As we approach the end of the year it feels appropriate to talk about the end of your novel. How do you finish a story so it feels satisfying, surprising and, well, right?
If you haven't yet written “The End”, you might be worrying about how to get there. As you approach the finish line, you might not yet know exactly what the final scene looks like or how the last lines will read. And that’s fine! It’s often by writing the end we learn how our story starts. Much of the crafting of a brilliant ending happens when you rewrite—and rewrite, and rewrite—your novel.
On the other hand, you might already know how your story ends. You might have held a definitive ending in mind as you wrote the entire draft, just waiting to reach your story’s conclusion. You might be planning a sad or bittersweet ending, a happy ending, or perhaps a twist to give your story an unexpected ending that leaves the reader reeling.
There’s no right or wrong answer, but there are some important elements a great ending must have that you can bear in mind as you work towards the big finale. In this article, our writing coach and acclaimed author Mahsuda Snaith shares four ways to end a story that leaves readers satisfied:
- Great story endings should feel inevitable... but not predictable
- Great story endings need to feel plausible
- A good story ending ties up loose ends
- A great ending reveals your message (without becoming a lecture)
Reaching ‘The End’
“Every great story deserves a great ending.”
There are a few things you learn about writers when working as a writing coach, and having coached over a hundred writers at The Novelry, here are just two:
- Most writers (including myself) are perfectionists and want to write that perfect, dazzling first draft that sings off the page straight away.
- This drive for perfectionism in the first attempt stops many writers getting to the end of their novels, not just because a first draft is imperfect in its nature, but because writers often put pressure on themselves to have the perfect ending as well. They start pieces of prose but never finish, allowing them to sit in the metaphorical bottom drawer for years and their one big dream when they come on a course is not necessarily to be a New York Times bestseller (though that would be nice), but to get a story finished.
I recently completed my third novel and also felt the pressure of writing an ending that was, as Christopher Nolan says, worthy of the story I’d written. We focus a lot on openings as writers, and they are incredibly important, but endings are just as vital; the opening draws your reader in but it’s the ending that leaves them feeling satisfied or disappointed... and it’s that feeling they take away with them.
Here are four tips to help steer you towards writing the illustrious words “The End”, as well as to find an ending that entails all the trademark elements that will make it a great ending.
1. Great story endings need to feel inevitable... but not predictable
I once had someone describe plotting as planting seeds at the beginning of a story, then watching them grow and blossom through the rest of the narrative. Think carefully about the seeds you’ve planted in your story; don’t only allow the seeds to grow as you work your way through, but consider how you can surprise your reader with the type of plants that are produced.
For example, in romance novels, romance readers know the protagonist will likely end up with their love interest by the end of the book, but a well-crafted plot will put so many obstacles along your characters’ paths that we can’t figure out how it will happen.
In a crime novel, we will feel outright cheated if it’s never revealed to us whodunit. Even though we may guess who was the culprit before the last lines, the best stories make it impossible to be sure how and why they did it.
In both cases there is a sense of inevitability, the “of course!” moment as you reach the end. It may have looked like the hero was going to choose the practical partner who would help them get that important promotion... but of course they chose the one who encouraged them to take a chance and go for their dream job. And yes, it seemed impossible for that character to be the culprit, but the writer did hint that there was a secret door in the library at the beginning of the novel, didn’t they?
Drip-feed information along the narrative to show the various possibilities of an ending so when your reader reflects, they can clearly see the signs that you weren’t leading them to a flower garden at all, but an orange grove.
2. Great story endings need to be plausible
While you want to give an element of surprise to your reader, what you don’t want is for your reader to wrinkle their nose at the end of a story and say, “Where did that come from?”
Your ending has to be plausible to satisfy your reader. Remember Stephen King’s Misery where number one fan Annie Wilkes reads her favourite author Paul Sheldon’s latest book in a serialisation, only to find the main character Misery is killed off at the end? For those who know what happened next, the consequences for Sheldon are not something any writer would like to go through.
Occasionally, when a writer is struggling to change an element of their story, they’ll tell me, “but this actually happened!” This may be true, and as a writer it can be hard to separate what is true from a good story. A fiction reader doesn’t want what’s factually correct, they want something both engrossing and satisfying.
Plausibility contributes heavily to what makes for a satisfying ending. If your hostage gets away from their captor with the help of a stranger, show us the stranger—even if only briefly—earlier on in the narrative. If the stranger happens to have a weapon that later maims or kills the captor, show us they have that weapon on them too. This all comes down to the drip-feed. We need to be able to look back at the story and know that there were signs all along. And if you do want to kill off a main character like Paul Sheldon did in Misery, learn from picture book writer and illustrator Judith Kerr who, in her series of much-loved books about a clumsy family cat called Mog, made sure to foreshadow the content of her book with the title Goodbye Mog. (Warning: it’s a heartbreaker.)
