Image: Matthew Loffhagen
An anticlimactic ending is a particularly nasty thing to happen to an author. It’s a toxic little addition to a story that can turn the whole thing to sludge – in fact, in many cases it even grows stronger when the rest of the story is great, turning the reader’s stored excitement into lasting disappointment. Worse still, the fallout of an anticlimactic ending isn’t even reserved to one story; it can easily harm your brand, even among non-readers – no reader evangelizes quite as forcefully as those who feel like the author stood them up. So, are you scared of writing an anticlimactic ending? Maybe you should be.
But only for a few minutes, because in this article I’ll be looking at what you can do to dodge the anticlimax and bring home an ending that does your story proud. Truth be told, it’s really not so difficult, and if you stick around ‘til the end, I’ll tell you how a single piece of paper can ensure you write a satisfying ending.
Action and inaction
You may have thought I got out all my anti-anticlimactic ending feelings in the screed above, but you’d be wrong. One final devilish detail to keep in mind is that you can end up with an anticlimactic ending through both action and inaction.
By this, I mean that overwriting a piece – sticking around long past the point of ideal resolution – and underwriting a piece – not bothering to bring things to a satisfying close – are both equally deadly. Unfortunately, there’s no point at which you’ve ‘reached’ a satisfying conclusion; you can overshoot as easily as undershoot, and you should be wary of both.
Why is this the case? Because an anticlimactic ending isn’t about an objective experience such as excitement, but rather about the nature of the story. Sadly, that’s the opposite of the advice you’ll find elsewhere.
Excitement vs. Satisfaction
The example usually given when talking about anticlimactic endings is that they ‘fizzle’. The reader’s experience isn’t rounded out with sufficient excitement and they get bored and annoyed. Not only does this idea do readers a disservice, but it’s patently untrue.
Many books end without a ‘bang’. Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos, for instance, details the end of human civilization from a million years removed. Far in the future, a ghost observes the seal-like creatures that mankind has become, concluding that they’re probably better off than they were when they had ‘their prized big brains’.
The book is incapable of delivering a burst of excitement near the end because the story is founded on the opposite – the reader learns about the downfall of mankind, what happened after, and what mankind has become millions of years on all at the same time. Consequentiality and worth are picked apart and questioned – the reader is told which characters will die in advance (via a small star by their name), and led from effect to cause in a way which dismantles the idea of what is and isn’t noteworthy. How do you end on a revelation with that set-up?
The other piece of advice you’ll be given is not to leave the reader hanging, but again, that’s clearly not the whole truth. Galapagos doesn’t have much in the way of final reveals, opting to leave the reader pondering the questions it’s raised.
Despite these apparent failings, Galapagos is a classic that ranks in the top ten of many people’s favorite books. How does it manage that, when it breaks so many of the rules? The answer is that a book doesn’t have to deliver excitement to avoid an anticlimactic ending, it just has to deliver satisfaction. Even that satisfaction isn’t objective, instead taking on a unique form as it relates to each individual story.Your ending doesn’t have to excite, but it does have to satisfy.Click To Tweet
What’s the point?
To explain what I mean by this, I’ll need some examples. The first is Warren Ellis’ Gun Machine. While Ellis is a gifted writer, and reading is always a subjective experience, I’d argue that Gun Machine has a surprisingly anticlimactic ending.
Gun Machine tells the story of John Tallow, a cop pursuing a serial killer. ‘The hunter’ is killing his victims with famous weapons (such as a gun wielded by the Son of Sam) and then adding them to what appears to be a huge art installation composed of weaponry. The book ends with Tallow catching and confronting the killer, learning the true intent behind his crimes:
“So,” said the hunter, eyes still on his book. “Are we doing more questions today?”
“Just one,” said Tallow. “What were the guns on the wall for? Was it wampum?”
The hunter’s eyes flew to Tallow with delight. “Wampum! You knew it!”
“A wampum belt wrapped around an entire apartment?”
“Very close, Detective, very close. It was wampum… A great big apartment-sized machine, like the early computers that filled a room, running its own code… I was building a ritual machine that, when completed, would do the work of the Ghost Dance. When it finished and ran, or danced or told itself or whatever, it would restore Manhattan to Old Mannahatta, the island of many hills, and my people would return.”
“You’re not actually Native American, are you,” said Tallow.
“Not even a bit,” the hunter agreed.
“And you build a machine out of murder weapons to destroy New York and replace it with the Happy Hunting Ground.”
