above, particularly resonance.
The Omega Protocol: Activated
So we have made our ending:
Inevitable, using foreshadowing, clues and resonance
and made it:
Unpredictable by setting up alternative possibilities and a ticking clock
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