Plausibility contributes heavily to what makes for a satisfying ending.
3. A good ending ties up loose ends
When you write a story you are creating a contract with your reader. When they read or listen to your novel, they expect to be taken on an adventure via intriguing characters who will take all the risks so they don’t have to, with a story that reveals the consequences of certain actions. Your reader sits back, enjoys the rollercoaster ride and, at the end of it all, releases a sigh of thrilled relief.
But there are ways you can unintentionally break that contract.
Putting in an implausible ending will definitely do this but so will leaving loose ends untied. Just like a rollercoaster needs a blueprint, you will need a structure to help your reader get to the end of their ride. Planning those plot twists and turns and plunging drops with your writers’ eye will mean the reader won’t know what’s around the corner while you always do, but adding a twist where it's not needed will only end up making them feel queasy.
If you introduce a subplot, make sure it’s resolved by the end of your story.
If you put a spotlight on a specific character, don’t allow them to disappear, never to be seen again.
What happened to that piece of priceless jewellery that seemed so important to the plot earlier on? Why did the best friend only feature in half the story?
If you can incorporate the answer to these questions in your main plot, all the better. And, even if you don’t have an answer for every strand, make sure this is addressed in the text rather than seemingly forgotten. If your main character never gets to confront their father as they wanted to at the beginning of your story, show them holding on to the picture of him they’ve been carrying around in their pocket before they screw it up and throw it in the bin.
Just like a rollercoaster needs a blueprint, you will need a structure to help your reader get to the end of their ride.
Your reader trusts you to honour your contract, so make sure you keep an eye on every strand of your story. Listing the notable characters in your story and noting down their arc—where they begin and where they end up—will help with this. And if the storyline or character isn’t pulling their weight, it may well need to go.
4. A great ending reveals your message (without becoming a lecture)
Unlike life, when we start a story, we know there will be a neat ending by the time we finish and usually a valuable life lesson. So it turns out that pride really does come before a fall. Or that there’s no such thing as a free meal. Or maybe, even, that it’s never too late to change.
Whatever your take-home message is, the ending is where you can reveal what you set out to say when you began dreaming of this story months, or even years, beforehand. This message is usually connected to your theme, and maybe something you’ve learnt from life yourself.
Refrain from revealing this message too early on or saying it outright. Nobody likes a lecture or being told what to think. We love stories because they show us possibilities, not absolutes.
Look at the stories and novels you admire.
- How did they end?
- What made them have perfect endings and what was the take-home message?
Writers are not preachers or teachers. At their very best they are guides, and the more you explore the works of fiction you love, the more you’ll be able to see how they’ve guided you.
Another way of emphasizing your take-home message is to hint back to the beginning of your story and suggest how far your main character (or characters) have come. A reference to where they were in the opening scenes will highlight the impact of their journey. And if you have a tragic ending, try to leave an element of hope, even if it’s simply the image of your protagonist pulling themselves back up on their feet after they’ve been knocked down. The reality of life can often be bleak and we don’t have to shy away from this completely in fiction, but you don’t want to leave your reader completely dejected either. After all, tomorrow is another day.
The most important part of ending your story
I hope these hints help you find your way to a superb ending for your story but remember, the most important part of ending your story… is ending it. To prevent yourself circling around the maze of your manuscript, you must type your way towards the end, even if it’s a wobbly ending that doesn’t quite work. By getting to the final page you’ll be able to look back and see where the strands of your story could best lead. As I often say to the writers I work with, by getting a first draft written you’ll have something to work with, but you can’t work with nothing.
Get those words on the page, even if they’re sketchy and messy, knowing full well you’ll have an opportunity to go back and get it in better shape in the next draft.
And if you get to the end and still don’t know how to make that ending great, discuss your storyline with someone. See where they are engaged and where they lose interest. Ask them what kind of ending they’d like for the story. This doesn’t mean you have to listen to their suggestion, but often hearing what we don’t feel will work for our story allows us to realize what would work.
Good luck as you craft that great (rather than perfect) ending. When you type the words “The End”, make sure you celebrate. So many before you have failed to get this far—in fact, you may have failed to get this far before! Cherish the moment of finishing your draft, even if you know there’s more work to be done. You’ve made it to the end of this round. Now take a break and get ready for next.