It is always difficult deciding how to conclude what you’ve written; what final impression do you want to leave the reader with? Is there a message or a lesson that you want them to take away? In non-fiction writing in particular, many writers find it difficult to know when and how to stop.
In terms of biography or autobiography, the rules are very similar to those in fiction, even though it is rather more difficult to choose an ‘ending’ point in real life. Essentially, you are telling a story. This means that the ending should resolve the main conflict that you have presented: you need to say what resulted from the key plot points or incidents. Although you don’t have to entirely resolve everything else you’ve mentioned, it’s better if you at least refer to any ongoing sub plots to give a sense of completion.
A good example of a satisfying ending can be found in Dave Gorman vs. The Rest of The World, a witty and cheerful book, I highly recommend it. This is Dave Gorman’s autobiographical account of challenging anyone and everyone to play a huge variety of games of their choosing. The ending refers back to the climax of the book as the writer overcomes a bad experience wherein he met a stranger who became violent. The last lines describe how he persuaded himself to persevere with the game-playing by remembering all the positive encounters he had had with people and didn’t allow himself to change his outlook irrevocably. Through the use of rhetorical questions, short paragraphs and truncated sentences, the reader is drawn in to Gorman’s internal monologue. By finishing on a positive note, he’s created a sort of happy moral to the story that leaves the reader with a smile.
The last line mirrors the opening of the book: ‘Do you play any games? Real life, not computer games. Would you like a game?’ This direct repetition is a lovely device that almost always makes for a satisfying ending. It’s as if it is bookending the text, or the main story is the sandwich filling and these two identical slices of bread hold it together. The same effect can be created by referring to the same event at the start and end of a text, or even just by using similar lexical choices a more subtle, almost subconscious, link can be made. By asking a direct question, Dave Gorman achieves the delicate balance of a conclusive, yet open ending, engaging the reader.
Non-fiction texts of other genres often use similar techniques, referring back to a quotation or argument used at the start is a pleasing way to round off a text. In the sort of popular non-fiction which provides academic arguments or explanations at an accessible level, the ending must summarise the main points of the text and demonstrate the how the argument was built in order to restate it with finality and gravitas. In this sense it is similar to an essay. It is a justification of your thesis or world view, as demonstrated in Gerry Stoker’s Why Politics Matters: ‘This book has identified a challenge facing all democracies. The ideals of democracy are valued and supported by most citizens, however, the practice of democratic politics is currently a massive turn-off.’
Importantly, he also recognises arguments to the contrary and potential weaknesses in his text and strongly refutes them using evidence. He defines his view of politics and its role in society. In his final paragraph he directly answers his title. Why does politics matter? ‘Politics matters because it, too, is an ingredient in what is needed for a good life.’ Using words from the title is one of my favourite techniques for rounding something off satisfactorily. I call it the Love Actually Device, because that’s one of the films where one of the characters almost manages to un-ironically work the title of the film into the dialogue. I love it when they say the title of the film in the film. It makes me want to punch the air with joy. The same applies to books and essays.
A bit of parallel phrasing finishes off Gerry Stoker’s book beautifully, ‘Achieving mass democracy was the great triumph of the twentieth century. Learning to live with it will be the great achievement of the twenty-first.’ Glorious.
Basically, think about the mood you want to leave the reader in. Both these texts, though very different, finish with a common theme of hope for the future. Finishing on a positive note will leave the reader well disposed to your story or argument. Consider: why did you write this account? What do you want the reader to know? Make sure that your point is clearly stated, give the reader something to ponder on and leave a lasting impression.
Get someone else to read it (friends, family, or a professional proofreader) and see what impression they were left with. If all else fails, just write in large, definitive lettering…THE END.