Book Endings: The 6 Ways That All Stories End
When we first start to read books, we quickly understand that books have two types of ending: happy and sad. But as we develop our literary palate and read deeper, it soon becomes apparent that endings are somewhat more nuanced than that.
In this guide, we will dive into the many types of endings that novelists have at their disposal — and reveal the impact they can have on the reader. Then in the next part of this guide, we'll give you some tried-and-true tips for writing an impactful ending for your own book.
Here are 6 common types of book endings:
Note: as this post deals with the endings of novels, there will be spoilers.
1. Resolved Ending
Wrap it up and put a bow on it. A resolved ending answers all the questions and ties up any loose plot threads. There is nothing more to tell because the characters’ fates are clearly presented to the reader.
Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude provides a great example of a resolved ending. In his Nobel Prize-winning book, García Márquez intertwines the tale of the Buendia family and the small town where they live, from its creation until its destruction.
Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.
With this ending, García Márquez effectively ends all hope of a sequel by destroying the entire town and killing off all the characters. Unlike a Deus Ex Machina ending, where everything is suddenly and abruptly resolved, this is an ending that fits with the themes and plot of this book. Though not exactly expected, it brings an appropriate closure to the Buendia family and the town of Macondo.
Why might you use a resolved ending? This sort of conclusion is common to standalone books — especially romance novels, which thrive on ‘happily ever afters’ — or the final installment in a series.
2. Unresolved Ending
This type of ending asks more questions than answers and, ideally, leaves the reader wanting to know how the story will continue. It lets them reflect on what the hero has been through and pushes them to imagine what is still to happen. There will be some resolution, but it will, most likely, pose questions at the end and leave some doors open.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince does exactly that. After years of confronting Voldemort, Harry finally knows the secret to bring him down once and for all. However, the road will only become more dangerous and will require more sacrifices than anybody thought.
His hand closed automatically around the fake Horcrux, but in spite of everything, in spite of the dark and twisting path he saw stretching ahead for himself, in spite of the final meeting with Voldemort he knew must come, whether in a month, in a year, or in ten, he felt his heart lift at the thought that there was still one last golden day of peace left to enjoy with Ron and Hermione.
Like Harry, readers know that a final meeting between him and Voldemort is coming and that everything will change for him and his friends. As a stand-alone book, this ending would probably be unsatisfactory. But as the penultimate book in the series, it leaves the readers wanting more.
Why might you use an unresolved ending? Because it can create anticipation and excitement for what comes next, you may want to use an unresolved ending if you are writing a series of books. Who doesn’t love (and hate) a good cliffhanger?
3. Ambiguous Ending
An ambiguous ending leaves the reader wondering about the “what ifs.” Instead of directly stating what happens to the characters after the book ends, it allows the reader to speculate about what might come next — without establishing a right or wrong answer. Things don't feel quite unresolved, more just open to interpretation.
The first installment of The Giver series, by Lois Lowry, uses this ending. The Giver focuses on Jonas, a teenager living in a colorless yet seemingly ideal society, and on the way he uses his newly assigned position as the Receiver of Memories to unravel the truth about his community and forge a new path for himself.
Downward, downward, faster, faster. Suddenly he was aware with certainty and joy that below, ahead, they were waiting for him; and that they were waiting, too, for the baby. For the first time, he heard something that he knew to be music. He heard people singing.
Behind him, across vast distances of space and time, from the place he had left, he thought he heard music too. But perhaps it was only an echo.
Readers will wonder what happens to Jonas once he finishes his journey and what happens to the town and people he left behind. There are three more companion books with more plot points, but the story centering on Jonas is finished. Readers will see him again, but only as a side character, and will neither find out how he rebuilt his life nor how his old community fared. There might be speculation, but an answer is never clearly given: that is left to the imagination.
When might you use an ambiguous ending? If you want your readers to reflect on the meaning of your book, then this is the ending for you. While a resolved ending may satisfy readers, it probably won’t give them much pause at all. However, by trying to unpick an ambiguous ending, they get closer to what you, as the author, are trying to say.
