Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.48: NaNoWriMo Week 5 – Writing Endings

Welcome to the last week of National Novel Writing Month! It’s okay if you aren’t going to finish your book, and it’s also okay if you don’t have 50,000 words! You still did a thing—you created a story that didn’t exist 

We want to talk about endings. How do you even write the end of a book? How do you do NaNoWriMo? There’s no right way! But there are several elements that can help you figure out how to write the end of your book. Our hosts give you guidance for environment, pacing, inversions, character changes, and the denouement. 

DongWon tells us why writing an obvious ending is not a bad idea, and Mary Robinette gives us advice for writing the ending of a series. 

Also, Dan offers a wonderful reframe for November if you’re not near the end of your book, or you didn’t reach 50,000 words. (Spoiler: it’s okay. You did, in fact, succeed.) 


Aim towards the MICE elements you opened. We’re talking about the big ones here. In an ideal world, you begin letting your character have simple Yes or No answers to the “does it work” to close out the major threads in the inverse order that you opened them. Nesting code.

Thing of the Week: 

A final pep talk from Mary Robinette! 

Liner Notes: 

Better Call Saul

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Join Our Writing Community! 






Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: How do you wrap up your novel? What makes a satisfying ending? Make sure the parentheses are closed. But how do you decide what to resolve, and what to leave open? Endings let the characters and your reads feel everything that has happened. Give the readers the same grounding that you did at the beginning. Where, who, why, how. Restate the core thematic elements of the story. Give us the aftermath. How do you leave the door cracked for a follow-on, and still give a satisfying ending? Remember, life is messy, and your character may not achieve all their goals. Leave some things unanswered. Think about how you want your reader to feel, and make sure that is the last beat, but leave other questions hanging. End with a success that leaves something else to try. Revision! Not for NaNoWriMo, but when you reach the end, you know what questions you should have been asking, and you may need to go back and set it up right. Go ahead and try different endings! Nowhere near the end? Write yourself some notes about what you want the ending to be.

[Season 18, Episode 48]

[DongWon] Hello, writers. Whether you’re doing NaNoWriMo, editing your newest project, or just desperately trying to keep up with your TBR pile, it’s hard to find the time to plan and cook healthy and nutritious meals to keep you energized on these jampacked days. So, I’m here to tell you about Factor, America’s number one ready-to-eat meal delivery service. They can help you fool’s [one word fuel up fast for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with chef prepared, dietitian approved, ready-to-eat meals delivered straight to your door. You’ll save time, eat well, and stay on track with one less excuse to keep you from writing. This November, get Factor and enjoy eating well without the hassle. Simply choose your meals and enjoy fresh, flavor-pack deliveries right to your door. Ready in just 2 minutes, no prep and no mess. Had to and use code WX50 to get 50% off. That’s code WX50 at to get 50% off.

[Mary Robinette] This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by our listeners, patrons, and friends. If you would like to learn how to support this podcast, visit

[Season 18, Episode 48]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] NaNoWriMo Week 5, Welcome to the End.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Erin] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] And I’m Dan.

[Mary Robinette] Congratulations. You have made it to week 5. For those of you who are still writing, and all of you should be, because we believe in you, you are now trying to wrap this thing up. Listen, if you lost steam, you don’t have to have 50,000 words. This is about just moving forward. You can save this episode and listen to it when you’re ready. But we’re going to be talking about how to wrap up your novel. So, what are some things, like when you are thinking about moving towards a satisfying ending? What are some of the elements that you think about as, hmmm, this feels good?

[DongWon] It’s funny. I have an issue, editorially, in thinking about endings. I have such a bias towards openings and the beginnings of books, and all like getting into the story and asking all these big questions, but I sometimes forget to think about how important the ending is. So I’ve made it a real focus for myself in the past few years to really pay attention and really care about how a book ends and how we’re moving on from the story, emotionally. Right? There are so many very famous authors, very successful authors, who are notoriously bad at endings. Where the book just kind of stops. Right? So I think we criticize those endings, but there’s a way in which maybe we can think about endings as a broader category than just making sure there’s a long denouement, where everything is fully wrapped up. But, overall, I think making sure those parentheses are closed, that we were kind of talking about last week, as we were talking about starting to get to the climactic beats and making sure certain things are tied up. But how do you prioritize what are the things that you want to close off, what are the things that you want to leave your reader with a real sense of resolution on, and what are questions you want to leave open?

