Creating Impactful Book Content Endings
January might seem like an odd time to cover endings. But as is true in life, it's tough to make the most of the writing journey without having a rough idea of where you're headed. Understanding where you want a chapter or book to leave off can help in outlining the steps to getting there. For instance, it's easier to see what scenes don't carry their weight for where you are taking the story, and where to amp up the volume. But even if you prefer to wing it when it comes to the "closer" of chapters or a book, reviewing alternative options can help unlock a better ending when you become blocked.
Readers of certain genres have preferences for how chapters or works end, such as the perpetrator needing to be revealed by the end of a mystery. Keeping that caveat in mind, here are some content ending approaches to consider—as well as why it's so important to revisit a theme when possible.
Compelling Ending Approaches
Switch out of an upbeat or downbeat focus
If you haven't seen the original Planet of The Apes movie based loosely on a sci fi book, its ending is a classic example of taking an upbeat thread of a work and dashing it (in this case, the hope for a better life of humans who have been enslaved by talking apes that run a planet). In trying to prove humans are smart and from a better planet, Charlton Heston as the character Taylor heads to a beach to gain evidence of an earlier, intelligent human civilization. In addition, he and his female companion find the Statue of Liberty, broken and half-buried in the sand, symbolizing how humanity had previously destroyed Earth, which they realize they are still stuck on. Script writers, in particular, would refer to this as switching from an up beat to a down beat (emotional moment).
Novelists and other authors may instead end a work on an upbeat note, with sadness (), or with a sadness that has a silver lining present somehow. One upbeat example is Arthur Golden's novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, in which the protagonist, Saruyi, endures hardships after being sold off to work as a geisha in her youth. Saruyi eventually falls in love with a businessman, but mistakenly gets seen by him while "entertaining" another man. Despite this obstacle, the businessman takes her on as his lover at book's end, and they travel the world together into his last days. The same emotional about face, applied with whiplash force or more gently, can work well for a few chapter endings (it's best to differ ending approaches between chapters, so readers stay intrigued).
End with a compelling tidbit
For those who are covering a topic in their book, one way to add oomph to chapters is placing attention-grabbing details at the end. This works partly because readers remember the first piece of information they read second best, the middle bit, worst, and the last bit, the best (just another reason for paying so much attention to how your chapters end).
Compelling fact-related endings often appear in big idea and other topical non-fiction, such as James Nestor's bestselling Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. Nestor brings the research of how to optimize breathing approaches to life by serving as a research subject himself. He ends the first chapter, in which he is being monitored while sleeping with plugs inserted into his nostrils, with the following details: "Every 3.3 seconds another blast of unfiltered, unmoistened, and unheated air enters through my mouth … . And I've got 175,000 more breaths to go."
A novelist, historical fiction, speculative fiction, or other writer can achieve the same effect by ending a chapter with a compelling scene. In the international bestseller, The Sisters of Auschwitz, Roxanne Van Iperen chronicles Nazi resistance activities of two Dutch sisters, Janny and Lien, who are Jewish. Perhaps because of drawing a hard line on filling in unknown factors from the past, scene setting isn't the journalist's forte. However, a chapter in which the sisters and their extended family's hiding place in Amsterdam gets discovered ends with appropriately hollow-sounding paragraphs as the sisters are taken away from the safehouse, and their toddlers:
"It is dead quiet when the front door has shut behind them. Janny and Lien walk down the path to the street, look back one more time. The three little ones appear in front of the window — they do not wave.
Then a push in their back and they are gone."
Leave an idea or question hanging
There is a reason the term "cliffhanger" is familiar to many. A large part of keeping readers engaged is not tying everything up into a neat little package all the time. Applied to a book overall, the elements that make up this unfinished business serve as the driving force to maintain reader's curiosity. For instance, in the novel Eucalyptus by Murray Bail, readers wonder throughout which man will win a father's challenging botany contest and be allowed to marry his beautiful daughter (the protagonist, for whom this is the "external conflict").
Authors stoke anticipation at the end of some chapters by leaving something specific unresolved so readers can't help but turn the page to find out what happens with that next. Good examples include Tom Holland's recap of the ancient rise of the empire of the Arabs, In The Shadow of the Sword. His Times bestseller includes chapter endings such as one about the threat of "the annihilation of the world."
