Book Writing AdviceBook, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

How To Write a Great Ending


If you've made it to the final stretch of your story but can't seem to end it in a satisfying way, don't worry. Even the best writers struggle to create powerful endings, in part because they know that an ending often makes or breaks a good story. If you do it right, readers will continue thinking and talking about your story and its resolution for years. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. If you write a great story that dribbles off with an unsatisfying ending, readers will forget the reading delight they experienced along the way.

Whether you like to plan the ending before you type your first word or you'd rather start your story with endless possibilities and let your characters to lead you to a resolution, the fact remains that you have to find a way to end it. If you feel overwhelmed by the seemingly infinite ways your story could end, it might surprise you to learn that there are only about six different story endings. The details of your story will be unique, but hopefully one of these six classic endings will offer you the conclusion you've been searching for.

1. Resolved ending

With a resolved ending, the characters have overcome internal and conflicts, achieved their goals and no questions remain at the end of the story. The resolved ending tends to tie all the narrative threads into a pretty bow. The happily-ever-after endings in fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White are classic examples of resolved endings, and most modern-day romantic comedies rely on resolved endings as well. While both Cinderella and Snow White find true love at the end of their stories, a resolved ending does not have to be a happy one. Consider Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: The conclusion leaves the reader devastated even though all of the story's conflicts have been resolved and the characters have achieved their goal of being together in life or death.

Don't confuse a resolved ending with a predictable ending—a resolved ending should still surprise readers and take them to places they didn't expect. If the ending is completely predictable, there's no reason for anyone to read your story.

One way to see if a resolved ending might work for you is to imagine painting a portrait that conveys the conclusion. If it's possible to conclude every storyline in one final picture, then try writing a resolved ending. For example, a portrait depicting the conclusions of Snow White or Cinderella might show our heroine riding into the sunset with her one true love on a white horse while her animal friends celebrate with glee. In contrast, the final image for Romeo and Juliet would use dark, bleak tones to portray the lovers in their eternal embrace. If you can't envision one strong image that conveys your conclusion, it's possible that your story can't be tied up in a perfect bow, and you should end your story with a different kind of ending.

2. Unresolved ending

Unresolved endings leave readers full of questions. The best unresolved endings will tie up a few elements of the story while leaving some critical story arcs unfinished. An unresolved ending is ideal if you are planning a sequel, since you can continue those unfinished arcs in the next book. However, an unresolved ending shouldn't be an unsatisfying ending, so make sure your story feels complete despite any unresolved pieces. To make sure your ending is satisfying even if it leaves some questions unanswered, make sure the main characters grow and change over the course of the story. Even if your main characters still have a ways to go before they accomplish all of their goals or overcome their biggest struggles, by the time they reach the unresolved ending, they will have achieved some goals and addressed some conflicts. Even if you hope the book will become part of a series, make sure each book can stand alone. The best series are composed of multiple books that each tell a complete story on their own, yet when read together, they tell a broader and more complex story.

Cliffhangers are unresolved endings that conclude with dramatic or terrifying moments that leave readers filled with suspense. If you end your story with an engaging cliffhanger, readers will beg for the sequel so they can find out what happens. When writing a cliffhanger ending, you still need to make sure characters grow and change and overcome some struggles to ensure that the story feels complete. For a cliffhanger to resonate with readers, it needs to connect to other parts of the story and make sense within the narrative.

3. Twist ending

It can be challenging to end your story with a twist, but if you do it right, you will delight your readers while cementing your place in literary history. In at least three of the Harry Potter books, JK Rowling included incredible twists that shocked readers upon first read yet made sense and gained meaning with each subsequent read. A twist ending usually requires advance planning, because you need to sprinkle breadcrumbs that won't stand out to readers on their initial reading journeys but will add depth upon rereading. If you are too obvious when you sprinkle those breadcrumbs, readers will predict the twist and lose interest. The best way to write a twist ending is by planning out each plot point in your story so you can identify ideal places to bury information.

4. Circular ending

A circular ending, also called a tie-back ending, loops around and ends in the same place where the story started. When done well, tie-back endings can give readers an aha moment as they suddenly realize that they've returned to the story's starting place but now possess a full understanding of what is happening and why.

5. Ambiguous ending

An ambiguous ending allows readers to draw their own conclusions about what happened, so different readers will interpret the ending in different ways. Do not confuse an ambiguous ending with an unresolved ending. An ambiguous ending is distinctly different, because it leaves certain aspects open to each reader's individual interpretation. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale offers a satisfying, well-crafted ambiguous ending that gives readers the opportunity to envision a positive or negative resolution to the story.

An ambiguous ending is ideal when a character's story arc ends with a moral choice, and it can be easier for you since you don't have to make difficult choices about your characters' morality or their ultimate fate.

6. Expanded ending

An expanded ending provides a glimpse into your characters' future, usually through an epilogue. An expanded ending works well if you want to include information that doesn't quite fit within the narrative style of the rest of your story. An expanded ending might offer a perspective shift that provides information the original narrator either didn't possess or chose not to share, or it can show readers how the character's views changed with retrospect. An expanded ending is useful if you want to lead readers towards a powerful conclusion or inspire a deep feeling of resolution.

If you still feel unsure about how to end your story, here are a few tips to stimulate your mind and help you find your story's best ending point:

  • Think about your story from a reader's perspective, and consider what emotions the story has evoked up to this point. Do you want to continue fostering those emotions, or do you want to take the reader to another emotional place?
  • What is the primary conflict that your main character is facing? To write a satisfying ending, your main character should confront, deal with, or overcome that element by the end of the story. If you want to write an unresolved ending or a cliffhanger, your character could overcome one aspect of their primary struggle only to discover that this issue is a many-headed hydra and the journey has just begun.
  • What is your goal for this story? Do you hope to make readers think about certain issues, or do you want to entertain readers and offer them a reprieve from daily life? Identifying your goals for the story can help you decide how you want your story to end.

I hope that learning about the six ways to end a story helps you find the way to your story's resolution. Does one way stand out to you as the obvious choice for your story?

Header image by viperagp.

Get in-depth guidance delivered right to your inbox.