“In my own defense, I was completely insane.” The hunter smiled.
“So I’ve heard,” said Tallow. “Sing Sing, then?”
The conversation ends, Tallow goes back to work, and the book is over, so why is that an anticlimax? Surely it’s a great ending – there’s the big reveal of what the killer was up to, the satisfaction of knowing he’s going to prison, and Tallow’s return to work is even a gentle cliffhanger, teasing his continued adventures. Many of you will be thinking that it’s because the killer partially explains away his behavior as the result of mental illness. Sure, that doesn’t help, but it’s not the real problem.
The problem is that the book doesn’t read as if it’s about Tallow’s struggle with the killer. The first, shocking event that occurs is the violent death of Tallow’s partner. This leaves Tallow in a malaise, something he is drawn out of through the book as he begins a friendship with Bat and Scarly, idiosyncratic investigators who help him with the case. First, they’re odd strangers, then he lets his guard down enough to enjoy their company, then… nothing.
In this way, the book is primarily ‘about’ Tallow and his personal relationships. It begins with a violent severing of an emotional connection, with the crime elements gradually building throughout, and never comes back full circle. The book begins as if Tallow’s emotional situation is its focus but then ends as if it’s always been about the criminal case. The reader is left asking, “But what about the thing I cared about?”
To end in a ‘satisfying’ way, Gun Machine would have had to focus on Tallow’s emotional state and his new relationships. Instead, they’re left dangling – a ‘fizzle’ that’s difficult to spot, since it only exists in reference to how the story has presented itself.
William Goldman’s The Princess Bride is the opposite – it tells a story of adventure and peril, but ends on a distinctively unclear note.
From behind them suddenly, closer than they imagined, they could hear the roar of Humperdinck: “Stop them! Cut them off!”
They were, admittedly, startled, but there was no reason for worry: they were on the fastest horses in the kingdom, and the lead was already theirs.
However, this was before Inigo’s wound reopened; and Westley relapsed again; and Fezzik took the wrong turn; and Buttercup’s horse threw a shoe. And the night behind them was filled with the crescendo sound of pursuit…
The story ends with a different narrator, a fictionalized version of the author ‘outside’ the story who the reader has grown to dislike and distrust, giving his own opinion on what happens next.
Did they make it? Was the pirate ship there? You can answer it for yourself, but, for me, I say yes it was. And yes, they got away. And got their strength back and had lots of adventures and more than their share of laughs.
But that doesn’t mean I think they had a happy ending either. Because, in my opinion anyway, they squabbled a lot, and Buttercup lost her looks eventually, and one day Fezzik lost a fight and some hot-shot kid whipped Inigo with a sword and Westley was never able to really sleep soundly because of Humperdinck maybe being on the trail.
The Princess Bride ends by giving the reader a choice of two options – either things look grim or thing turn out alright, but life is then mundane and flawed. It’s a cliffhanger with no intended conclusion and, if it does end with a burst of excitement, it’s of a distinctly unpleasant variety. How, then, is this not an anticlimactic ending?
The answer, again, is that none of that is what the book’s about. The book is about Westley and Buttercup trying to be together and to be free. They yearn to be together, and the reader yearns for them. Once they are, that’s a satisfying climax. What happens next isn’t particularly important, and the reader understands that on an emotional level.Anticlimactic endings happen when authors forget where their story began.Click To Tweet
Goldman’s brilliance is in knowing how the reader will feel and making a joke out of what follows. The ‘narrator’, venal and cynical, assumes the worst, even as the reader understands that they’re witnessing the best. Likewise, the story throws up paltry roadblocks considering the journey to the conclusion. The reader knows things have worked out, so to see others fretting over what happens next is amusing and makes their own understanding even more personal and satisfying.
Finally, The Princess Bride is presented as a kind of fairy tale, and the narrator’s presence keeps the reader aware of this, even as they invest in the characters. The main couple getting together is the final point of a fairy tale – again, the story ends in one place for the reader, and then continues on in a way that ‘tricks’ everyone else (including the narrative itself).
Together, these examples reveal the real truth of how to avoid an anticlimactic ending – know, and address, the core ‘problem’ of your story.
The single piece of paper
To avoid writing an anticlimactic ending, you have to know what your reader cares about. This should be easy, since you’re the one who got them to care in the first place, but many authors get it wrong.
