The ending is the last thing your audience will read or see. Whether the ending is good or bad we’ll remember it, so it’s best to get it right. Today’s blog post, therefore, is on how to write the perfect ending.
The end of Game of Thrones in 2019 deeply disappointed me. In fact, it hurt me. To some extent, I still don’t talk about it as I cannot believe how wretched it was. The showrunners savagely butchered and betrayed the source material, the characters, and the bittersweet message that George RR Martin has been carefully constructing since 1991.
Nevertheless, the end of the series got me wondering: if Game of Thrones’ ending was how not to write an ending, what is the right way?
Thus, I came up with three tips for how to write the perfect ending, and I hope my tips make the writing process a little easier for you as well.
1 – State The Moral Message Of The Story
Every story has (or should aspire to have) a message running through the course of its narrative. How to write the perfect ending? The final scene or scenes should ram home this message.
Example 1 – Rocky (1976)
Ostensibly, Rocky is about an underdog willing to take on a world champion. But there is a better message to the film than the cliché backs to the wall success story.
Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) starts off the film calling himself a “bum” and blaming the world for his failings in life. But then the boxer, Apollo Creed, puts out word that he willing to give a local contender the chance to challenge him. Subsequently, Rocky finally takes responsibility for himself. After weeks of training, Rocky takes to the ring against Creed. Rocky does not win the fight, but his will to win earns him plenty of plaudits, even the ‘moral victory.’
But the film’s moral message is not about winning or losing a boxing match. It’s about making something of yourself through hard work and determination. In fact, the film’s message is about breeding the mindset that “your hardest opponent is the one staring back at you in the mirror,” and that “a champion is just a contender who never gave up.” These messages apply to everybody, regardless of what it is that you want to achieve in life.
(As it happens, both of these messages an old and grizzled Rocky tells Adonis Creed, Apollo’s son, in 2015’s Creed.)
Example 2 – Mazal & Schlimazel
This is an old Jewish folktale/fable. It is about the conflict between Mazal, the charming spirit of good luck, and Schlimazel, the horrid-looking spirit of bad luck.
Tam, the protagonist of the story, comes from a humble home and wins favour with the King. One day, the King asks Tam to achieve the impossible and bring him the milk of a lioness. Tam, being a willing servant, takes a year to fulfil the task and manages (with Mazal’s help) to get milk from a lioness.
Yet, as he approaches the King, Shlimazel steps in and has Tam tell the King that he has brought him the milk of a dog. Subsequently, Tam is sentenced to death.
The punishment may seem harsh at the outset. But it highlights the moral of the story – that it only takes a second to undo a year of hard work.
2 – Create A Logical & Satisfying Conclusion
During a story, writers raise numerous questions to intrigue the audience. Part of the purpose of an ending is to resolve all of these issues. As a result, the audience feels that the story is complete and that all loose ends have been tied up, nicely.
Example 1 – The Harry Potter series
At the start of the story, Harry enters Hogwarts, a high school for wizards. He is a gifted but untrained wizard, with the weight of a prophecy on him to defeat the Dark Lord (who killed his parents).
Over the course of the seven books, Harry improves his wizarding skills. In addition, he becomes the leader of the fight against Voldemort, and defeats the Dark Lord.
But that is not all with regards to the Harry Potter books. JK Rowling, the author, raised many questions throughout the seven books, such as:
- Why does Neville Longbottom live with his grandmother?
- Why does Professor Snape hate Harry?
- What are the Horcruxes? and
- Who will Hermione end up with?
Over the course of the series, Rowling answers all of these questions and so many others. This is partly what makes the ending so wonderful and satisfying.
Example 2 – Nocturnal Animals
This is a film that leaves no stone left unturned. Susan (Amy Adams) is a wealthy, modern-art gallery owner in LA, who has everything but is utterly miserable. One day, she receives a package in the post. It is from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), and it’s Edward’s novel.
However, as she reads the book, she is forced to relive and confront some demons from her past; notably, why her marriage to Edward broke down. By the end of the film, we understand why Susan is miserable. (And we may not have much sympathy for her either.)
If you are thinking that it is something of paradox to have a logical and satisfying conclusion to a narrative that ends a question, you may have a point.
But if the open-ended ending is done well (and I stress, done well) then all bar the very last question will be answered. And, maybe on a second look, you may realise that the final question is answered over the course of the narrative too.
Example – Inception
The film ends with Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) having completed his mission and reuniting with his children.
However, the totem, the item that determines whether or not he is dreaming or awake, keeps on spinning. It wouldn’t do this if Cobb were awake.
Nevertheless, as we previously discussed in our review of Inception, there are two key reasons to suggest that Dom is awake at the end of the film:
- The totem wobbles, which it never did in the dream; and
- Michael Caine, who has a supporting role in the film, essentially said in 2018 that when he’s in scene, it’s reality.
The genius of Inception, though, is that it doesn’t really matter whether you believe Cobb is dreaming at the end, or not. Seemingly, the film is about going into another’s psyche to implant an idea. But really, it’s about a deeply flawed and troubled man trying to come to terms with his grief and his guilt, whilst attempting to return to his children.
