Writing Advice

How to End a Story

The ending of a story should leave an emotional impact upon your readers. You want to leave a lasting impression. After all, this is the end of the story that you have worked on for so long. It needs to be special, it needs to be something that your readers will remember. If you think about it, the end of the story is likely to be one of the components that your readers will remember the most, since it will eventually be the most recent part that they have read. Writers therefore need to give quite a lot of thought into how to end a story.

Since this is about emotional impact, we are going to discuss the different ways to end a story and what the different emotions they stimulate are.

The happy ending:

After the trauma and radical journey that your characters have gone through, and in parallel your readers too, it is satisfying to read a happy ending. This is commonly found in fairytales ‘…and they lived happily ever after’. However, we need to be careful here to avoid cliches and predictable endings. If an ending is predictable, the reader will lose incentive to read on further with the story because they already know how the events will play out. If the ending is cliched, this leaves a bad taste in the readers mouth when they have reached the end of your story. We are writers, we can be creative and twist ideas to shed new light upon it. How could you do this then?

  • Have an unexpected, but not implausible/impossible ending (avoid deus ex machina) – you can still have a happy outcome that is not necessarily what your protagonist had been aiming for. For example, your protagonist comes to realise that his original goal isn’t what makes them happy, but it was the journey they had to go through or the people they met along the way that really mattered. Scatter clues to your ending throughout your story – the Harry Potter series is a great example of clues being scattered throughout, the invisibility cloak played a part in the story of the Three Brothers revealed in the final book, early use of the polyjuice potion and other thing the Golden Trio learn become relevant to the final book – foreshadow so that when the reader looks back, things will make more sense and they won’t be disappointed and feel like the ending was rushed or came out of nowhere.
  • Include red herrings in the story to keep your readers from guessing how the story will resolve.
  • Only reveal certain bits of information, don’t reveal everything in the story. In your mind as the author you will know everything that is going on in the story, but you do not need to give all the details to your readers. Be selective in what you choose to include in the story, just enough so they can understand what is going on but still leaving many questions unanswered throughout so that they must keep reading on.

The different types of outcome typically in a happy ending:

  • Protagonist achieves main goal e.g. defeats the enemy –> celebration
  • Protagonist corrects alteration in life and returns to normal life
  • Protagonist’s life is irreversibly changed, they have grown and developed into someone better, new relationships and friendships have been made. This is a new age.

Whatever outcome you choose for the story, your ending should aim to resolve the main plot point, the problem of the story – your story needs a resolution, it needs to tie up most of the loose strings and threads (not necessarily all of them but enough to leave the readers satisfied). Let’s now turn to the opposite emotion on the spectrum…

The sad ending:

This is the ending that tugs and pulls and rips out our tender heartstrings, the real tear-jerkers, the ones that make our hearts ache. But of course, it is important not to end a story with a tragic ending just for the sake of triggering an emotional jerk in your readers, it shouldn’t just come out of the blue that character X died for no reason. Readers will be able to pick up on that, and their memories of your story will be tainted by anger and sadness.

However, done right, a sad ending can really illustrate an important message that you are trying to convey in your story and may be used to highlight the realities of life – with its ups and downs, its struggles and hardships. It is also important to remember that a sad ending doesn’t necessarily have to mean death.

The different typical outcomes in a sad ending:

  • Someone dies or everyone dies except the protagonist.
  • The accident or disaster that they were trying to stop couldn’t be stopped in time –> chaos.
  • The relationship does not work out.
  • Someone gets really ill.
  • The battle is lost.
  • Words are left unspoken that could have repaired a relationship/a situation.

Other things to consider when ending your story include:

  • The type of genre you are writing in – in horror, it’s quite common for deaths or tragic accidents to occur or to be left as a mysterious ending in which the readers are left to interpret for themselves.
  • Balance – A story should be balanced. That means that if you have spent a long time trying to write an excellent beginning and have succeeded in reeling in a reader, you will need to create an equally excellent ending to match all the hype that was built up in the beginning. Your ending needs to be at least as good as your beginning. This is the only way your story will be truly rewarding to you, and to your readers who have invested their own time into reading your story.

Ultimately, what you want to avoid is an unsatisfying ending. If you are unsure of what ending would be most suited to your story, there is nothing stopping you from writing multiple versions and then deciding which you think fits best with your story.

As you will have noticed, although this article is about ending a story, the foundations and groundwork for the ending will need to be put in place as early as from the beginning of the story and so many of the tips here include work across your whole novel. Although your readers will be reading your story in chronological order, as the author, you will be considering your story in a simultaneous manner because what you do to any part of the story will likely impact others parts of your story.

As ever, if you have any tips to add, leave a comment below. I hope this has been helpful.



One thought on “How to End a Story

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