Well, I was going to do more on character interaction, but started having thoughts on endings instead, so here they are.
Random Superstition/Belief: No one is really sure why the number 13 is considered unlucky. It may be because it was a sacred number of some pre-Christian religions, or because there were thirteen people (including Judas) at the last supper. Another theory is that since 12 can be divided by so many numbers, the prime number right after it is considered naturally unlucky.
This is going to be all over the map; it’s not a sequential attempt to talk about endings, just writing down ideas as they occur to me.
1) The ending should answer expectations of pace you’ve already built up.
You’ve probably read at least one fantasy book that was leisurely and explorative and let the plot build for some time, then suddenly rushed in a tacked-on ending that only took up twenty or so pages. This can result from a number of things, including (in published books) authors reaching a word limit or deadline and hurrying things too much, or the writer getting bored with the story and just wanting it done. It doesn’t mean that it should be excused.
Read the story, and ask yourself what kind of ending the pace promises. Do you want to start picking up speed, say, a hundred pages from the end, or in the third book, so that your readers anticipate a rip-roaring climax? Or do you want a calmer ending, even though the story so far has been fast-paced? Start accelerating or slowing the plot a good bit before the ending itself, if it doesn’t fit in with the story as told. It might not solve all your problems, but it will make it seem as if you can write a competently-told story.
If the ending absolutely must be one way and the story is another, then it’s time to start sacrificing some of the story, or adding some extra meat to it. In particular, if the climax relies on a character or weapon or prophecy that hasn’t been mentioned much up until now, go back and add in some foreshadowing and extra scenes. I hate it when a character who’s been lurking in the background much of the time steps up and everything falls into line. This is one of the few problems I had with Carol Berg’s otherwise excellent Rai-kirah books; a neglected plotline was suddenly snatched up again and played too major a part in the ending. At least it was done several hundred pages before the third book actually finished.
2) Choose a dominant tone for the ending and stick to it.
I’ve read a lot of fantasy stories that unintentionally turned into farce by introducing one dissonant chord. Either an unexpected heaviness intruded into what should have been purely a scene of hope and glory, or a time of tragedy and sacrifice was reversed by the author’s inability to accept that people do die unwise use of magic to heal all the characters’ wounds and deaths.
It’s certainly possible to blend tragedy and glory, but when you do it, you have to keep both of them in there. A dragon that rises, fights the villain, and then dies, last of its kind, should neither only maim the evil guy (the price is then too high to inspire much rejoicing) or be resurrected (which gets rid of any sense of sorrow). Find a mix that uses both tones, not promises to use them both and then dumps one.
This will depend partly on knowing how much you yourself can stand, of course. If you absolutely can’t bear the thought of killing off your hero, then don’t put the hero’s life in too much danger. There’s nothing worse, at least for me, then false suspense, a threat that should have been convincing but isn’t, or blatant evidence of author favoritism of a character. But if you do have the victory over evil exact a price, for gods’ sakes don’t have the epilogue remove the whole price. (There’s an epilogue rant coming up, too).
3) Suffering is an essential part of the endings of most fantasy books.
It doesn’t have to be death, or maiming, or rape, or any other specific kind of loss. But without a loss of some kind, the heroes have conquered too easily. And if the villain can’t inflict any damage on them, then why did they fear him and struggle against him for so long?
I tend to have a personal view that the victory should not be easy if the character has suffered in the course of the story. Very rarely, an author can convince me that the heroes deserve to stop losing and dying and being maimed, and dance all over the villain’s bleeding body with hob-nailed boots. Very rarely. Far more effective, for me, is an ending that really justifies all the time and trouble they’ve put into it, rather than being a prize for the time and trouble.
Show the grief.
It isn’t suffering or a loss if everyone is happy to see the character who sacrificed his life die. At the least, in that situation, you might show the character’s thoughts and have him resenting that he did so many things for everyone else and no one ever thanked him.
Fantasies are descendants of the epic. Epics are usually tales of enormous changes in a society, like the forging of a nation or the fall of angels. If the ending changes nothing, or reverses all the changes that have happened so far, what good is it?
4) The ending need not ride on a loophole.
