How (Not) to End a Novel?

I first started reading the Harry Potter series when I was around twelve-years-old. It was around the time that Prisoner of Azkaban came out – I remember reading the first three books in close to one sitting. In the years that followed, my adoration of the characters, their story and world, just grew and grew.

In fact I can probably credit Harry Potter with the fact that I’m a writer at all. Because from the moment I started reading the books, I discovered a precious, brilliant corner of the internet: the Harry Potter fandom. I remember the trials and tribulations of writing on, the release of, and many more (now ancient in fandom terms) places. It was fanfiction, Livejournal RPGs, and fandom in general that led me to love writing.

But I have a secret: there is a part of the Harry Potter books that I violently, viciously hate.

It’s the epilogue.

Perhaps it’s the fact that I was 20 by the time the final book was released. I had grown disillusioned with the idea that school was wonderful and that you met friends for life there. I didn’t find the idea that everyone married their highschool sweetheart – or at least someone they knew at school – at all believable.

It wasn’t even that I disliked the pairings themselves (though for the record, H/Hr forever). I had grown to like them, especially with the way the characters had developed. I just…didn’t think it needed to be there. I didn’t think it was at all necessary. The ending, the real ending, was enough.

Now of course, I’m not suggesting that Rowling was wrong to put it in – because ultimately, it was her book long before it was mine. And in the years that have followed I have come to understand the satisfaction of being able to say what happened in the years that follow the end of a story.

But last week I promised you some thoughts on epilogues and sequels and endings, and That Epilogue (commonly referred to as ‘Epilogue, What Epilogue?’ in fandom tags) was the first thing that came into my head. Because, honestly, it still smarts a bit. I didn’t need everything tied up in a bow like that. I wanted room to imagine, to continue the book in my head as I had interpreted it. The epilogue spoilt that; it stole my capacity to conclude the book in the way I had read it.

So am I alone in thinking like this?

To conduct an exceptionally unscientific survey, I asked my lovely readers what they thought – and unsurprisingly, the opinions were strong. Here are just a few.

“It’s important for all plots to tie up nicely without any loose ends, but I don’t need to know what happened afterwards to XYZ characters. I can come up with that stuff on my own.”

“I enjoy knowing the important final bits of the plot are tied up, but I don’t need a “50 years later” concluding chapter.”

“I’d always conclude the arc the story is about but leave openings and room for imagination for people to want more, to know what comes next.”

“The lack of an ending can make the whole thing meaningless in hindsight. An open ending can either mean that you respect your audience enough to make sense of it, or that you have contempt for them enough to not give them finished ideas.”

“I think it’s more important that an ending be satisfying. I’ve loved stories which leave it open and others which tie things up with a bow.”

It isn’t surprising that my echochamber mostly concur, with a few caveats. And generally I agree with all of this. I have definitely read books where I appreciated the epilogues – where they’ve been necessary to truly show the conclusion of the plots. The Lord of the Rings is a great example of this, not least because it has probably half a dozen epilogue-style endings. We need to see Sam settle down and have children to truly understand the gulf of difference between him and Frodo – to see the true effect of carrying the One Ring for so long.

But how do you know whether you’ve tied everything up neatly, or whether you’ve overtied it?

This, I think, is where we as authors most benefit from beta readers. Because the book that you write is not the same as the book people read. If I have learnt only one thing from my years in fandom, it is this: for every new person who reads your book, a new version of it exists in the world, and some of them are super weird.

We read within the context of our own selves, our own understanding, our own upbringing. What jars for one person is standard for another; what is painful for one person is nothing to another; a loveable character to one person can be hated by the next. Because they go into our heads, and in doing so they bump on the stuff that’s already in there.

So if I were to give you any advice regarding writing endings, it would be this – write the ending you want to write. Then show it to people. Ask them what they think of it. Ask them if it was satisfying. If everything was tied up. If you went too far.

Don’t necessarily just do what they say, either. They are giving you points of view, opinions, that you won’t be able to get from yourself – and that’s incredibly valuable. But it’s still you who decides how you want your book to be. Take their opinions and read your ending over again to decide if you truly are happy with it.

Think they’re right? Awesome. Change it. Believe in your gut that you already hit upon the one true ending? Great. Leave it as it is. The most important thing is that you give yourself the chance to be certain.

Now for the advice I’m terrible at taking, which spawned this whole discussion.

Months later, when your book is out and people have finished it, and you are getting asked questions like “What happens next?” and “Is there going to be a sequel?” over and over again, remember that feeling in your gut. Remember that you can take opinions, but ultimately, it is your book before it is anyone else’s.

Because writing the book that is yours, the book that is for you, is the best way to write truly and honestly. Even after you have let it go and given it to the world, be content. Allow people their opinions, because they are all valid – they read the book they read, not the one you wrote – but remind them that you intended it to be the way it is.

Mundane Magic doesn’t have an epilogue. It doesn’t have a sequel. It doesn’t even show you the characters fully recovering from what happens. There’s a reason for that: it ends with a beginning. What happens after that beginning? That’s up to you, and what you took away from it, and I am honoured that by reading it people have taken the time to imagine that future.

It’s your book now. You decide how it ends.

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