How to End a Story: A Guide for Novelists
You’ve got a great idea for a story. You’ve got great characters, a gripping plot, and breathtaking locations. The only problem is, you’re not sure how to end your novel to give it the greatest possible impact.
Should you have a happily ever after? Should you leave it on a cliffhanger to make sure the reader buys the next book? Or would a heartbreaking ending have the most lasting emotional impact?
In this article we’re going to look at several different ways to end your novel, analyze some effective endings from well-known novels, then offer seven tips for best practices, to make sure you do your story justice with an ending that goes off with a bang, rather than a fizzle.
How to End a Story: 6 Ways to End Your Novel
1. Happily ever after
The most common way to end a story is to resolve the main conflict in a satisfactory way, with the protagonist getting what they need (and often what they want as well, as part of the deal) and the antagonist coming to a sticky end.
This is one of the safest ways to end your novel, as you’re most likely to leave your readers satisfied.
The second most popular way to end a novel is with a twist.
There is some major surprise that the reader didn’t see coming, which turns everything they thought they’d learned on its head. All the assumptions they’ve made about the characters and the reality they are living in have all been a deftly woven misdirection, leaving the reader shocked but thrilled.
While a ‘twist’ ending can be an event in itself, the whole point of a story, you will find that almost all stories will have at least a small twist or surprise towards the end, so the twist will be present to a greater or lesser degree in the other types of endings, too.
Some novels end on a cliffhanger – which usually means that key questions aren’t answered, and the protagonist is left in a dangerous situation, with the reader wondering how on earth they’ll get out of it. The reader is then required to buy the next book in the series in order to discover the answer.
This type of ending must be used with caution, as there is a very high possibility the reader will be left feeling unsatisfied and cheated to have invested in reading all the way through the story, and not have been rewarded with the payoff. They may feel manipulated into buying the next book, rather than doing so simply because they want more from this author.
There is a difference between a cliffhanger, an ambiguous ending, and setting up the next story, which we’ll look at next.
4. Ambiguous ending
An ambiguous ending is similar to a cliffhanger in that key questions are not answered, however, it is actually a completely different animal. In a cliffhanger (as described above), the author does not intend for the reader to answer the questions for themself. The author intends to answer them, they just want the reader to buy the next book to find out.
With an ambiguous ending, the author has no intention of answering these questions, and may not even know the answers themself.
The intent behind an ambiguous ending is not to keep people hooked. It is about raising a philosophical question for the reader to mull over in the following days and weeks. The author will never give the answer, usually not even if they are drawn in interviews or in other places. They deliberately wish to create a sense of ambiguity for its own sake.
5. Set up the next story
The reason this is categorized as separate from the cliffhanger is that it is possible to conclude the main arc of the story of the book while beginning to set up hints at what arcs will be explored in the next and future books in a series.
This way the author delivers on the promise of the book, but still whets the reader’s appetite for more.
This is not the same as leaving the protagonist in peril, and not answering the main story questions raised in the book.
6. Heartbreaker / Tragedy
Occasionally, a very brave author eschews the happily ever after and answers the main story question, but not in the way the reader is expecting, or hoping for. The protagonist fails, someone we have fallen in love with dies, and the closing world is worse than the opening one.
The reader is left heartbroken, feeling the world is a place without hope.
This kind of ending is extremely rare, simply because people don’t like feeling this way, so are likely to avoid such books.
However, an ending like this has the potential to have a great emotional impact, and if it is done well, could stay with readers for a long time.
When utilizing a heartbreaker ending, it is usual for the writer to try to frame things in the bigger picture or to offer at least a glimmer of hope for the reader to cling to.
Examples of great story endings from Popular Fiction
Next let’s analyze a few stories that had effective endings, and think about why they worked so well.
Please note that by definition, this section is going to contain spoilers. If you don’t want to read them, then skip down to the next section.
1. The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
The Girl on the Train was arguably so successful because its ending was such a sucker punch. This was definitely a twist ending, of the sort where everything you thought you knew was turned on its head.
In the end, we learn that unreliable alcoholic Rachel was never an alcoholic at all, and her whole reality has been broken by the relentless gaslighting of her ex-husband. This is particularly effective because we feel the same disorientation Rachel feels, as we’ve essentially ‘fallen’ for his gaslighting by virtue of being in her head.