[Erin] I think endings are difficult because they’re quiet. In some ways. Not all. But there’s a moment where everything you’ve been doing sort of resonates in the room. It’s like the moment after a concert ends, when you can still hear the mild echo of the music in the air. There’s something like really beautiful about that. But also frightening in the stillness. Because it’s sort of you don’t have the candy bar scenes that we were talking about last week to like distract you, you’re really sort of left with you and the word. I think that’s why a lot of times I’ll say, for me, I had a real tendency to like just try to murder everyone…


[Erin] At the end, because then there’s no one left to be in the quiet and in the stillness. I could just be like, “The end. They’re dead.” But I actually have found out that… Somebody told me once that it’s like landing a punch. When you punch someone, you want to actually let that impact happen. If you punch someone, and then go to black, you never really see them feel it. And that endings are the moment where actually your characters get to feel everything that has happened. As frightening as it is, it’s really important to also give your reader an ability to feel what has happened at the end or throughout the course of the book.

[Dan] Yeah. I love the way that The Wire ends. As much as I think season 5 went wildly off the rails, that final moment, you’ve got McNulty driving down the highway with a person. He stops, and he gets out of his car, and he just stares at the city for a while. Then we get a chance to see, like, what is each one of these people doing, and we get to see McNulty thinking about it and digesting it and processing it. Then he gets back in his car and he drives away. Giving your characters the chance to process what has happened and what they’ve gone through gives your readers that same chance. Rather than just yanking out the rug and saying, “Thanks for reading my book. Imagine for yourself what happens next.”

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that I had a lot of problems with when I started the switch from short fiction to novels is that I would in my novels the short story pacing. That I would stick the landing and I would be out. Because novels are about immersion. I wasn’t giving my readers time to absorb this. The dénouement that we talk about sometimes. So what I’ve started realizing is that I need to give them the same things that I gave them at the beginning of the book. I need to ground them, because my character is in a different emotional place. They’re often in a different physical place. So I find that if I start thinking about it with the why, where, who, and how that we talked about at the beginning, that I can… I know more of the elements that I need to include. It’s like it helps me ground my readers. Like, who is my character now? Who have they become over the course of this journey? What physical actions are they doing in this scene that conveys that to the reader? Where are we? Like, how is the status quo changed? Like, what does the environment tell me about this new landscape, and, like, why is it important? So these are the things that I will be thinking about. Like, we’re talking about the very, very last piece of it. But it’s that looking back at the beginning for my answers to what we’re talking about at the end. Some of it is what Dan was talking about in the previous episode of the inverse thing, or, you’ve heard me talk about it with nesting code. But that’s what I start thinking about, is easing them out and kind of very similar pacing to how I brought them in. If it was a fast opening, that I’m going to give them a faster paced close. If it was a thoughtful opening, that’s going to tell me something about the pacing at the end. So, sometimes I’m looking at mirroring that kind of pacing that I had at the beginning, sometimes I’m looking at doing an inversion, because it’s saying something about the changes that have happened across the course of the novel.

