Best Book Endings in Recent Fiction

four book covers from recent fiction

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Bringing a novel to a satisfactory conclusion is one of the trickiest aspects of writing. If you’ve persuaded a reader to stay with you for the course of a novel and they’ve invested considerable attention and emotions along the way, the conclusion of a book can be immensely rewarding and elevate the reader’s experience to sublime satisfaction. Or, it can ring a false note and make the reader wish they’d never embarked on the journey in the first place.

In popular parlance, the ending is the “payoff” and, although it can come in different forms, readers want it to fulfill expectations. I’ve gathered some examples from recently published books to show how some of today’s top writers handled the endings to their stories.

Barbara Kingsolver: Demon Copperhead

Demon Copperhead coverOnce the problems raised in the novel have been settled, foreshadowing the transition to the life ahead can be an effective ending. Barbara Kingsolver uses this approach in her Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, Demon Copperhead.

Set in Appalachia, the story is a modern retelling of Dickens’ David Copperfield. Throughout the novel, Kingsolver gradually ramps up the tension, so this glimpse of the life ahead — signified by the journey to a different, welcoming home — is a fitting resolution to the tension created during the novel.

We talked the whole way through the Shenandoah Valley. The end of the day grew long on the hills. Then the dark pulled in close around us. Snowflakes looped and glared in the headlights like off-season lightning bugs. Ridiculous nut that I’d been to crack, I drove left-handed with my right arm resting on her seatback, running my thumb over the little hairs on the back of her neck. The trip itself, just the getting there, possibly the best part of my life so far. That’s where we are, well past the Christiansburg exit, past Richmond, and still pointed east, headed for the one big thing I know is not going to swallow me alive.

Hernan Diaz: Trust

Trust cover2023 marked the first time that two titles have shared the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Trust, explores the ways that capitalism has shaped lives in America, particularly during the Roaring Twenties.

Hernan Diaz uses an intricately described transition, the small events and impressions that register as a person slowly slips from life to death, as the ending to his novel. Focused on the thoughts of one of the most sympathetic characters in the book, the ending pulls the reader gently out of the fantasy world woven throughout the novel to the inevitable and unyielding certainty that comes at the end of all our journeys.

A bell in a bell jar won’t ring. The terrifying freedom of knowing that nothing from now on will become a memory. It took me a while to realize the hum was only within my head. Is a waveless noise still a sound? Nurse just filed my nails, blowing away the dust as she went. Words peeling off from things. In and out of sleep. Like a needle coming out from under a black cloth and then vanishing again, unthreaded.

James Lee Burke: Flags on the Bayou

Flags on the BayouThe ending of a novel can take a step back and offer a long view of the human condition, as James Lee Burke does eloquently in his Civil War story, Flags on the Bayou. Burke echoes the theme, the triumph of good over evil, finishing with a hopeful note that allays the harsh, dire events of the novel.

A cynic could conclude that evil had its way and took from us a pictorial record of Eden regained. But those of us who consider ourselves wayfaring strangers know better. We do not give credence to the dying of the light or the sorrow that can drive us to madness or the wickedness that thrives in the benighted. For us, vespers is the entryway into sunrise—the crossing of the Jordan no more consequential than sliding your bare foot into the foam rolling up a beach. It’s that easy.

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Emily St. John Mandel: Sea of Tranquility

Sea of TranquilityWritten during the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sea of Tranquility uses a time travel theme to consider the nature of reality and perception. The conclusion offers the reflections of a character who made many forays through time. The revelation that she has reached a still point is a sigh and release of tension, a surrender to the fate that waits in store for her.

In those streets everyone moved faster than me, but what they didn’t know is that I had already moved too fast, too far, and wished to travel no further. I’ve been thinking a lot about time and motion lately—about being the still point through the ceaseless rush.

Pierce Brown: Light Bringer (Red Rising Saga, Book 6)

Light BringerIf your book is intended to be part of a series, think in terms of crafting an ending that generates a bridge to the next book in the series. Pierce Brown does this by ending book six in his Red Rising saga with a foreshadowing what’s coming in book seven— the ending of one book becomes an introduction to the next.

Together, now at the age of many of the proctors who watched our antics from Olympus, we watched the three boys ride their horses across a moonlit plain. The boys were us once. Drunk on victory, they carried a howl standard and howled like idiots at the moons. We were idiots trapped in a world of lies. Maybe the howls were the truest things that came out of our mouths. We were all just lonely and in search of a pack. I’ve already tried a tight beam to Mars. I don’t know if they received my message, so I take Pax’s key in my hands and send a silent message to Virginia and my boy. I love you. I’m coming home. I have an army. I have an armada. We will win for Eo, for Ragnar, for Fitchner, for Cassius, for them all.

Jo Nesbo: Killing Moon (A Harry Hole Novel, Book 13)

Killing MoonJo Nesbo concludes Killing Moon by setting up a potential villain for the next Harry Hole novel in an appropriately sinister manner. The site of a mass murder was discovered and briefly described several pages earlier, foreshadowing the following encounter and perhaps indicating a story element of an upcoming novel in this series.

The young clerk was wearing a tag that read Andrew, and the way the man in front of him had just pronounced his name suggested that he had spent time in the USA.

“A new chain for a chainsaw?”

Andrew said, “Yes, we can sort that out.”

“Right away, please,” the man said. “And I need two rolls of duct tape, a few yards of strong thin rope, and a roll of garbage bags. Would you have that for me, Andrew?”

For some reason, Andrew shuddered. Perhaps it was because of the man’s colorless irises. Or, the soft, overly ingratiating voice with the hint of a Surland accent. Or, perhaps the fact that he had placed a hand on Andrew’s forearm. Or, simply that Andrew, in the same way that some people are afraid of clowns, has always been afraid of priests.

Martin Cruz Smith: Independence Square

Independence SquareEven the best novelists sometimes end their books in a flat, dull emotionless way, as Martin Cruz Smith did inexplicably in Independence Square.

As for Tatiana, she was still in Kyiv, reporting on Russia’s invasion in and around Ukraine. They spoke once or twice a week, and, as usual, he worried about her.

Cormac McCarthy: The Passenger

The PassengerA reader’s response to an ending, of course, is subjective. Cormac McCarthy took a lot of criticism for his ending to The Passenger, with some critics saying it is too ambiguous and unsatisfying and others saying it fits the atmospheric tone of the book and captures the mystery of journeying into darkness. Whether you fully resolve the storyline or create an ending that adds a further note of mystery, it should be consistent with your personal approach as an author.

Finally, he leaned and cupped his hand to the glass chimney and blew out the lamp and lay back in the dark. He knew that on the day of his death he would see her face and he could hope to carry that beauty into the darkness with him, the last pagan on earth, singing softly upon his pallet in an unknown language.

Write the ending that feels right to you

In her essay, “Modern Fiction,” Virginia Woolf said, “In any case it is a mistake to stand outside examining ‘methods.’ Any method is right, every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express, if we are writers; that brings us closer to the novelist’s intentions if we are readers. . . there is no limit to the horizon. . . nothing — no ‘method,’ no experiment, even of the wildest — is forbidden, but only falsity and pretense.”

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1 COMMENT

  1. I read somewhere–I don’t remember who offered this advice–that you should write the ending of your story first. Although I didn’t write the final chapter of either of my books first, I did develop a detailed outline of the final scene for each before plunging into “the beginning”.

    The more complex your story becomes, the more helpful it is to have the final destination drawing your characters forward to meet the destinies you have designed for each of them.

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