This trick is most fantasy authors’ favorite. Someone who got ignored/shoved aside/told off earlier in the story comes in and saves the world, or a weapon or Quest Object that the protagonist found earlier in the story and forgot about is shoehorned in as the day-saver. Or there’s a trick in the wording of a prophecy or oath that allows the protagonist to get out of doing something nasty.
The problem comes with many fantasy authors not being skilled enough to keep the loophole just close enough to their chests—obviously important enough to matter, but not screaming “Lookit me! Lookit me! Plot Device!” They overplay their hand early in the book, or have ignored it for so long that I’m too surprised to take the sudden substitution seriously. There’s also sometimes a problem of tone, as when a heroine who is very focused on fair play uses an underhanded trick like escaping through a loophole in her oath.
You don’t have to have it riding on a loophole, you know. It’s a very neat trick if you can pull it off, but it’s not the only one there is. I like having my characters succeed on their own, without the help of Obviously Important Character 3 or Sacred Amulet 745. That gets rid of the problem of concealing the loophole just well enough and having it seem silly, as well as riding neatly off the build-up of the book.
5) Don’t introduce artificial delays.
Probably the most infamous and stupid example of this is the villain gloating and explaining his whole plan to the hero who, of course, will never get away. (By this you know that of course the hero will get away). Other times, the author ratchets out the suspense by having a character dither about telling an important secret, by having a Big Misunderstanding, or by suddenly dumbing down the heroes and making them engage in behavior they would have laughed at a hundred pages earlier.
Don’t rely on these trash-bin tricks. Have delays that could work, like a character skilled at lying telling just enough deceptions to confuse the villain while his friends climb up the outside of the tower, or someone making a mistake because of panic (rather than because of forgetting or acting stupidly, the way it’s usually done). The ending should match the information present in your book as well as the build-up and tone; see points one and two. So the straightforward, honest, “everybody-is-my-friend” psuedo-Wiccan priestess should notsuddenly find out she can lie well enough to fool the bad guy, particularly if he can read minds.
6) Keep the grand flourishes for the ending.
This is where they belong. That cool magical trick, that lavish description of the villain’s palace, the solution to a mystery no one in the book has figured out, belong here. Fantasy readers expect endings with lots of fireworks and intensity, partially since fantasy books are often so much longer than books in other genres. Released too soon, something that was meant to be big fizzes and bangs and goes out. Even books with non-traditional structures have to be careful about where they put things. If Aragorn had won his throne in the middle of The Two Towers, the third book would have been much less exciting, and the crowning much less solemn. As it is, even though his crowning isn’t the ending of the book, the longer build-up to it makes it that much more interesting and satisfying when it finally happens.
Of course, there are authors who can introduce something grand in the middle of a story and have it work well. However, those things usually belong to subplots. The supposedly orphaned sidekick usually finds her real parents in the middle of a story, rather than the supposedly orphaned hero. The villain launches an important attack that devastates the ranks, but causes deep injuries instead of killing someone the plot really needs. The traitor changes allegiances and brings information with him, rather than destroying the side he betrays.
7) Keep your ending from turning your world to cardboard.
I believe fantasy has a real problem with this, especially when authors absolutely can’t bear for the good side to pay any price at all and bring back all the characters that died, restore all the hacked-off limbs, lift up the priceless artworks from the rubble, etc. The ending ends everything too much of the time, not just that particular story. This can be done by the reversals I mentioned.
If it isn’t, it still cages too many of the likely consequences. The king has a supposedly happy and cheery kingdom to rule over, not one devastated by the spread of war and famine and death, and no mention of recovery is made. The countries that warred with each other out of generations-long hatred are suddenly friends. The dynamic forces that moved and changed the world are snuffed out or neutralized. The world becomes a stage setting, and the veil of fantasy is ripped away, to make the audience realize the author was only play-acting.
This is not in praise of loose ends; the implication with loose ends is that the author should have tied them up and did not. This is in praise of making it seem as if the ending doesn’t solve all the problems of your world, and that other stories could take place there, and that the characters might one day have descendants who don’t even remember them.
Oh, definitely more on this. I didn’t even touch on how ending books in a series could differ from ending a stand-alone.