23 February 2019

ENDINGS: You Must Satisfy the Reader!

“Your first page sells the book.  Your last page sells the next book.” — Mickey Spillane

In all my classes and workshops, we talk about satisfying the reader.  As authors we make a ‘promise to the reader’.  We establish this promise in the first few pages and chapters.  Who will this story be about?  What genre?  Is it romance, mystery, thriller, western or one of the others?  Readers are attached to different genres, whether we authors like it or not.  We have to be aware that when we promise something, we need to fulfill it.

As an example: a thing that drives me crazy is when books are promoted as mysteries, and they are really thrillers.  I like murder mysteries; my favourite book is an intelligent whodunit, with diabolically clever plotting.  In a thriller, the plot usually centres on a character in jeopardy.  Not the same. 

As authors, we want to satisfy the reader, and that is exactly what Mickey Spillane was getting at in the quote above.  To do this, we need to know what the reader expects.  Here’s the handout I use in class to explain the different expectations in the main genres of fiction.  (Note: there are always exceptions.)


ROMANCE:  The man and woman will come together to have a HEA (happy ever after) after surmounting great obstacles. 

MYSTERY/Suspense:  In a whodunit, the ending will reveal the killer.  In a thriller, the protagonist will escape the danger.  All loose ends will be tied up.  Justice will be seen to be done in some manner.  (This does not mean that the law will be satisfied.  We’re all about justice here, and the most interesting stories often have characters acting outside the law to achieve justice.  In mystery/suspense books you probably have the most opportunity for gray.)

FANTASY/Sci-Fi:  The battle will be won for now, but the war may continue in future books.  You should give your characters a HFN (happy for now) – at least a short amount of time to enjoy their

WESTERN:  The good guy will win.  Simple as that.

ACTION-ADVENTURE:  The Bond-clone will survive and triumph.  Sometimes the bad guy will get away to allow for a future story.

HORROR:  Usually, the protagonist will survive.  If not, he will usually die heroically saving others. Hope is key.  If readers have lost hope, they will stop reading.

LITERARY:  Again, the reader must be satisfied by the end of the story.  The protagonist will grow from the challenge.  He/she will probably be faced with difficult choices, and by the end of the story, the choice will be made.  In other stories, it may be that by the end of the story the protagonist discovers something she has been seeking: i.e. The Progress of Love by Alice Munro

ENDINGS – The argument against using real life for your plot. (Why things that really happened to you don’t make good novels.)

       “I am always telling my writing students that the anecdotes that make up their own lives, no matter how heart-wrenching they may have been for their subjects, are not in themselves stories.  Stories have endings.  Endings are contrived.  In order to come up with a great ending, you’re probably going to have to make something up, something that didn’t actually happen.  Autobiographical fiction can never do these things, because our lives contain few endings or even resolutions of any kind.”   Russell Smith

Remember what we do: Fiction authors write about things that never happened and people who don’t exist.  Remember what fiction writers must provide:  The ending must satisfy the reader.

So:  Don’t tell a publisher that your book/short story is based on real life.  The publisher doesn’t care. They are only looking for a good story.

Melodie Campbell is the author of the multi-award-winning Goddaughter series.  Book 6, The Goddaughter Does Vegas, is now available at all the usual suspects.



  1. All good points, Melodie. And we really do have to satisfy the reader the way the genre expects. I suppose we can bend the rules, but probably shouldn't break them completely.

  2. Good lesson. Gotta love a good ending.

  3. Good advice and I do like your newest book cover, too. Good luck with that.

  4. Great points, Melodie.

    May I add one? The characters need to set up the ending. We should see it coming, even if we don't recognize it (surprise endings are GREAT if they make sense) at the time. It's even better if we don't see it coming.

    Lately, I've encountered far too many stories and novels where all the so-called "investigating" happens off-stage and the writer or a character only reveals it at the very end. It's cheating and it's lazy.

    Euripides could get away with the deus ex machina, but too many contemporary writers fall back on it.

  5. Paul, I agree. What I fear with my students is that they want to be 'original' desperately. And that desperation often dominates over what a reader is looking for in their choice of book.

  6. Thanks Janice! Orca Publishers do a fab job on covers. I think this one really reflects the whacky plot and characters of the book. Here's hoping readers like it :)

  7. Thanks, O'Neil!
    Steve, I should add that. IN fact, in another handout (the one that refers specifically to crime fiction) I do have that. No 'deus ex machina' - the protagonist must be in at the end, and must have a hand in solving the murder. Of course, I always have to explain what deus ex machina means grin.

  8. With you all the way. I want justice served, a happy ending if possible, and a protagonist who wins, one way or the other.

  9. Eve, I think women in particular want justice to be served and the protag- if female - to definitely win. I think it's because women so rarely win in real life. And if we do, we usually feel guilty for it. So in our fiction, we want to win.

  10. Twelve hours ago, a friend who reads SleuthSayers but never comments (I've a few of those) remarked what a great article Melodie had written. Now at the end of the day, I finally get to read it and I agree.

    I can recall novels that didn't adhere to their contract with readers and detested the results. Melodie's assessment is spot on. Thanks, Melodie.

  11. Leigh, thank you. And thank your friend for me, please. You've both made my day.


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