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Learning how to end a story effectively is even more important than learning how to start it.
Both the beginning and end of a work of fiction greatly impact a reader’s level of satisfaction. If the start of your story is weak or unengaging you run the risk of people putting down your book before it even gets going. But a lot of readers are willing to persist even if a story’s opening isn’t really to their taste. A strong middle section and climax can overcome any initial disappointment.
But what if your story finishes on a weak note?
Because it’s the final experience readers have before putting your book down, it leaves a lasting impression. Most people don’t finish books the books they start to read. Those who do are the most invested readers out of everyone who chose your book. It makes sense that they would be strongly let down by an unsatisfying conclusion.
So how can you write an ending to your story that leaves readers satisfied?
Here are six types of story endings that have stood the test of time along with some general tips on ending a story the right way.
6 Ideas to Consider for How to End a Story
Conclude your story in a neat and tidy way
Sometimes, the best way to end a story is by offering a clear resolution that neatly ties up all the loose ends and plot points.
If you’ve ever felt a plotline has been forgotten about or ignored, you’ll know how irritating it can be. Making sure the fate of everyone in your book is clearly explained can avoid that dilemma.
Examples of this type of ending include romances where the characters get together and have no threats to their happiness or unity on the horizon. Or adventure stories where good triumphs over evil and any villains have met definitive defeat.
This type of story ending can be seen as a bit unimaginative but it is the safest option. Going this route avoids the possibility of annoyed reviewers leaving comments along the lines of “but what about so and so character” or “it wasn’t clear to me if there’s still a chance of this or that happening”.
Leave your reader hanging from a cliff
Cliffhanger endings leave some elements of a story unresolved. Deciding to end your story on a cliffhanger is important if you want to leave readers eagerly anticipating the next installment in a fiction series.
It’s important to note that a cliffhanger ending should be a conscious choice. The majority of plot points should be resolved and the ending should not feel like a disappointment. You need to strike a balance between leaving your reader feeling they’ve reached something of a climax while still leaving some story aspects intentionally open.
If you have a rough or even concrete idea of what your story sequel will look like then make sure your cliffhanger ending will segue naturally into the next installment. Or, if you’re unsure of whether a follow-up book is the right route, you can leave the possibility open without committing to it. For example, when George Lucas chose to freeze Han Solo in Star Wars it was due to not knowing whether Harrison Ford would be available for the sequel.
A cliffhanger ending runs a higher risk of leaving readers disappointed than tying everything up neatly. However, when written well, they are some of the most exciting endings possible.
Provide a twist in the tale
A twist ending is a great choice if you can pull it off effectively. This type of story ending can have the highest level of impact but is also very difficult to get right.
Twist endings typically run into two problems.
First, readers may be able to spot your twist coming a mile away. There’s nothing more annoying than a big ‘reveal’ at the end of the story that you predicted back in the first act.
The second common issue is a twist ending that is too unbelievable. If something happens out of nowhere and there was no hints in hindsight readers may fail short change. An effective twist ending, therefore, needs to work on both an emotional and a logical level.
To write an effective twist ending, you want to give a few clues that foreshadow the twist without being heavy-handed or obvious. Ideally, your reader won’t figure out their significance at first, but when looking back will notice there were subtle clues in place. You can also play around with red herrings that hint at an altogether different ending, but be careful about using too many and confusing your reader.
Twist endings are incredibly hard to get right, but if you can manage to write a good one, you’re sure to leave readers thinking about your story long after it ends.
Play around with ambiguity and unreliability
Some readers detest not knowing exactly how a story ends. Others love the chance to come to their own conclusion.
The suitability of an ambiguous ending is also partially down to your choice of genre. For example, romance readers typically want a clear ending where the outcome they’ve been rooting for the whole time is given to them clearly. Readers of a gritty psychological thriller, however, might enjoy having their minds messed with by an ending that doesn’t spell everything out for the reader.
Unreliable narrators are a great fit for ending a story on an ambiguous note. Consider American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis (spoiler alert!).
Throughout the story, we are shown events through the eyes of Patrick Bateman. However, there’s a lot to suggest the ways he’s telling things may not be exactly how they’ve gone down. Ellis doesn’t resolve things either way and allows the reader to reach their own conclusion.
Sometimes, ambiguous endings are truly divisive. Just ask any Sopranos fan. This type of ending is a good choice if you’re confident in both your ability to write it and the likelihood that your readers won’t hate you for it. It’s probably the wrong choice for the majority of stories though.
End on an epilogue
Epilogues can be an effective way of adding a sense of realism or depth to your story. By suggesting that events carried on far after the main action ends, it gives your reader the feeling that the story took place in a believable world rather than one that existed purely to serve the plot.
However, sometimes epilogue endings can feel a little unwieldy and almost tacked on as the author couldn’t think of another way to conclude. For example, Ender’s Game has an epilogue that adds a ton of detail that sort of feels rushed and brief in comparison to the main tale told.
If you want to use an epilogue as a device to end your story, take the time to read a wide range of stories that ended in this way. Read those that are well-reviewed and those that are hated alike. This breadth of reference will allow you to identify the type of endings that work well so you can try and apply their principles to your own story.
Choose a cyclical ending
If your story begins and ends similarly, giving readers the feeling that events have come full circle, you’ve employed a cyclical ending.
A cyclical ending isn’t the same thing as simply ending things as they started. Even though the story might begin and end in the same place, the readers should have been on a journey alongside the characters who have developed or learned something along the way.
One example of a cyclical ending that many people will be familiar with from school is Of Mice and Men. The story starts and ends in the same location which is said to be symbolic of the inescapable fate of its main characters constrained by the lot life dealt them.
Now that you know six proven ways to end a story satisfactorily, let’s look explore the concept of effective endings in more detail.
Story Ending FAQs
How do you end a short story?
You can end a short story in all of the same ways that you can end a full story. An epilogue ending is perhaps a less likely choice due to the constraint on length you’re working with but is still technically possible.
What is the ending of a story called?
You might see the ending of a story referred to as its climax, conclusion, denouement, or simply ending. These terms are all slightly different in meaning although they are often used interchangeably.
How do you write a sad ending?
Sometimes, sad endings linger in our hearts and minds in a way that happy endings don’t. Think about the power of Romeo and Juliet’s ending, for example, or the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist. Writing a sad ending to a story requires the readers to care about the characters. A sense of avoidable tragedy can often increase the emotional gut-punch of this type of ending.
How do you end a children’s book?
The end of a children’s story should be appropriate for the age of its readers and the overall tone of the book. Gritty twists or sad endings are, unsurprisingly, not the way to go here. Younger readers often prefer a neat ending that leaves them feeling as if everything has been explained. You can still use a surprise ending, but it should be a fun and happy surprise!
You now have six different answers to the question of how to end a story as well as some tips for different genres and styles of writing.
It’s important to remember that there’s no right or wrong way to end a story. Multiple types of endings could work for your story. It comes down to your ability to write them well and to satisfy your readers.
If you’re unsure of the right type of ending for your story in particular, feel free to jot down ideas for each of the six different types but applied to your work of fiction. Which feels most suitable? Get feedback from people whose opinion you value and see which type of ending they feel would work well.
Take as long as you need to write and rewrite your ending. Getting it right is crucial if you want to get good reviews and leave your readers with a positive impression of you and your work.