Jaquira Díaz's chapters in Ordinary Girls sometimes end with foreshadowing that leaves an open-ended weight in the air. For example, she covers her naval boot camp experience in a chapter of this coming-of-age memoir about a brutal childhood. Called "Battle Stations," the chapter ends with recollections of the camaraderie she felt with four others during the intensive, overnight drill the chapter is named after. But in the final paragraph that follows, she notes, "I had loved boot camp, the navy. It was in the navy where I'd finally been able to imagine living past eighteen … . But I would eventually run."
Leave things broadly unsettled
Some authors leave things unsettled in general at the end of their work. I've heard it said that this approach to endings is especially common for short stories, as I covered here. But a book's topic may lend itself to an unsettled closing approach.
A memoir example is The Fact of a Body, by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. A braided memoir, it covers the author seeking to come to terms with how their family tried to bury the reality of sexual abuse experienced by them and a sibling–while considering personal feelings about a serial child molester and murderer. Although Marzano-Lesnevich appears to reach a kind of closure about their family's misguided silence, Marzano-Lesnevich's murky feelings about forgiveness and guilt related to Ricky Langley, contrasted with the (eventual) belief of the murdered child's mother that Langley wasn't guilty, help to reflect our own cultural struggles with this emotional topic.
Underpinning Chapters with a Key Theme
Don't get me wrong, the final take home, or main theme, should be woven in bit by bit in a work. And occasionally, writers need to use a chapter just to share general information that helps to move the plot forward, or so readers understand something like a character's broad backstory. In those instances, material related to a theme will often be present, but more in terms of what details the author picks to include than any specific reference to a theme (which you can learn more about, along with the other driving elements in a book, in this post).
People read not only to slip into someone else's skin, but to expand their understanding of life's nuances and possibilities. Providing a fresh take on ways to view the world, IMO, is the holy grail for authors; so it's essential that readers sense a change in and have a better understanding of your take on a key theme after reading most chapters, as well as your entire work—whether a novel, big picture book, self-help book, or some other genre. Even a how to book will often have the author's worldview imbedded in it in some way.
A stellar chapter example is the second one in Educated by Tara Westover. The chapter focuses on her mother's journey of becoming educated as a midwife. It starts with a scene where Tara's mother moves about quickly in her kitchen while talking nervously and gathering together herbs for the self-trained midwife she'll learn from. By chapter's end, Tara's mother has midwifed many newborns on her own, and readers are shown how this educational experience gives her confidence, and improves her family's situation as she finally argues with Tara's father to add a phone line at home and more.
The benefits of this educational leap are hammered home by a final scene that bookends the first: Tara's mom is back in her kitchen, moving about slowly while gathering herbs once again for the midwife who trained her, but now talking confidently to her as an equal.
Mirroring the beginning element of a chapter is also something Díaz does in a middle chapter that her memoir is named after. The chapter covers how previously described unstable home situations in Miami Beach led her and other "ordinary" middle-school girls to contemplate their own suicides. The chapter starts with Díaz recalling the first woman to jump off the high rise where her father worked. On the tail end, another woman does so—but just as Díaz eventually steps beyond the brutality of her childhood world, this one somehow manages to survive.
Sometimes, the theme of a chapter will be summed up tidily with a final quote or other device. This occurs in a pivotal chapter of Terry Tempest William's work, Refuge, a work in which she comes to terms with her mother's cancer while reflecting on her/our relationship with nature. Chapters are anchored all with stories about a particular bird species, with the "Pink Flamingos" one covering them as an example of rare birds that unexpectedly arrive (in her case, in Utah) from far-away places. The real topic , though, is how rare events–like surviving a prolonged cancer—area a cause for hope. To tie the layered meanings together, Tempest William ends the flamingo chapter with an Emily Dickinson stanza about hope being the feathered thing that "perches in the soul."
As with book themes in general, the take-home learned by a chapter's end isn't always positive, but it does need to be noticeable on the page for readers to receive this emotional gift. In the process of engaging readers this way, you may very well gift yourself with the satisfaction of having a better understanding of why you had to write a work in the first place.
Barbra A. Rodriguez
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-For more on considering a memoir's theme in the last chapter, see this post.
-For more examples and ideas of chapter endings, go here.
-To understand how happy/sad endings are made, see these links:
https://www.rachelneumeier.com/2021/02/19/happy-sad-endings/ (in which the writer debunks some of what's shared in the first link)