[DongWon] Yeah. Sort of building off of that idea, I think there’s sometimes… One of my favorite types of endings that I’ve run into that I think kind of plays into this is when the last scenes are just a restatement of the core thematic elements of the story that you’ve just experienced. Right? So I think going to your Wire example, McNulty, looking at the city of Baltimore at the end is just a statement about what this whole show was about, what this 5 season project was, was we did a portrait of Baltimore, and now we’re looking at it and reflecting on the journey that we went on. One of my very, very favorite endings to a TV show, finished last year, was Better Call Saul. Which, I don’t want to quite spoil it, but the way that it ends is such a statement of what is important in the show. Right? Why did we spend all of this time with Saul as he went on this whole journey? It’s making really clear, crystal-clear in some ways, the importance that love has in that story and what he stands for and what is important to him and who he wants to be. That is all restated in the final episode in this really beautiful, elegaic way. So I think when you’re looking at your ending, it’s almost a little bit like writing an essay in college, where you start with you state your theme. You explain how you’re going to say your theme. That’s kind of the opening to your story. Then you get to the business of explaining all the things. At the end, you’re like, “Here’s my conclusion. In this story, we discover that love is real.” You know what I mean? There’s a very simple, boiled down version of how you end the story that can look like that, that I think can be simple and impactful. I’m thinking about your punch example. There’s a thing in Hong Kong cinema where you will actually see the punch 3 times. Right? You’ll see the blow land, and then it’ll cut to the slow mold impact of like you can see how it’s affecting the person who got it, then it’ll cut back to the wide angle and you’ll see them jump backwards or fall down or whatever it is. So you see these 3 different beats and 3 angles on the same strike. That’s the thing that makes it feel so impactful to the audience of, like… It can also seem corny when it’s done certain ways, but, so often, it happens very quickly, you don’t even really see what’s happening, you just see boop, boop, boop. And you realize that that guy just got crushed in that moment, he got hit so hard. You can feel his ribs breaking, in that moment. Right? I think letting it sink in in that way and being a little obvious in your ending is not a bad way to go.

[Dan] If you’ve ever watched a GIF of like a disaster, someone falling down, something collapsing, and it ends right as soon is the disaster happens, and you’re like, “But wait, I wanted to watch it land. I wanted to watch it fall. I wanted to look at the rubble for a minute.” That’s what we’re talking about, that sense of, yes, you’ve seen the big thing, but you didn’t really get a look at the aftermath, that’s what really is satisfying about it.

[Mary Robinette] We’re going to take a quick break, and when we come back, we’re going to talk about some of the other tools you can use to make that disaster really satisfying.

[Mary Robinette] Hey, writers. Welcome to week 5. How are you doing? I wanted to share something with you. I wrote my first published novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, during NaNoWriMo. I also wrote multiple unpublished novels during NaNoWriMo. I’ve won Nano and I’ve had years where I could not hit that 50,000 words. So as you enter this last week, I want you to remember that every word you’ve written this month has been a victory. Because the journey is the thing. By writing, you are learning to write. You’re learning to set goals. You are learning about your writing process and what works for you. Whether you wrote 50,000 words or 5000 words this month, you are a writer.

[Mary Robinette] All right. Now we’re back from our break, and we’re going to talk about kind of the messiness of it all. I think you had something you wanted to say?

[DongWon] Yeah. I had a thought as we were talking about all this, where we’ve talked about closing things out and leaving things on this very resonent ending. I think that can be really important. In the categories that most of us work in, there’s a lot of series writing, a lot of people writing trilogies, a lot of people writing ongoing series, and a lot of people are doing quote unquote standalones with series potential. So, one of the things I would love to hear your thoughts on a little bit is, how do you leave that door cracked open? How do you give the satisfying ending, make a book feel like a book, even if it’s middle of a trilogy? Right? Make the audience feel like I went on a journey, this had a conclusion. I feel good about where we’re ending. And still have more questions to be asked. Have… They want more story, they want to spend more time with these characters. What do you do to leave that door cracked open?

[Mary Robinette] The trick that I’ve found is that life is messy, and that I don’t have to give my character all of their goals. When you read a book and the character achieves all of their goals, those are the ones that feel too tight. So sometimes I don’t… It’s not so much that it’s a cliffhanger, it’s that I have deliberately left something unanswered, knowing that that can be a problem for later. But I think about… To give that sense of satisfaction, I think about how I want my reader to feel. When I’m looking at nesting things at the end, I try to make sure that whatever solution, whatever goal thing lines up with the emotional feeling I want my reader to have, that that’s kind of the last beat I land on. That’s the thing that gives it the sense of closure as a standalone, while the other questions that are still hanging there are available if I want to use them for future books. So, like in Calculating Stars, Elma achieves her goal of going to the moon. Right? But I don’t answer your questions about what it’s like when she gets there. I don’t answer your questions about what the next steps are. I leave all of that open. Her conflict with Parker is still a conflict with Parker. Like, that’s not a solved problem. So I have all of that to play with when I come back to the subsequent books. Then… This is outside of the scope of NaNoWriMo, but when I am looking at my next book, I look at my solution to the first one, and that becomes my problem for the 2nd book.

