I've written the big dramatic finale of my WIP and am now facing the bit I always hate. How DO people tidy things up and end a story? I always seem to go for an epilogue set a few months or so down the line but feels a bit lazy. I genuinely don't know how other people do this (and suddenly am unable to remember what happens in a single book that I've ever read). Would love to know what others think...
And I found myself saying: "I think less is almost always more. Maybe you just need to stop where you are." I very rarely see a manuscript which ends too soon, and I see a great many which have a lumpy little chapter dangling off the end, covering the next three years and explaining how they did get married and move to America where they were re-united with the long-lost stepson who got a few mentions earlier in the novel. If I ask if the writer wrote it in response to someone saying, "I wanted to know if she..." sometimes they say Yes, and sometimes they say, "I thought readers would want to know if she...", which is the writer's own Inner Reader saying the same.
The need to follow the characters through till everything's resolved is a tribute to how involving they and their predicament have been for the reader. It also says a lot about why we read fiction: to feel that sense has been made of things in a way which real life frequently doesn't. But our desire to know the details of the kind of Happily Ever After that they lived, isn't one you necessarily should gratify, any more than a tragedy should explain what happened when the dead hero began to chaffer with St Peter. Even Bunyan knew to show us no more than the trumpets sounding on the Other Side. If you do want to push on a bit further after the Big Finish, I'd suggest being careful not to tie things up too neatly and tightly - with ribbons and bows, as my editor once put it - but leave it more as an opening for the next part of a story, which just at the moment you're not going to tell.
This is not the same problem as whether you should have a Big Finish in the first place. It's important not to confuse Big as in a proper climax to the problems and solutions that the book is built of, with Big as in noisy or spectacular. The real end of a novel is the final answer to the question which was posed on the first page, whether or not it was adorned with a body: What Will Happen Next? The final answer may be loud, or quiet: anything from blowing up the heavy water plant to two people quietly pledging eternal love then going their separate ways. But it is a very definite resolution of the problems and solutions that the book is built of. I think most readers do want to reach this final stage for the main problem, however many other things are unresolved or proved unchangeable. The story hasn't really done its job if, say, the fuses don't go off and the Maquis just wander away; the meeting that's planned just doesn't happen. Even if the real interest of the story is the view from the bridge, it shouldn't peter out mid-stream.
On the other hand, we don't want to reach the far side and discover what Cassandra in I Capture the Castle calls a brick-wall happy ending, where you can't imagine the characters having lives beyond the end of the book: we need to sense the countryside we've reached. How much of their lives in that countryside you then write - the consequences and finishings off - is the real decision: how they escaped after blowing up the heavy water plant; how their two, separate lives worked out. I would suggest not far, because it can't help but be an anti-climax: a set of ticked boxes, a skeleton CV of the next few months or years. And if you're itching to go on with What Happened Afterwards, ask yourself why. It is because you need to know that your beloved characters are All Right? Good teachers know that "and then they woke up" isn't necessarily a cop-out of storytelling: maybe the child needed to write that to bring himself or herself safely back from where the wild things are. But you're lucky: you can make everything safe. Just don't tell anyone else.