How to End a Story: Top Tips to Nail the Perfect Ending
Whether you have the final scenes of your book worked out from the moment you put pen to paper or it comes to you somewhere along the way, there’s one thing every writer needs to master to leave a lasting impression on readers: how to end a story.
Writing the ending can be a source of anxiety for a lot of authors. After all, you don’t want to finish a great story with a weak ending and disappoint your readers. To help you effectively bring your novel to a close, this post will cover six popular types of endings found in literature, and provide seven tips (including some from professional editors!) that show that ending a book doesn't have to be hard.
Six Types of Endings (and what they're used for)
The ending has an enormous impact on how (and if) readers will remember your book in years to come. If they are dissatisfied at the closing of the final chapter, they won’t likely read it again or share it with others. While the start of your story might convince people to read your book in the first place, the end is what will determine if they turn from a reader into a fan.
Of course there’s no universally right or wrong endings. Art is subjective, after all, and every reader will like different things. However, writers must consider reader expectations — and whether their story is best served by meeting or subverting those expectations.
A few things to consider when trying to determine reader expectations are:
- Plot structure
- Target audience
- Theme and overall message
In genre, for example, there are many people who don’t consider something a true romance book until it ends with a happily ever after (or at least a “happy for now”). If you’re following the Hero’s Journey true to form, your protagonist will end up back in the same location that they started from, but transformed by their experiences. Children are going to have quite a different set of expectations from a book than adult readers. And of course, your theme and the takeaway you want readers to have will determine whether subverting or meeting their expectations is likely to go over well. (Just make sure that your subverted endings are still true to the characters, plot, and themes that you’ve established, lest you give readers such a curve ball that they won’t be able to follow what you were going for!)
Understanding the most common ways other writers end stories will help you no matter which approach you’d like to take, so let’s examine some of the most common types of endings out there, and why they work.
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. [Caution: spoilers ahead!]
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 it is not exactly expected, it brings an appropriate closure to the Buendia family and the town of Macondo.
When 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 it answers and, ideally, leaves the reader wanting to know how the story is going to 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. [More spoilers!]
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 are aware that a final meeting between him and Voldemort is coming, and that everything is about to 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 for more.
When 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, makes use of 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. [Caution: spoilers!]
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 happened 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 in such a way 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 lets the reader suspect guilt of just about every character — and then in an epic twist, they all die in the end, 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.
When 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. [Spoilers!]
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. At 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.
When 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. [Spoilers!]
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 have a conversation on more equal terms.
When might you use an expanded ending? If you need to tie up loose ends but were not able to do it within the actual story, then this is the ending for you. However, it should not take the place of 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.
Seven Tips to Craft the Perfect Ending
Now that you understand what kind of endings there are, let’s start thinking about how to create them for yourself! We’ve compiled expert knowledge for sticking the landing, so you can create an ending that will linger in people's minds long after they've read your book.
1. Find your ending in the beginning
While your story may contain several different threads and subplots, all books are going to have a central question that’s raised by the opener. Who killed the boss? Will our star-crossed lovers end up together? Can a rag-tag group of heroes really save the world? Is there meaning to a middle-class existence? Can this family’s relationship be saved?
Your central question is the driving force of what will happen in the plot, so make sure you settle it by the time the book ends. Even if your hero's story continues in a sequel, you’ll want each book to have a central question, and a resolution, for them to feel complete.
2. Completion goes hand-in-hand with hope
Literary agent Estelle Laure explains that a great ending is one that gives the reader both a feeling of completion and hope.
“You have to assume the character has gone through hell, so let them see something beautiful about the world that allows them to take a breath and step into the next adventure. Even your ending should leave your reader dying for more. They should close the book with a sigh, and that’s the best way I know how to get there. This is, after all, a cruel but wondrous life.”
3. Keep things fresh
This is good advice for every stage of writing, but perhaps nowhere is it more important than the ending. While there are certain genres where a type of ending is expected (romances should end with a happily ever after, mysteries with identifying the killer), you don’t want people to be able to see everything coming from miles off. So even if the payoff from the big resolution is expected, as the writer you’ll want to think hard to find ways to keep things fresh and interesting. To achieve this, try to dig deeper than your first impulse because, chances are, that’s also going to be your audience’s first impulse as well. You don’t necessarily need to subvert that expectation, but it will give you some hints as to what most people think will happen.
4. Make sure it’s really finished
To create a satisfying ending, close your book with purpose.
As Publishing Director of Endeavor Media, Jasmin Kirkbride’s biggest tip is to make sure you follow the rule of Chekhov’s Gun: “Every subplot and all the different strands of your main plot should reach satisfying, clear conclusions. If they are meant to be left ambiguously, ensure your reader knows this, and create something out of that uncertainty.”
5. Last impressions matter
In some ways, the final line of a story is even more important than the first one. It’s the last impression you’re going to make in your reader’s mind, and the final takeaway of the whole book. Hone in on what kind of emotions you’d like your reader to feel as they close the book, and ask yourself what kind of image or concluding thought would best convey that. Not sure what that should be? Try looking at your book’s theme! Often the final image is the summation of everything your theme has been building.
6. Come full circle
Editor Jenn Bailey says that a good ending brings the book’s internal and external story arcs to a rational conclusion: “You need to come full circle. You need to end where you began. You need to take the truth your main character believed in at the beginning of the story and expose it as the lie that it is by the end. In your ending, the main character doesn’t have to get what they want, but they do have to get what they need.” For more about character arcs, check out this post!
7. Leave some things unsaid
There’s a balance to endings — too little resolution and your book will feel rushed and unsatisfying, but too much and the denouement starts to drag. In general, though, you want to keep things brief, especially if you want room for an epilogue. It’s okay to trust your readers to reach some conclusions on their own, rather than spending whole chapters making sure every question you raised is answered. But, if do you really want everything tied off, consider moving the resolution of some of your subplots to just before the climax. This avoids jamming everything into the last five pages, allowing your subplots space to breathe.
As we have seen, there are many methods for ending stories! However you decide to finish your novel, there is one thing that you should always keep in mind: take account of the story that came before and give it the ending that it needs, not the one you think readers want, and it will be satisfactory for all.
What is your favorite way to end a story? Or do you have a favorite closing passage? Tell us in the comments below!