The key lies in a differentiation I’ve talked about before – the gap between ‘plot’ and ‘story’. Yes, the main event in Gun Machine’s plot is the cop/killer game of cat and mouse, but that’s not the core concern of the story. John Tallow going through the same emotional journey while investigating another crime would be gripping, whereas a less involving protagonist investigating the same crime might not be. There are books where that’s not true – murder mysteries where all the fun is in the crime, and it actually makes sense to end as soon as possible after it’s solved.
This is generally the case with Richard Stark’s Parker books. There, the protagonist is involving, but the story is ‘about’ each caper. Stark writes a fantastic climax, usually because he ends as soon as possible after a criminal enterprise has concluded. Each ‘job’ is the core of the story – to end before it would be ludicrous, to hang around afterwards would be boring. This is generally good advice with a crime story (or, rather, a story ‘about’ crime), so it’s easy to see why Ellis made the choice to end Gun Machine so abruptly.
Avoiding the anticlimactic story, then, is a case of identifying the core story element that the reader wants to see resolved. What are they sticking around for, and what are they merely enjoying? The answer is what’s often referred to as a ‘dramatic question’ or ‘story problem’ – ‘Will Tallow recover emotionally?’ or ‘Will Buttercup and Westley ever be back together?’
It can take a lot of work to find the answer, but it’s work worth doing. You can begin by looking at the start of your story – how did you get your reader engrossed? It’s a good bet that that’s why they made it to the end. Be conscious of keeping the practicalities of your plot at a distance – Parker books aren’t about someone successfully committing crimes, but rather about avoiding immediate danger. Once that danger has passed, the ‘story’ has reached its ideal climax. The reader doesn’t need to see him collect the loot or safe at home, they just need to know that the danger is over.Want a great ending? Address the question you asked in the first place.Click To Tweet
Once you’ve identified this dramatic question, write it on a piece of paper and stick it somewhere that will be visible as you write. This is your goal, the concept you’re trying to resolve. As you work on your ending, ask how you can conclude your story as close to the answer as possible. Let that paper loom over you for every second you overshoot and taunt you when you draw up short. Your ending should be a dart, right in the middle of that paper. Boom. Got you. Done.
Remember, though, you’re the writer – you don’t have to just identify what your story’s about, you get to decide. If you don’t want to address that key question, shift the focus. Start somewhere else, direct the readers’ attention so they fixate on the right thing at an early stage. Goldman begins with a lengthy introduction to Westley and Buttercup, endearing them to the reader before introducing any other concept or event. Likewise, the first line of Galapagos establishes the distance from which the narrator is relating events, cementing a key theme of the book and warning the reader not to invest too heavily in the characters.
Returning to Galapagos raises a vital question – how do you avoid an anticlimactic ending when you’re not going to answer your core question? Well, when I say ‘answer’ I really mean ‘satisfactorily address’. The reader doesn’t need to leave with all the answers; often it’s enough for them to just feel that they’ve fully explored the question. Galapagos does this by revealing that the narrator’s period of observation is about to end – a gentle moment of little consequence that serves to formally end the experience and draw the book’s themes together. The story treats its own ending as it treated the end of humanity and the end of individual characters, reiterating a key theme and leaving the reader to ponder what they’ve observed.
For all of that, I found Galapagos to have an immensely anticlimactic ending when I first read it. “What?” you’re shouting. “But you’ve been using it as a good example!” That’s because it is one – my issue was caused by a badly written blurb.
Long, long ago, as he researched into the origin of species, Charles Darwin had been inspired by the creatures of the Galapagos. Now, a million years on, the new inhabitants of the islands – the human survivors of the ‘Nature Cruise of the Century’ – have quietly evolved into sleek, furry creatures with flippers, and small brains. All other forms of humankind have ceased to exist, finally made redundant by their own inventions.
All that survives of their Big-Brain Culture is contained in Mandarax, a tiny electronic marvel which can recall any one of twenty thousand popular quotations from world literature, as well as translate among a thousand languages. Unfortunately Mandarax doesn’t understand Kanka-Bono, the language of the cannibals who have arrived to ‘look after’ the new humanity…
The problem here is that those cannibals never materialize, or at least not in the way the blurb suggests. Those ellipses suggest that the cannibals will be an antagonistic force in the story, but they’re not. I spent much of the book waiting for them to turn up, thinking they were going to be a bigger and bigger problem as the story progressed (‘The later they turn up, the more final the damage they’ll do.’)
