How to End a Story: 3 Secrets to Writing a Captivating Ending

4 Mar 2024 Fiction

You’ll find loads of advice to help you find a great novel idea, start writing, and push through what I call the Marathon of the Middle.

But you may not find as much on how to end a story, though that’s every bit important.

Of my more than 200 published books, more than two-thirds have been novels, so I know fiction ideas are easy to come by.

Maybe you have one you’re excited about, but you’re stuck. You’ve been sitting on your great idea for too long. So what’s keeping you from writing your novel? If it’s that you find daunting the idea of landing on and delivering just the right ending, you’ve come to the right place. 

Have you ever wondered why publishers rarely offer contracts and royalty advances to first-time novelists before they see entire manuscripts?

You may have the best novel idea since Chicken Soup for the Left Behind Amish Vampire. But until you prove you can finish — and I mean close that curtain with a resounding thud — all you’re getting from publishers is Fifty Shades of Wait and See.

Why Writing a Good Ending Matters

You know your opening should hook readers and your middle should keep them turning pages. Your goal is to get them to an ending that seals the deal.

But how do you write one that turns readers into rabid fans? Your ending simply must prove worthy of the time, money, and loyalty readers have invested in reading your novel. It has to be memorable and emotionally satisfying, tying up all loose ends.

That’s no small task. So how do you ensure your novel doesn’t fizzle out at the end?

How to End a Story in 3 Steps

  1. Keep the End in Sight the Whole Way
  2. The End Means The End
  3. Keep Your Hero On Stage
Need help writing your novel? Click here to download my ultimate 12-step guide.

1. Keep the End in Sight the Whole Way

In other words, don’t simply assume something will come to you and will simply work itself out when the time comes.

Whether you’re a meticulous outliner or write by the seat of your pants, have an idea where your plot is going and think about your ending every writing day. How you expect the story to end should inform every scene, every chapter. Sure, it can be flexible. It may change, evolve, and grow as you and your characters experience their inevitable arcs, but never leave it to chance.

And if you get near the end and worry something’s missing — that the punch isn’t there or that it doesn’t live up to the power of the other elements of your bookdon’t rush it. Give it a few days, a few weeks if necessary.

Read through everything you’ve written. Take a long walk. Think on it. Sleep on it. Jot notes about it. Let your subconscious work on it. Play what-if games. You want that ending to sing, to become unforgettable.


  • Be generous with your readers. They have invested in you and your work the entire way. Give them a proper payoff. Don’t allow it to look rushed by not allowing it to be rushed.
  • If it’s a surprise ending — think of movies like The Sixth Sense or The Sting — you still want readers to feel they should have seen it coming — because you planted enough hints — but they will not want to feel hoodwinked.
  • Never settle. If you’re not happy with every word, scuttle it until you are.
  • If you have too many ideas for how it should end, don’t despair. Just make yourself find the best one. When in doubt, go not for the cleverest or most cerebral. Readers long to be moved. Go for the heart.

Write and rewrite and polish and hone it until you’re happy with every word. Rewrite it until it shines. I’ve long been on record that all writing is rewriting, and this is never more true than at the end of your novel. When do you know it’s been rewritten enough? When you’ve gone from making it better to merely making it different. What makes us authors is being able to choose the best version and committing to it.

Now here’s a nice problem: Maybe you have TOO many ideas for how your novel should end. That’s good news! It shows you’re a creative. Better to have too many ideas than too few. Just be sure to settle on the best one. When in doubt, don’t necessarily go for the cleverest or most cerebral. Readers long to be moved. Settle on an ending that reaches the heart.

2. The End Means the End

How to end a novel

Too often writers wind things up and feel the need to add an epilogue. My advice? Try not to do that. I’m not saying there’s never a call for an epilogue — I’ve used them occasionally myself. But as a rule, let your The End mean The End.

Also, too many beginners, I believe, think they appear sophisticated if they leave things nebulous. That might work in literary fiction where the writing itself is the star and the plot is more of a vehicle to show that off. I write for the masses and teach writing for the masses, and if that’s what you want to do, avoid that mistake of feigning sophistication.

Modern readers raised on television and movies appreciate chronology — stories with beginnings, middles, ends. And they expect the end to do its job. Artsy types may think it’s hip to just stop the story with nothing resolved, gassing on talk shows about how life isn’t so tidy.

Well, terrific. I’ve seen enough movies like that, and I can tell you that most people don’t like sitting there shaking their heads as the lights come up. They scowl at each other and say, “Really? That’s it? We’re to wonder what happens now?”

All that does for me is to remind me that as a novelist I have one job, and I recommit myself to doing it again every time. That is to invent a story world and deliver a satisfying experience for my readers. Now, writing a novel with a beginning, a middle, and an end — one that satisfies — doesn’t necessarily mean happily-ever-after, everything tied in a neat bow. But at the very least the reader should learn what happened, have questions answered, things resolved, puzzles solved. And because I happen to have a worldview of hope, my work will reflect that.

If you write from another worldview, at least be consistent. End your stories with how you see life, but don’t simply stop the story. Give it the ending it deserves. 