4. Unexpected Ending
If you have led your readers to believe that your book will end one way, but at the last possible moment, you add a plot twist that they didn’t see coming, you’ve got yourself an unexpected ending! For an author, this type of ending can be a thrill to write, but it must be handled with care. Handled poorly, it will frustrate and infuriate your reader.
An unexpected ending must be done so that, while surprising, still makes sense and brings a satisfactory conclusion.
A popular novel that makes use of this ending is And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, where she tells the tale of ten murders without an obvious culprit that took place in an isolated island mansion. [Spoilers coming!] The last lines of the novel read:
When the sea goes down, there will come from the mainland boats and men.
And they will find ten dead bodies and an unsolved problem on Soldier Island.
The ways in which the murders occur let the reader suspect the guilt of just about every character — and then, in an epic twist, they all die, leaving the murders unexplained. It is not until the message in the bottle arrives that the true culprit is revealed, as one of the victims no less! The ending is satisfactory to the reader because it brings the plot to a close in a way that, though surprising, invites them to think back on how the murderer set things up for the remaining deaths, and ultimately makes sense.
Why might you use an unexpected ending? These ‘twist endings’ are the bread and butter of mystery novels. Just be aware that while fans of the genre will expect a twist — they won't want one that comes entirely out of nowhere. To execute a flawless unexpected ending, you must lay groundwork throughout your book so that the reader can reflect on the plot and go, “ah, but of course!”
5. Tied Ending
Much of storytelling is cyclical. Sometimes it’s a metaphorical return home, such as in The Hero’s Journey. In other cases, the cycle is quite literal — the story ends where it began.
Erin Morgenstern uses this ending in her book The Night Circus, where she tells of a duel between two magicians that takes place within Le Cirque des Rêves, a traveling circus and, arguably, a character on its own.
Widget takes a sip of his wine and puts his glass down on the table. He sits back in his chair and steadily return the stare at him. Taking his time as though he has all of it in the world, in the universe, from the days when tales meant more than they do now, but perhaps less than they will someday, he draws a breath that releases the tangled knot of words in his heart, and they fall from his lips effortlessly.
‘The circus arrives without warning.’
With what may be the most famous lines of the book, “The circus arrives without warning,” this novel closes the characters’ storylines the same way the book begins. In both cases, the words are used to start telling a story; in the beginning, it serves as an introduction to the book, the words filled with wonder and expectation. In the end, it serves as a resolution, the words filled with hope for those who remain. Additionally, Morgenstern later uses a few more pages to finish the second-person narrative of the reader’s own visit to the circus, effectively ending the novel with the same point of view that it began.
Why might you use a tied ending? More common in literary fiction, a tied ending can help give you a sense of direction when writing your book — after all, you are ending the same way you began. But don’t think that this makes writing your ending easier. On the contrary, it is up to you to give greater depth to those repeated actions and events so that, by the end, they have a completely different feel.
6. Expanded Ending
Also known as an epilogue, this type of ending describes what happens to the world of the story afterward in a way that hints at the characters' fates at some point in the future.
In Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Death himself narrates the story of a young girl living in Nazi Germany. In his four-part epilogue, Zusak gives the reader an insight into what happened to Liesel after the bombing, her adult life, and even her death.
All I was able to do was turn to Liesel Meminger and tell her the only truth I truly know. I said to the book thief and I say it now to you.
*** A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR***
I am hunted by humans.
Instead of going into great detail, Zusak uses short chapters that feel more like sneak peeks into her life. Additionally, it serves the purpose of joining Liesel, the main character, with the narrator, Death, and allowing them to converse on more equal terms.
Why might you use an expanded ending? If you need to tie up loose ends but could not do it within the actual story, then this is the ending for you. However, it should not replace a traditional ending or be used to compensate for a weak ending. Instead, it should give further insight into the characters and give a resolution to the readers.
Now that you understand what kind of endings there are, let’s start thinking about how to create them for yourself! Read on to the next section of this guide.