The blurb completely mismanaged my expectations, asking me to focus on all the wrong elements of the story. Galapagos, then, is an example of both how to get it right and how to get it wrong. The story itself focuses the reader on all the right things while shifting their attention from aspects that matter less to the story’s path. The blurb focuses the reader’s attention on stakes that will never pay off, promising conflict where it doesn’t and shouldn’t exist (the writer mustn’t have read our article).
Get the set-up right, appreciate where you’re directing your reader, and a calm ending isn’t necessarily an anticlimactic one. That fact begs a final question that could improve the ending of your story.
What does the reader do now?
Galapagos’ ending works because it leaves the reader steeped in questions and equipped with the tools to tackle them. In short, it leaves them with something to do.
Note that the book has to give readers two things to keep them happy – the question and the tools. Gun Machine’s ending is anticlimactic because the reader isn’t really equipped to imagine what happens next. What does the full extent of Tallow’s new emotional state look like? If we saw him in one final scene with his friends, we might be able to imagine what his life would look like from then on, but we don’t.
The Princess Bride invites you to speculate as to what happens next and even offers up a source to disagree with. It doesn’t particularly matter, of course – the characters have their ‘happy ever after’ moment – but it’s an invitation to revel in the emotions the novel has stirred up.
One series that badly missteps on this score is Darren Shan’s The Saga of Darren Shan. This fascinating, twelve-book YA saga ends with Sons of Destiny. The book is the conclusion of everything that’s gone before – Darren must fight an embittered former friend to end a deadly war, knowing that victory may transform him into a world-ending entity. The story ends with Darren goading his opponent into a move that kills them both, fulfilling a journey of triumph and sacrifice that began eleven books before. It’s a great ending, pulling together themes and even ending with a bang. That’s the halfway point of the book.
From that point on, Darren travels back in time, ensuring he never engages in any of the actions that led to his death. His story now officially ends within the first few chapters of the first book. It’s certainly a neat trick, but one that robs the reader of everything they’ve been through and, worse, leaves them nowhere to go. If a good climax leaves the reader imagining what happens next, this is the antithesis – nothing happens next, and everything you thought had already happened, didn’t.Your ending should invite further thought from the reader. If not, what’s its value?Click To Tweet
Here, Shan puts plot before story, wrapping events up with a neat bow while decimating the reader’s emotional journey. His ending has nothing to do with the question on that piece of paper, and with the momentum of twelve books barreling towards the ending, the reader is left with a stunningly anticlimactic ending.
It’s possible that Shan made this decision to give the story a happier, more triumphant ending, but this urge is another that authors should avoid. Often, a story’s core problem is best addressed by a downer ending. If that’s not what you want to write, that’s fine, but you can’t just force the ending to turn happy. Adjustments have to be made earlier on – the reader’s focus shifted onto an element of the story that makes a happy ending feel satisfying. Remember that the end is, in many ways, a reply to the beginning. Change the ending without appreciating that and you get an answer that makes no sense in reply to the question:
“What is the secret world of vampires really like?”
“Darren lived a full, normal life.”
“How will Tallow cope with this?”
“The criminal was building a magical machine and is now going to prison.”
“Will Buttercup ever see Westley again?”
“Yes, they love each other, it’s great.”
Avoiding an anticlimactic ending
So that’s how you avoid an anticlimactic ending, and how one piece of paper can make sure you keep on track. Many of you will be left with the question of how to write a great climax, rather than just avoid a bad one, so Here’s How To Write A Killer Climax That Leaves Readers Breathless.
It’s important to appreciate, though, that not every climax has to be breathtaking. There’s a lot of healthy ground between an actively disappointing ending and one that blows the reader’s socks off. You should also keep in mind that a story’s climax doesn’t have to be where it ends. There are a lot of reasons why it should be, but there are a lot of books that end a significant way after the climax of their story. To that end, maybe ‘anticlimactic’ isn’t a helpful term, speaking as it does of excitement and finality. Maybe writing a satisfying ending should be the goal. It’s certainly a quality that’s likely to stand the test of time and re-reads.
Want to start work immediately? Then check out What Everybody Ought To Know About Writing A First Chapter for tips on establishing the elements that define your satisfying ending. Or, for more general tips, try How To Improve Your Writing By Cutting Eight Words.
What’s the most anticlimactic ending you’ve ever read? Do you love The Saga of Darren Shan and think I’m way off base? Let me know in the comments.