How to End a Story

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

29 May 2022 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.

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
  2. Nothing Can Follow the End
  3. Don’t Forget Your Hero
Need help writing your novel? Click here to download my ultimate 12-step guide.

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 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. Be outrageous if you must. Force that ending to sing. Make it unforgettable.

Musts

  • 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

How to end a novel

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.

Examples

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.

Examples

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.

Examples

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

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.

Examples

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.

Examples

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?)

Examples

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.

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

76 thoughts on “How to End a Story: 3 Secrets to Writing a Captivating Ending

  1. Thanks Jerry. Every bite of advice is like having money in an account for ready withdrawal. I want to leave readers either in angst or in agreement with the character(s)

  2. I had a problem when I first wrote Dream of Dragons that the ending was too “cotton candy” as my friend and beta-reader Deborah told me. So I had to rewrite it several times until it had the kick and fire I wanted it to have, approved by Deborah of course. I have an end in sight for each of the books – for that dramatic scene that wrenches the heart and stays with the reader long after the covers close. And now I will look to avoid the cotton candy machine like it is poison! So excited to see where Book 2 goes now that we are part of the Guild.

  3. This just might be my favorite blog post of all time, of anyone’s… ever!

  4. Ooh – this is my favorite of all your writer secrets! Why? Because even though it tells me what I already know – your description provides a kindred spirit heart to heart message that all writers will resonate with – it reminds me of the juicy part of writing – that those lovely beginnings and extraordinary middles are nothing but fizzle without the pop of a good ending. And, it’s something I NEED to be reminded of because it can be tempting to rush the finale. The most important part of the story is usually written under the mist pressure and when the writer is so very tired.

  5. This is where I have been really stuck on the book I’m writing. I’m in the middle, and the story is great so far, but ummm, I don’t know what to do to bring it to a believable closing. I’m sure every reader can guess what will happen as far as the main event at the end, but how to give them an interesting journey from here to the end. The transition. Anyway, I’m going to employ some of the things you said here and see what happens. Thanks.

  6. Great blog post. Plan to give more attention to the ending now that I have read this post. Was holding off so the ending would surprise me as well as he reader. My hero has internal and external conflict. New found discipline, circumstances beyond his control, and a little help from his friends will give us a satisfactory and complete ending. Thanks again.

  7. When I end my books, I want readers to experience joy that brings tears. I want them to feel at peace and encouraged to press on. That was a great article. Thank you.

  8. Completing the character arc was always my favorite part about the endings. Like you said, the character must ACT. Like a dramatic pet-the-dog moment, only at the very end.

  9. Interesting, Adrian. Usually pet-the-dog moments come early to show a surprisingly soft side of a character, but using a more dramatic one at the end is a thought.

  10. Once again, Thank you Jerry. I had the ending from the beginning, but was stuck on how to get it fleshed out.mthis helped me a lot, so I think I can make it all come together! You always make it so simple and easy to understand!

  11. I usually start with the ending of a story as the idea and backtrack to where I want it to start. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case and I’ve written a whole story before figuring out how to tell it properly (requiring massive rewriting, of course). I like to create an ending that makes the reader think, rather than feel – I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing.

  12. So helpful as always. Cements my thinking and actually brought up a new idea to tie it all together. Thanks so much! But that is a good warning to keep the central character central. Is it okay to leave a possibility for romance open?

  13. I totally get this. I can see my endings about 1/2 way through and with each new book (I write kidlit so they are quicker) I see endings earlier. I struggle with rushing the writing. I’m learning to be patient, basically back away from the keyboard has become my mantra. Letting the story simmer like a good pot of greens with neck bones is my goal. The pot likka is so much better after it has simmered for awhile. I believe this is true for my endings, and the story overall. I used to think I would lose sight of the story if I waited too long but so far not at all. Learning to write without silly fears is the real adventure in it all. Liked your use of “scuttle” also. Thanks for the education.

  14. It’s always been my problem to see the end from the beginning. This helps. Thanks, Jerry as always.

  15. Well, true character arc type change would involve more than a pet the dog moment, of course, as that is usually employed to show that a villain has a soft side and isn’t just a caricature.

  16. The book I have been writing with my sister is about a long road of deliverance and tells how that deliverance came about. At the end of the book I will end it with a hint that something is done to reopen all the work that had been done. A warning to the reader to be aware of opening doors unknowingly.

  17. I saved this post all week, because I had no time to read it when it arrived in email, but I was so excited when I saw the topic! Just finished it-“tea and Jerry” tips. So helpful. Thanks. Encouraged because I was beating myself up with this “wrapping up” process, even though my instinct said, “don’t rush…do it justice.” Your tips and comments confirmed the “permission” I have to take the time and get my story ending just right.

  18. I try to bring the story back to the beginning so it has some unity. I do this in my short stories and poetry sometimes as well. When the ending ties up well, I’m happy, when it doesn’t I keep trying till I find what works. That usually amounts to re-reading the piece to see what I was trying to do in the first place. It’s a challenge to bring it home.

  19. It sounds a bit vague, Catharine, or is that because you just don’t want to reveal it before finishing the book? You don’t want to leave readers wondering.

  20. Thanks, Robin, and I imagine one of the challenges is to keep from being predictable, because if you can see the ending about 1/2 way through, the danger is that the reader can too.