[Erin] Yeah, I was thinking about the fact that we’ve talked a lot about try-fail cycles. Generally, a novel ends on a success. I mean, it can end on a failure, but I think it has some sort of emotional closure. But, it feels to me like it’s a success that leaves something else to try. That thing that you’re trying becomes the thing that happens in the next book. So that’s sort of like… So there’s a finishing, but there’s something more.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Dan] This is such a horrible thing to bring up the last week of NaNoWriMo, but a lot of what makes a lot of this work is the revision process. Knowing that, okay, we’ve reached this point. Now we need to go back and set it up right. Getting to the end, having satisfying answers, really means you need to make sure what questions you’re asking. In the Fellowship of the Ring, for example, that first book ends with the Fellowship breaking and everyone splintering off into different places, and yet it does feel conclusive, because Tolkien made sure that the question asked at the beginning, is Frodo constantly wondering am I leading people into danger? Can I really live with the fact that I am corrupting everyone around me? So, leaving the group behind and setting off on his own with Sam, that is a victory for that specific question. So it feels, okay, this feels very natural. We’ve asked this question, we’ve answered it, obviously there’s other problems, but we’ve concluded this part of the story.

[Mary Robinette] But this is why we… When we talk about you have to keep writing and finish, this is why. Because you don’t know always what questions you want to set up at the beginning until you’re getting to the end. It’s… Like, when I was an art major, I would see people… I mean, I did it myself. Where you would draw the perfect hand and the perfect arm and the perfect shoulder, and then you would step back and the entire figure was entirely out of proportion. Because you work thinking about the entire picture. So with novels, like, one of the things that you can be doing for yourself during this last week is coming to an agreement with yourself about, oh, this is what I want the book to be. Like, these are the… And if it doesn’t match what you started, that’s okay. You have a new understanding of it. You can go back and fix everything that you did earlier later.

[Erin] I would say one other way to do that is if you want… If you liked what you had at the beginning, and you feel like you’ve gotten away from it because that also happens is something that I like to do right before, when I’ve done Nano, like, right before I get into the last bits is to actually tell myself out loud, or actually to be honest, tell my cats out loud…


[Erin] The story so far. Like, not every single thing, but, like, what I can remember of the story. I find that what I go to, like, the things that I choose to explain are the things that have continued to stick with me about the story that I’m telling. So I may have forgotten one subplot or one character, but, like, when I go to say, like, the Fellowship of the Ring, which I wrote during Nano… No…


[Erin] Wow. It is about X, like, that’s what gets to the core of it for me. Then I can say, if that’s the core, then what’s the ending that works for that core? Then, like Mary Robinette was saying, go back and fix the rest in post-, as they say in the movie business.

[DongWon] Yeah. I mean, truly, when working with clients on projects, the things that usually change the most our beginnings and endings. Right? Often in tandem. If the last act isn’t quite working, then you’ll find the roots of those problems in the first act. Middles always… I mean, every part needs revision, but the middle tends to be a little bit more defined from the jump, and then really… It really is about asking questions and answering them. So if the answers are wrong, then maybe the questions are wrong, and vice versa. So, this is again, this is NaNoWriMo. If you’re not feeling super great about your ending, that’s totally fine. Right? We’re not… No one’s expecting you to have the perfect answer to the question you didn’t even know you were asking on day one, because it’s been a crazy month. You’ve made it this far. Right?

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that will also catch you here is that you’re like, “I don’t know how to solve this. My character has to solve this thing and I don’t know how to solve it.” You feel like you’re locked in because of everything that you’ve written up to this point. But your… When the book is out in the world and you’re letting other people read it, they never have to see this draft of it.


[DongWon] Right.