By the end of the film, Cobb has faced his troubles, resolved them, and has reunited with his children. In short, whether he is dreaming or not, he is at peace with himself. And that’s the point of the movie.
The open-ended nature of the ending might well have just been a trick by Christopher Nolan to make us watch the film again. And it worked!
Exception – When A Narrative Is Part Of A Series
How to write the perfect ending differs slightly when it is part of a series. The ending for each volume must still be logical and satisfying. However, there are two caveats that differentiate endings when there is a sequel, and these are:
- The ending (or endings) must have a hook and leave the characters in different places (if not physically, then strategically and/or psychologically) than at the start of the particular volume; and
- Writers can leave a few questions unanswered for later volumes.
Example for Caveat 1 – Batman Begins & The Dark Knight
Both of these films have logical and satisfying endings. Plus, they give the audience a hook and leave Bruce Wayne in very different positions from where he starts out from.
By the end of Batman Begins, Bruce has overcome his fear of bats, has used his anger to become Batman, and is working with Gotham’s police force. Indeed, there is tremendous optimism that, between Batman and Lieutenant Jim Gordon, they can take back the streets from the criminals.
Moreover, after Gordon shows Batman a Joker card, viewers cannot wait to see how Batman will tackle his most iconic nemesis next time around.
However, the situation at the end of The Dark Knight could not be a starker contrast. Batman’s optimism is gone, and he has lost another loved one (Rachel Dawes). In addition, the Joker has psychologically broken him, and Harvey Dent, Gotham’s ‘White Knight,’ is dead.
In so many ways, the Joker has won. Nevertheless, Batman cannot allow an agent of chaos to undo the good work that he and Gotham’s police force have done. So, he takes the fall for Dent’s crimes and flees.
The hook is that Batman has become an outcast and has gone into hiding. Consequently, the audience is eager to see how people and the police will react when the next villain shows up, when they need Batman again.
Example for Caveat 2 – The Harry Potter series
As we have already discussed, JK Rowling answers all of the questions she raises in the series. But she doesn’t answer them all in the first volume. Rather, she answers them gradually over the course of the seven books; for example, why Neville Longbottom lives with his formidable grandmother, Augusta.
Thus, Writers should leave two or three questions unanswered in each volume in a series to hold the audience’s interest. However, the questions you choose not to answer at first must be answered later on in the series, and be key to the plot.
So, using the example of Neville Longbottom again, we learn in the first book that Neville lives with his grandmother. Yet, we only learn why this is the case in book four.
When we eventually learn the reason, we understand why Neville is the way he is (i.e. timid). Crucially for the plot, his anger at what Bellatrix did to his parents explains why he fights so valiantly against the Dark Lord during the Battle of Hogwarts.
3 – Have The Characters Come Out As Changed People
The third and final point on how to write the perfect ending is to show that the characters have changed over the course of the narrative. Essentially, this is a story-arc. It is something we discussed in our blog posts on how to write the ultimate protagonist, secondary character, and villain.
A great story-arc for will make your audience feel like they have gone on a journey with the characters. Perhaps, even, to the point where they feel like they have changed along with the characters, too.
Example 1 – Ebenezer Scrooge
In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge starts off as a mean-spirited miser who does not care for his family. But after being visited by three ghosts, he has a complete turnaround. He becomes a generous man and a loving grandfather.
Example 2 – Frodo
In The Lord of the Rings, we first meet Frodo as a fun-loving hobbit in the Shire at his uncle Bilbo’s 111th birthday party. But after Bilbo leaves The Shire, Frodo finds himself burdened by the Ring. Now, Sauron wants it back and the Nazgul, hiss ring-wraiths, are on their way to claim it. As a result, Frodo is forced to leave everything he has ever known, to go Mordor and destroy the Ring in Mount Doom.
Yet, the journey changes Frodo as a person. From fun-loving, he becomes worrisome and paranoid as the Ring slowly consumes him. In addition, at Weathertop, he gets stabbed by the Witch-King, the Nazgul leader, and his wound never truly heals.
After destroying the Ring, Frodo returns to the Shire. Only, he can’t settle back into his old life. His experiences have changed him (damaged him). All he feels he has left to do is write his story and sail into the Grey Havens; essentially, to die in peace.
Truly, it is a bittersweet ending. It’s what that makes the conclusion for The Lord of the Rings so wonderful and fulfilling.
We started off this video (on how to write the perfect ending) by saying that the ending for Game of Thrones was the ABC on how not to write an ending. Following this blog post, I would like to think that we have been on something of a journey and that we have come to understand what is required to write a brilliant ending.
A rundown of the three factors required to write such an ending are:
- To state the message of the story;
- To create a logical and satisfying conclusion; and
- To have the characters come out changed.
Follow these three tips, and your audience will come away from your story with a sigh of relief, satisfied as if they have had an excellent meal. Moreover, they will be extremely impressed with what they have seen or read.
And that’s all I have for you today guys. Thank you for reading this blog post. I hope you enjoyed it and that it helps to make the writing process a little easier for you as well.
What do you think of my tips? What do you think I have missed out in order to write a great ending?
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