While being a twist ending, it’s also a happy ending (happy in the context of a dark psychological thriller, anyway), because in the end, Rachel discovers not only what her ex-husband has been doing to her, but the other people he’s harmed, and brings him to justice.
2. One of Us Is Lying – Karen McManus
Karen McManus’s YA whodunnit also reached great publishing heights and also pulled off a surprise ending that took most people by surprise – while in hindsight having all the clues right there.
The main question of the book is ‘Which of these four suspects murdered the fifth student in the room’ and the reader spends the whole book trying to work out which one of them might be. But of course, in the end, it turns out to be none of the four. Because there was one other student in the room at the time – he was just never a suspect, because he was the murder victim.
This is a satisfying ending to the book, because whodunnits are like a game between the readers and the author, and there are strict rules – which McManus follows.
The author should employ misdirection to ensure the reader doesn’t guess who the real villain is until moments before the reveal – but that can’t be because they have been kept completely hidden.
All the clues must be there, and in hindsight, the reader must feel like they had a genuine chance at guessing, but the author outwitted them. If there were no clues, or if the author gave bad information, then they are breaking the rules of the game and not playing fair.
3. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale is a very unique and fascinating example of an ambiguous and unconventional ending.
At the end of the story, we see our protagonist escape the cage she’s been trapped in for the whole book, but we are not sure whether she has run to safety or has simply gone from the frying pan into the fire.
However, (in the original novel) this was not presented as a cliffhanger, as there was no intention to write a sequel. Atwood simply didn’t want us to know whether it worked out for her or not – possibly to reflect the continuing and unresolved battle for women’s equal rights.
The other thing Atwood does to break convention is to essentially explain all the backstory and setup of the novel at the end. At the beginning of the novel, Atwood drops us right in the middle of the world she’s created, with no backstory explanation. We do get hints about how Offred ended up in the situation, but the larger context of why Gilead exists is never explained.
Until the epilogue. In the form of an academic report, supposedly written years later, we get a more full context of the world that has been created, which answers many questions that will have been subconsciously raised in the reader’s head.
This cleverly helps to offset the potential sense of unfinished business a reader might feel from the ambiguous ending for the protagonist by giving them a glut of information they have been hungry for.
4. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games is a good example of how you can answer the main story question and provide a satisfactory ending, but still set up the next book or two.
At the end of the Hunger Games, Katniss has triumphed in every obvious way. She has not only survived the Hunger Games but has emerged as the Victor. Furthermore, she has even outwitted the Games Makers themselves – she hasn’t just won the game, she has forced them to play by her rules. The main story question and character arc are definitively completed.
However, it is clear that there are rumblings of discontent under the surface. The Capitol is not happy to have been humiliated in this way, and it is likely they will be looking for a way to get their revenge.
And at the same time, Katniss’s actions have inspired murmurings of a revolt among the people, showing that the status quo of the first book is under threat and that larger story arcs and changes are simmering, ready to erupt.
5. The Fault in Our Stars – John Green
In this YA novel by John Green, the end is characterized by a twist designed to tear your heart out. The tension of the story is raised as the two teenagers explore love and the meaning of life while being afflicted by cancer, and while knowing that Hazel only has a short time left.
But Green pulls the rug out from under us, as it is not Hazel, but Augustus who succumbs to the illness in the end. Green led us to believe Augustus had the all-clear, so it was Hazel we focussed all our worry on.
If Green had never mentioned Augustus having cancer, then we might feel cheated at this bait and switch, but in fact, he was upfront about it from the beginning – the foreshadowing was all there, as we knew that Augustus was a cancer survivor, as the two met at a cancer support group.
Then, just to drive the tragedy home, Green pulls no punches. There is no miracle cure for Augustus, so the young love can continue happily ever after. Augustus passes away, leaving Hazel heartbroken.
While most readers were also heartbroken by the ending, Green doesn’t leave us with nothing. He ends the story with philosophical musings on living your life no matter how short, and the feeling that the main characters were fortunate to have had such love in their lives, even if it was only for a brief time.
Top 7 Tips for a Great Story Ending
Now let’s move on to our top seven tips for making sure your novel ending is as strong as it can be.