[Mary Robinette] So you can always go back and just say, “You know what? They could have solve this the entire time, if they had only been able to tesseract spiders into the building with bees.”


[Erin] I knew it!

[Mary Robinette] “But I didn’t introduce the ability to tesseract earlier. So, I’m just going to say that they can do it, and I’m going to make a note to myself that I have to establish that when I go back and do my revisions.” So just go ahead and give yourself the tools that you need and fix it in post-.

[Dan] Well, one of the great things about writing and NaNoWriMo does this perfectly is you can try different endings. This is what I said about free writing in the beginning. If you get to the end and you think, “Well, maybe this would work as an ending. Maybe this is a good solution to the problem.” Write it. If it doesn’t work, don’t delete it. Try something else. Right that. I know that for a lot of you, that is so painful, me telling you to write a bunch of extra words that are not going to be in the final manuscript. Well, guess what. That’s most of this job.


[DongWon] Yeah. I had a project recently where 500,000 words were written that went into the trash that will never see the light of day, for the 150,000 that got published. Right? Sometimes that’s what happens. Right? I think one of the best lessons about NaNoWriMo is there’s no such thing as a wasted word. Everything that you put down to paper got you to this point. It helps you realize that these extra scenes need to be written, even if the older scenes also had to be put in a drawer somewhere. All that was useful work. All that was the work that got you to understand what your book really is and make your book the best version of it it could be. So I hope you’re hearing us talk about revision and not feeling discouraged. Instead, be excited that you now have clarity about what it is you’re trying to accomplish with your book, even if it’s just a little bit. Even if you have one degree more…


[DongWon] I hope you don’t have to write 500,000 words…


[DongWon] To the 150 that got published. That’s not great. We all felt not great about that. But also, we all felt great about the book that was there at the end, and so proud and so happy about the work we did on it.

[Dan] Well, the same thing that I said earlier about endings, making sure that you’re asking the right questions to provide a satisfying answer, apply that to your life! Apply that to the process. Apply that to NaNoWriMo. Don’t necessarily think of this as I’m going to end November with one awesome book. Think of it as I’m going to end November having learned how to write a book. Then, even if the ending is weird or there’s bits in the middle that are clunky and awkward, that’s okay. You learned how to write a book.

[Mary Robinette] Just briefly, I want to speak to the people who are like, “Hey, you know what, I’m coming up on 50,000 words, but I’m nowhere near the end of my book.”


[Mary Robinette] That’s fine. You can… We’re talking about things in proportion right now.

[DongWon] Totally.

[Mary Robinette] You’re totally fine. Don’t worry about it. You don’t need to have, like, the ending. You just need to hold on to what you’re aiming for.

[Erin] Yeah. You can… You may want to take a break. You may say, like, writing 50,000 words in a month was a lot, so even though I don’t have the ending like I want to get there. This is when you could leave yourself lots of fun notes in brackets, like, “And here’s the part where they figured out the meaning of love,” and, like, “Here’s where he defuses that bomb filled with spider bees.”


[Erin] Right? Then you can come back and your future self will have the problem of figuring that out. But I hope the main thing that your future self takes away from it is you wrote stuff that did not exist at the beginning of this month and it exists and only you could have written it.

[Mary Robinette] That’s right. So we’re going to give you some homework. This is, again, a way to help you just keep moving forward. Especially those of you who are like nowhere near the ending and you’re just like, “I gotta keep going. I’ve just gotta keep going.”

[Mary Robinette] Here’s your homework. Gift your character with your insecurity. Brainstorm about what should happen next in the voice of the character as they’re facing the challenges in the scene. Because your character doesn’t know what’s going on either. So all of that and just be part of your character development, and the brainstorming process may get you closer. It also will just get you words on the page, which is very useful. You may wind up cutting it later, but after you hit 50,000 words.

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. Good luck. You’re out of excuses.

[DongWon] Do you have a book or a short story that you need help with? We are now offering an interactive tier on Patreon called Office Hours. Once a month, you can join a group of your peers and us, the hosts of Writing Excuses, to ask any question that is on your mind.