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.
Everybody’s got at least one, but maybe you’re stuck. You’ve been sitting on your great idea for too long. So what’s keeping you from getting going? Maybe it’s coming up with an ending that does justice to that great idea of yours.
That’s why publishers rarely hand out contracts and 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.
The purpose of your conclusion is to turn readers into fans. You must know how to end a story worthy of the time and loyalty readers have invested in you. Your ending should be memorable and emotionally satisfying, tying up all loose ends.
So how do you ensure your story doesn’t fizzle?
How to End a Story in 3 Steps
1. Keep the End in Sight the Whole Way
Don’t play the wishing game, hoping it 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 story is going and think about your ending every day. How you expect the story to end should inform every scene, every chapter. It may change, evolve, and grow as you and your characters experience the 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 book — don’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. Be outrageous if you must. Force that ending to sing. Make it 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.
- Make it unpredictable but fair. You want readers to feel they should have seen it coming — because you planted enough hints — but not 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.
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.
2. Nothing Can Follow the End
This goes without saying. But I say it anyway, why? Because too many beginners think it appears sophisticated to leave things nebulous, or they want to save something crucial for the epilogue. Avoid that mistake.
Modern readers raised on television and movies like chronology — beginnings, middles, ends. They expect the end to do its job. Artsy types may think it’s hip to just stop and enjoy 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 as a novelist is to remind me that I have one job, and I recommit myself to doing it again every time. Invent a story world for my readers and deliver a satisfying experience for them. They have invested their time and money, believing I will uphold my end of the bargain — and that means a beginning, a middle, and an end. One that satisfies.
That doesn’t mean every ending is happily-ever-after, everything tied in a neat bow. But the reader knows what happened, questions are answered, things are resolved, puzzles are 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 just stop.
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. Don’t Forget Your Hero
This may seem obvious, but I’ve seen it violated. Your lead character should be center stage at the end. Everything he learned throughout all the complications that arose from his trying to fix the terrible trouble you plunged him into should by now have made him the person who rises to the occasion.
Maybe to this point he has been flawed, weak, defeated. But his character arc is about to resolve and become complete.
The action must happen on stage, not just be about or remembered or simply narrated. It can’t be resolved by a miracle or because he realizes something. He must act.
That’s what makes a reader respond emotionally, and if it moves you when you write it, it will move your readers exponentially.
See yourself as the captain of a mighty airline. You’ve taken your readers on a long, eventful journey. Now bring it in for a landing with one of these proven formulas.
6 Types of Story Endings
The Closed or Resolved Ending
This conclusion ties up all the loose ends in your main plot as well as your subplots. Your main and supporting characters have grown and their arcs are also wrapped.
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
Cliffhangers are a popular example of unresolved endings, but they’re not the only option. All you need to do is leave questions in your readers’ minds.
If you’re writing a series, however, there’s nothing quite like this ending to make sure your readers are clamoring for your next book.
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
This conclusion is cryptic or vague. It leaves the reader with questions that he can answer in his own way.
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
A great ending for all genres, but especially for mysteries. Take care — this ending needs a good balance. Don’t give your readers the ending they expect, but avoid a complete surprise that comes out of nowhere.
Be creative. You don’t have to go with your first instinct or even your second one. And don’t be afraid to engineer a plot twist or two.
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 ending ties your story’s conclusion back to the beginning, revisiting the opening scene or first line, but with 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
After evil is defeated and the main story winds down, readers get a glimpse into the characters’ future, answering questions readers might have (did they live happily ever after?)
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.
Final Considerations When Ending A Story
When it comes to creativity, there’s no black-and-white, right or wrong. You can end your book in any number of ways. So experiment.
Read a lot in your genre so you’re familiar with the conventions, for example: romance readers expect happy endings, mysteries serve up startling plot twists, sci-fi and horror pit good against evil.
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.
End your novel well, but don’t feel like you have to end it perfectly. As Stephen King says, “And …in real life, endings aren’t always neat, whether they’re happy or sad.”
End Your Story With a Bang (Instead of a Whimper)
You’ve invested so much time bringing your idea to life and seeing the process through. Make sure to write an ending that makes your readers beg for your next book.
For more tips, check out my 12-step guide on How to Write a Novel.