Writing Discussion

What Makes a Good Ending?

Conclusions can make or break a story for me. They often determine whether or not I’ll read the next book in a series. I think most writers have an intuitive sense for figuring out where the story should end, but I want to break it down into something more tangible.

How can you give an ending impact? Here are some techniques I’ve observed:

Resonance

One symbol, or moment, from the beginning of the story is repeated at the end. By the time the story is done it means something else completely.

The ending echoes the beginning. It gives a sense that the story has come full circle.

Establishing a new normal

The heroes begin a new life. Sometimes the farm boy returns to the farm. Sometimes the farm boy becomes king. Sometimes the hero decides to set out on a new journey.

It’s a chance to show how the character has been altered by the journey, and what they’re going to do with that new knowledge.

Ending book X in the middle of a multi-volume series

The end tends to fall a lot closer to the climax, and not all plot threads are wrapped up. The new normal points the heroes towards the next part of the journey, and offers a hint of what is to come.


My favorite endings leave a sense of the bittersweet:  that sacrifices have been made, but that life does go on. That there’s joy, and hope, and more struggles in store, but after what characters have been through, I know they’ll make it.

The best endings leave me full, and remain with me for days. The best books make me wish they never end, but I know they have to.

That’s the sort of ending I like. What about you?

P.S. If you working on beginnings here are six examples of how to open a novel.

18 Comments

  1. The best endings are the ones where I know the characters so well that when it inevitably comes time to part ways, I’m genuinely sad that it must be so. Just as good: a moment of “Oh wow, that was so cool”. You know, the kind of thing that leaves you glowing inside.

    What makes for ending fail: “FINALLY! I can’t believe they didn’t try that the first time! What took them so long!” or “Ugh. I’m glad that’s over.”

    1. T.S. Bazelli Author

      I don’t think I’ve read a book with an ending quite that bad. Most I just don’t remember, though there have been a couple where I have thought “Why did I just waste my time reading that?” hehe

  2. Those are all really great examples!

    Sometimes…I do love a twist ending. Cliffhangers, too, but only if all the other major plot points have been resolved (though honestly I see this more in movies I watch than the novels I’ve read). I think this can work well for a series but also for stand-alone novels, depending on the content/story-type. The important thing with the twist ending, though, is that it be foreshadowed properly in advance so that reader will have that “ah-ha!” moment, not just suddenly thrust upon them at the last minute. The latter is just cheap.

    1. Yes you’re right. The ‘twist’ has to be something that grows out of the story, and not something that came out of nowhere. There are some endings that smack me in the face with their unexpectedness, and abrupt end, but sometimes that leaves me wondering…

  3. One of my favourite ‘endings’ is in For Whom Tolls, and it falls into the first category. It was so subtle but so profound, and I thought about it for days afterwards.

    I think the twists are more suited for movies, as Tiyana says. I always feel a bit cheated if you read a whole book and then the author pulls a stunt like that. I like an ending to be foreseeable, but not overly so; if I turn the last page and the ending came so far out of left field just for the purposes of stunning me I am liable to think poorly of everything that came before the end, which may have been quit enjoyable.

    It’s the last thing you read before you put it down, a great ending can literally make or break the whole experience.

      1. That’s the ideal balance: foreshadow enough, but don’t give away the ending entirely. Knowing how it will end would be a big letdown too. Thanks for adding your thoughts 🙂

  4. An ending that shows the far future works well too. At the end of Book 4 of Ember, it described the way the world looked years after the series ended.

    (Also in reference to this series; don’t write an ending that references the third book in the series, which seemed to be only around to 1. describe the author’s theology and 2. establish a plot device that would come into play at the said end of book 4. Circular reasoning 101!!!)

  5. “resonance” was the word on my mind when I clicked your link. Sometimes it’s in the form of circle story (Needful Things), or the resolution or termination of a conflict that was building (Star Wars: A New Hope), or a confluence of events that snap together (Stranger Than Fiction stole my idea, darnit). Sometimes the elements of a story can be embedded abstractly in the end, like Suskind’s Perfume. Those last are the chewiest endings. But for me, the end-all be-all is having an ending that feels appropriate to the book, the film or even the videogame it followed.

    1. T.S. Bazelli Author

      You know, as a kind of aside, I think video game endings have gotten a lot crappier these days. Last few games I played just cut off abruptly. One just scrolled some text. REALLY? I just gave 100 hours of my life to this, and all I get are some crappy text boxes? lol I miss the long ending sequences, and quirky things put into the credits. But yeah… ok rant done.

      1. I haven’t played a videogame in years (since a little before marriage and school)… sad to hear that they’re going downhill…

        …on the other hand, I’ve read that some videogames of late have been absolutely fantastic. I’m itching to get my hands on BioShock, someday, based on the praise I’ve heard of both it and its ending. Likewise Portal.

      2. Once when I was child, I was playing a computer game with my siblings. I finally beat it, and the ending sequence video showed up. Being the most patient person in the world (of course), I clicked through the video, thinking I dunno, maybe the game had a part two on the other side or something. “What did you just do!!!” was the general opinion in the room. Fail.

        I also remember that computer game Bugdom, where the only thing that was presented as an ending was a short video showing the enemy (King Thorax) in a cage and the MC with a crown. Wow, what a reward!!!!

        Just thought I’d join the video game rabbit trail 🙂

      3. Videogame endings are a huge mixed bag right now. There was a decade when almost every ending was short and simple. More studios have leeway to aim for long, cinematic and thematic endings, and most haven’t got it down. I hated (and most of the press adored) Red Dead Redemption’s ending; Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood ended limply; Mass Effect 2’s ending is just a setup for a third; and so-on. But some games nail it. Limbo had an amazing, sharp and minimalist approach. Amnesia: The Dark Descent (arguably the best game that could possibly be made under that title) builds to a great three-way choice in its ending. James Rodkin observed that the blockbuster games don’t seem to realize they’re delivering blockbuster movie plots and so instead try to deliver something they don’t earn. I think that’s true for the sampling I’ve had lately, but there’s promise.

  6. I had a guitar tutor who once said “the most important part of a song is the ending, the rest can be as amazing as you like but the final notes are the one’s people will remember”. I obviously don’t have to point out that that applies to fiction as well.

    I expect and demand good endings. The ending is the pay-off for having sifted through everything that came before – there really is nothing worse than the feeling oh “is that it? are there pages missing?”. Short stories in particular I feel need to tie things up well.

    And you make a good point that ending midway through a multi-volume is tricky. Need to keep the reader hungry enough to come back but also round things off should they not manage to. I think Empire Strikes Back is a great example of this handled well, there’s so many unknowns left hanging but there’s also a feeling of hope, that lessons have been learned. Luke puts a supporting hand on Leia’s shoulder, pan out to the wide window shot (what better metaphor for the beginning of a new chapter) and queue the theme tune.

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