  21. Always, Martha, especially in a series if you’re sure to pay off on it eventually. If it’s a standalone, better to pay off on it than to leave it open. :)

  22. Great post, after reading it, I found that my hero was playing second fiddle to a couple of newcomers. After finishing my first draft, I’m rewriting the ending of my book from the first chapter. When I thought about the story as a whole, the ending seemed a little over the top and the flow of the story didn’t seem to lead up to it. I have an idea how I really want to end it, but will have to see what comes out of the rewrite and what kind of ending it will support.

  23. Love this article, Jerry…it’s going to be helpful when I get to the ending….uhhhh…that feels like an eternity from now. THE MIDDLE!!!! OMGosh, Jerry….this is where I’m needing help. I know the story so well bc it’s a true story (at least about a third of it) but in order to progress the story in the middle I have to make it up. While I’m writing, sometimes I feel like, “this is so stupid….no one is going to want to read this!!!!” I could make a great beginning and ending, but THE MIDDLE!!!!!

    Thanks Jerry for all your help with these classes and blogs.

  24. Believe it or not, we all feel that way at some point in every novel. It’s that feeling that this is ridiculous and no one is going to buy the premise, let alone the book. Then you step away from it for a few days or let someone else read it–and not necessarily a loved one who likes everything you do–and they really like it…and you do to. So you stick with it and finish it. We’re often not the best judges of our own work.

  25. Just as in the songs I’ve written, for the listener/reader to laugh or cry, or perhaps both, and deeply ponder life is an honor. As for endings, they seem to launch me, the writer, into a paralysis which can persist throughout the story. How I wish for smoother sailing here, and this article has given me valuable food for thought and tools. Thanks for this insight, Jerry.

  26. Perfect way to say it. Like in the Wizard of Oz, the story could have had any of a dozen different endings, but the Cowardly Lion still gets his medal, the Scarecrow gets his diploma, and the Tin Man gets his watch. All dues paid.

  27. As a long time comedian I find writing a book is in many ways similar to writing a monolog. You have to grab your audiances’ attention right away, keep the “story” moving with as few words as possible, “brevity is the soul of wit”, and the punchilne (ending) has to catch them off guard but make sense at the same time. They didn’t see it coming but they totally agree with your point of view. They have to relate or it will have no meaning to them. So how to I ensure a great ending to my novel? I but myself into my readers head and speak to their hear.

  28. I have a good idea how it end my book. Most readers think a book will end a certain way, sometimes they end in others. I want my readers to be surprised, yet I want to be lead by Christ how to end it so I’m still not sure how it’s going to go yet. The Middle? Can we back up? I’m still struggling with the beginning, I’ve re-wrote 2 of the chapters already.

  29. “…rewritten,” right? :)

    And all writing is rewriting. Welcome to my world.

  30. I’ve been struggling with the ending to my current WIP for 2 years. I’m almost ready to lie down on the couch and have a therapist tell me what’s wrong. Book #6 and I decided to challenge myself right out of a job. Wish there was a pill I could take. Thanks for the help, Jerry. I’m pulling it out and trying again.

  31. I enjoyed this interesting post. My question is: suppose your story is a tragedy, how do you inspire hope in your readers at the end when the hero dies?

  32. That depends on your worldview. We’re all going to die. Is there no hope beyond that? My worldview says there is, and my worldview tends to bleed through in my writing. Realism, yes. Grittiness, yes. Sadness, of course. People grieve and mourn. But if the character was indeed a hero, his life will have inspired, and perhaps his last words will too. He will leave with his loved ones a charge, a challenge, a memory, a legacy, something to carry them through the devastation of their loss–the inspiration to live as he did and the hope of seeing him again one day?

    My favorite of all the novels I’ve written ends in tragedy…and hope.

  33. I know I’m reading this post quite awhile after it was posted, but it’s just what I need to take the next steps in my writing. Thanks so much, Jerry!

  34. I used to pantzer my way through my writing, metaphoring imagery and imagination all together, like family going on a picnic. I knew where I wanted to finish, where a final crash seemed inevitable. And at times, I did finish in a crash and burn. But I had such a great time doing it, I never noticed the flames. Taking screen writing made me realize, you either beat outlines or you join them, or you go hide under the bed.(I preferred under the bed). But even there, you’re not safe. Imagination tracks you down, and races you back to the computer, where you can only compose through the dreaded outline, one completely foreign to your fingerprints. One that slows you down, thins your hair and makes you limp instead of race. Consequently, I have improved my whining skills, celebrated with optimal amounts of cookies.Cookies that do not sweeten the fact, that outlines beat you into submission. They demand structure. They demand flow. Mostly they demand completion, before they complete you. These are the chains of slavery they slip over your psyche, dominating your wildness, saddling you with restraint, demanding order and discipline, and all those other things trying to fit under the bed with you. Instead, they stand at the foot, yelling for you to come out, offering you bribes, telling you you’re never going to be happy unless you write, and reassuring you the computer needs you. Lies. All lies. But you come out anyway and face the numbered outline and your dry throat, as you try to swallow all its demands. Outlines that demand your attention. All of your attention. And you will never be the same again. Love to hear from you.

  35. Thank you, Pauly. And while it was originally posted in the spring, we brought it back today because it had resonated with so many. Glad you found it and found it helpful.

  36. Hello again, Jerry! Long time no see.:)

    Thank you for your generous advice here. It’s much appreciated and I will remember them. I’m saving this post, in fact.

    I hope all’s well with you and your beautiful family. God bless!

  37. I found myself nodding all through this post. This is so good. Am going to stick with it and finish this! Am on the third revision and it feels right this time, not shure how to explain it, it just is.

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