As is the case every now and then, the inspiration for this post has come from search terms which people have used to find their way to this blog. In addition, one of my most popular posts is my article on How To Write A Zombie Apocalypse Novel. Taken together, these two things suggest there are quite a few people out there who are both interested in writing zombie stories, but who are stuck when it comes to working out how to end it. This perhaps isn’t too surprising because ending a zombie story in an effective way can be difficult.
However, when you think about it, there’s five basic categories of endings for zombie apocalypse novels. These are:
1. Fade To Black: A ‘fade to black’ ending is where either all the characters or, in the case of a first person narrative, the narrator of the story dies, usually at the hands of a zombie horde. While this type of ending can be effective, there’s two potential problems. Firstly, it’s very bleak and most readers want there to be at least some glimmer of hope when they reach the end (this is something the editor I work with from time to time is always saying to me). Secondly, it’s a very final ending and doesn’t really leave any room for a sequel. This is not necessarily a problem, but rather it makes it much more difficult for you, as the writer, to revisit the world you’ve invented, and you may find at some point you might want to do this (this something I find quite common amongst zombie authors). This is pretty difficult to do if you killed everyone off the first time round. However, I’ve found the ‘fade to black’ scenario can be very effective as the ending to one-off short stories. If you do decide to use a ‘fade to black’ ending, you need to be careful how you do it. In particular, you can’t simply have the character(s) die completely out of the blue on the last page. Instead, you need to build up to it slowly so that the reader is aware that this is how the book might end and can prepare themselves for it. If you do it suddenly, and with no advanced warning, your readers will most likely feel cheated because it wasn’t the ending they anticipated.
2. Victory: A victory ending is where all the zombies have been killed or have disappeared leaving the remaining survivors to start putting the world back together. This is not a common ending for zombie stories (although World War Z uses it very effectively) , and I suspect this is because most zombie book readers are looking for something more dystopian meaning that victory over the zombies just won’t cut it. In addition, most zombie stories focus on a small group of survivors, and there just isn’t any way for such a group to actually defeat the millions of zombies which are required to infest the world of any zombie apocalypse novel. This raises another issue with a victory ending, it need to be plausible within the zombie world you’ve created. This means you can’t suddenly find a cure or have all the zombies disappear without having developed this as a plot line.
3. Co-existence: The main focus of a zombie apocalypse novel is often the struggle to survive, especially in those which focus on the initial outbreak and its immediate aftermath. Stories with such a focus often finish with a co-existence ending. That is, an ending where those who have been fighting for their very lives throughout the story find some way to be able to live in a world filled with zombies. This often involves finding some sort place where the survivors can safely hole up either temporarily or for the long-term. This can range from a place which is still zombie free (like an uninhabited island or a remote mountain valley which is inaccessible to the undead) to a community which has somehow managed to keep the zombies at bay. Co-existence endings have the advantage that it makes it easy to revisit the characters at a later date if you so wish. However, as with other types of endings, you need to develop the storyline throughout your story and you cannot simply have your characters finding a way to co-exist with the zombies in the last couple of pages. In addition, the co-existence ending has to be consistent with the rules for your particular zombie apocalypse, otherwise you will leave your reader feeling cheated of the ending they were expecting.
4. Departure: A departure ending can be view as the opposite of a co-existence ending. Rather than ending with the survivors finding a safe place, a departure ending involves some or all the characters having to leave a place which they had previously felt safe and which they viewed as their new home. This departure is often initiated by one of three things: The safe place being over-run by a swarm of zombies; the safe place being over-run by raiders; the development of a rift between the survivors which means some of the group (often those who have been the main focus of the story) have to leave. Again, departure endings allow you to return to the characters and the world again if you so wish. However, as with co-existence, this ending has to be consistent with the rules for the world which you have created for your book.
5. Cliff Hanger: A cliff hanger ending is never a good way to end a zombie novel. Your reader expects resolution and you need to give it to them or they will be annoyed. This doesn’t mean you need to resolve everything, as you might want to leave some things open as the starting point of a sequel, but at the end of a story, you have to give your readers some sort of closure. While they may not to be to everyone’s taste, one of the best examples of this J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. While there’s a common thread and storyline across all seven of these books, each one has a well-defined ending where individual storylines from each book are wrapped up and concluded. In this way, the end of each individual book is closer to a departure ending rather than true cliff-hangers.
As you read through these categories of endings, you’ll have probably noticed two commonalities across them. Firstly, your ending cannot come out of the blue. You may think it’s edgy and different to have your main character died suddenly and unexpectedly in the final paragraph, but it’s not. Instead, it violates the expectations you have built will your readers and they will left feeling cheated and unfulfilled. Secondly, the endings have to be consistent with the rules for your world which the reader have inferred from what has come before. For example, you cannot have your characters find a zombie free island where they can live safely and happily if you haven’t introduced this as a possibility earlier in the book. Similarly, you cannot end a story with someone finding out they’re immune to the zombie virus unless you’ve already made it clear that such immunity is possible.
So how do you avoid falling into these potential pitfalls? Well, quite simply it’s careful planning and plot development. You need to introduce all the building blocks for your ending well before the actual end. This allows your reader to have that ‘Ah-ha!’ moment when they get to the end rather than ‘Huh?’, ‘Oh…’ or worst of all ‘Wait, that doesn’t make sense!’. In addition, it allows the reader to anticipate what is coming and this will help build suspense as they try to work out exactly how the characters will get to the ending they think is coming.
You can add unexpected twists and turns (such as exactly who lives and who dies) and you have to be careful not to sign-post things too much, but you cannot veer too far away from what you have led your readers to believe might happen. It’s a difficult balancing act, but it’s one which is worth spending time on because if you get the ending right, your readers will love it, but if you get your ending wrong, no matter how well they’ve liked the rest of the book and how well you’ve written it, your readers will turn against you in a heart beat, and this is something no writer wants to happen.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.
To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.