1. Answer the Main Story Question
While most novels will have multiple threads, character arcs and subplots, most effective stories have a ‘backbone’ which runs all the way through. This is often in the form of a ‘story question’. Story questions are things such as ‘Who is the killer?’ ‘Will the protagonist survive?’ or ‘Will the couple get together’?
Good endings will answer the main story question in a satisfying way.
2. Make it the Moment of the Highest drama
The end of your story should be the point of the highest drama, tension, and excitement. This usually means the protagonist will confront their nemesis and need to use every resource they’ve gathered in order to triumph. Gripping books are filled with tension and conflict, which should steadily increase to a crescendo at the end.
If the moment of highest drama happens earlier in the book, then the ending will literally be an anti-climax.
3. Complete the main character’s internal journey (arc)
The vast majority of stories are about the main character changing for the better. They may be cowardly and find their courage, or they may be cruel and find their compassion. But the story is an exploration of how they realize the error of their ways, are challenged to grow as a person, and emerge the other side improved.
Good books will offer a challenge at the end of the story that the character would have failed dismally had they been faced with it at the beginning. And it should still be hard, there should still be conflict, but as the reader roots for them, the protagonist will dig deep, find the best version of themselves, and triumph, demonstrating how much they’ve grown.
4. Have some surprises
In whodunnits and psychological thrillers, this is the core of the reader/author contract – and nothing delights a reader more than finding out the killer was under their noses the whole time and they never guessed who it was.
However, almost every story has some surprises at the end, whether it’s a betrayal (or unexpected ally) you weren’t expecting or the hero pulling something out of the hat to get out of a situation that seemed insurmountable.
If you want to write a good, satisfying ending, then you need to think about what surprises you can weave in.
5. Meet your readers’ expectations (or subvert them masterfully)
Some writers consider there to be a ‘contract’ with the reader, meaning that when they buy a book, the writer has an obligation to fulfill the reader’s expectations. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the author simply panders to everything the reader demands, and part of the contract is usually that they expect to be surprised a few times.
However, if you present your book as a high fantasy adventure, then it’s probable the reader is going to expect some kind of dramatic battle at the end, and that the hero will triumph. If the reader believes they are reading a romance, then the climax should revolve around the couple.
It is possible to subvert expectations in an effective way, but if you’re going to do it, you have to be sure you know exactly what you’re doing and judge your readers’ reactions appropriately.
6. Bookend the beginning
This is a story-telling device that links the opening chapter of your story with your closing chapter. Using this device can be extremely satisfying for a reader.
In essence, you show some kind of scene at the beginning, then mirror that same scene at the end, but in a way that shows how much has changed since those first pages.
For example, you might show a put-upon office worker being bullied by her co-worker and cowering in fear in the hallway. In contrast, at the end of the novel, you could show the same office worker in the same situation – but the outcome is different. Instead of whimpering and scurrying, the office worker has now found her courage. She stands up to the bully and sends him packing.
This is a very effective way of showing the character development journey your protagonist has been on and demonstrating how they’ve changed.
7. Tie up loose ends
As well as the main story question, as an author you should aim to tie up all loose ends. There is nothing more frustrating for a reader when they get to the end of the book and think ‘But what happened to the butler who went missing?’.
Ensure all subplots reach clear conclusions. Make sure all the threads tie up in a neat bow. Some of these may happen before the main climax, or others may happen in the epilogue. But unless you have a good and specific reason for doing so, don’t leave your threads hanging.
Mickey Spillane said that the first chapter sells the book and the last chapter sells the next book.
So if you want to make a career as a writer rather than being a one-hit wonder, then you’re going to need to learn how to end your novel in a way that leaves your readers satisfied.
Hopefully, this article has given a good grounding in what makes a good ending and some tips on how you can improve yours.
Moving forward, it’s a great idea to analyze the endings of books you read and movies you watch, to see how they do it. If you find yourself particularly satisfied at the end of a book, think about why that is. What made it feel so good?
And likewise, if at the end of a story, you find yourself not quite content, try to figure out why that might be. Were their major story questions raised and not answered? Did you feel like the ending was anticlimactic?
By analyzing the masters, you can make your way to standing among them.
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