That said, some stories end too neatly and then appear contrived. If they end too late, you’ve asked your reader to indulge you for too long. Be judicious. In the same way you decide when to enter and leave a scene, carefully determine when to exit your novel.

3. Keep Your Hero on Stage

That may seem obvious, but I’ve seen it violated. Everything your lead character learned while trying to fix the terrible trouble you plunged them into should by now have made them the person who rises to the occasion and wins the day.

Maybe to this point they have been flawed, weak, defeated. But their character arc is about to become complete.

The action must happen on stage, not just be something remembered or simply narrated. Be careful not to inject a miraculous resolution or have something happen because they finally realized something. Sure, things may have finally come together in their mind, but they must act.

THAT’S what makes a reader respond emotionally, and it should move you when you write it. That way you’ll know it will move your readers.

See yourself piloting a commercial airliner. You’ve taken your readers on a long, eventful journey. Now it’s time to bring them in for a satisfying landing.

6 Types of Story Endings

The Closed or Resolved Ending

This ties up all the loose ends in your plot and subplots. Your main character and significant supporting characters have grown.

But a resolved ending doesn’t have to be a happy one.


To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: All the storylines come together in the end, giving each character closure.

The Hollow by Agatha Christie: After loads of misdirection throughout the story, the murderer is revealed.

The Open or Unresolved Ending

This is one of the types of endings I personally don’t care for, for reasons I outlined earlier. Some authors merely use unresolved cliffhangers — which I find thoroughly frustrate most readers. If you need to leave questions in readers’ minds, particularly in the case of a book series, wherein you need to give them a reason to buy the next book, there are other ways to accomplish this.

To make sure readers clamor for your next book, don’t use unresolved cliffhangers. Give readers a wholly satisfying end to your book and simply hint at what is coming. That way they’re pleased and eager at the same time.

In my own Left Behind series, the first volume covers a lot of ground — the rapture, people having disappeared, others left to figure out what happened and face the great tribulation. It ends with four significant characters banding together to form what they refer to as the Tribulation Force. That became the title of book 2. Here’s the last paragraph of book 1: “The task of the Tribulation Force was clear and their goal nothing less than to stand and fight the enemies of God during the seven most chaotic years the planet would ever see.”


The Bourne Ultimatum by Robert Ludlum: The final book in this popular series ends in a solid win for good over evil. The main character survives, but we’re left not knowing anything else about his future.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens: Readers aren’t told much about the future, but the author drops hints that let readers assume both main characters grow to adulthood.

The Ambiguous Ending

Here the conclusion is cryptic at best, but always vague. It leaves readers with questions they can answer for themselves.


Life of Pi by Yann Martel: Readers are left to come up with their own explanation of the story, and if they don’t really want to know which is true, they don’t have to decide.

The Stand by Stephen King: The book version has 2 different endings (and King wrote 3 additional possibilities for the TV adaptation.) The original edited version ties up the character’s stories nicely. The Complete & Uncut Edition includes a darker epilogue, continuing the circle.

The Surprise or Twist Ending

Good ending

This ending can work for all genres, but especially for mysteries. But take care not to give readers the ending they might expect. Just avoid, as I mentioned earlier, a complete surprise that seems to come out of nowhere. If you opt for a twist, you must plant enough clues so readers at least have to admit they could have seen it coming. 


Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie: This classic includes loads of surprises and a satisfying, although unexpected, resolution for all characters.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen: The energy for this conclusion builds to a climax in a dramatic circus performance and the anticipation of romance.

The Closed Circle

This one ties your conclusion back to where you started, often revisiting the opening scene or even the first line, but naturally now with a whole novel worth of added context.


The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende: The novel’s last line is the same as its first line.

The Dark Tower series by Stephen King: This ending also circles back to the first sentence, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

The Expanded Ending, a.k.a., the Epilogue

This is the ending I personally wish you’d avoid.

With this approach, after evil is defeated and the main story winds down, readers get a glimpse into the characters’ future.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling: The series wraps by answering the unspoken question in everyone’s mind — does Harry finally find a peaceful life?

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins: The epilogue in Collins’s series fast-forwards several years to end on a hopeful note.

And I suppose if you can write as well as JK Rowling and Suzanne Collins, you can feel free to try an epilogue.

Though I’ve made my preferences clear, that’s all they are: personal opinions reflecting my own taste.

Final Considerations When Ending A Story

End your book in any of the ways we’ve discussed. Experiment. Have fun. Write what you’d read. 

Remember to read dozens of books in your genre so you’re familiar with its conventions and expectations.

Finally, consider the emotional impact you want to leave your readers with:

  • In a sweet ending, characters get both what they want and what they need.
  • A semi-sweet ending delivers only what your characters need.
  • A bittersweet ending gives them only what they want.
  • In a bitter ending, characters get neither.

Stephen King says that in real life, endings aren’t always neat, whether happy or sad.”

Just endeavor to write an ending that makes readers beg for your next book.

For more tips, check out my 12-step guide on How to Write a Novel.

Need help writing your novel? Click here to download my ultimate 12-step guide.