How to End a Book: A Final Guide to Finales
Reward your audience’s dedication to your story with these helpful story-ending tips.
Recently, we explored how you can begin your book to the best effect. And beginnings are important, don’t get me wrong. If your first chapter doesn’t hook a reader, they won’t be around for your crazy plot twists near the end of the book. But for me, the make-or-break moment for a good story is its ending. You don’t want a reader feeling slighted, throwing your book across the room because of that final page, do you?
I’ve had too many cases of getting utterly invested in a great story, only to arrive at the finish line feeling cheated and unhappy. It was going so well! What happened?! Maybe the final chapter was too short, or plot threads felt unresolved, or there was something wrong with the tone. Whatever it was, it pulled me out of the story right when I should feel most immersed.
That being said, there are some books with perfect endings that I’ll never forget. These endings leave you sitting there, staring at a wall, thinking, “now what?” I end up daydreaming about these endings, re-reading the last lines over and over again, happy to watch my favorite characters walk off together into the mysterious future beyond the page.
So, let’s talk finales, conclusions, and last words. Here’s what you need to know about how to create a satisfying, interesting ending that will make your book memorable.
What an ending needs to accomplish
So, to write an ending, we have to know what an ending needs to accomplish. Because this is a story, and we tell stories for a reason.
In real life, things just…end. They finish when they finish, whether that’s a “good” place to stop or not. In stories, however, endings are usually one of if not the most important part - the payoff for investing so much time with a narrative. Think of how many times your reading experience has been ruined by a bad ending or saved by a good one! Endings are the curtain call for these characters we’ve come to love; they’re a last chance for us to observe and empathize with them before they go back to their lives and we go back to ours. First impressions may shape what a relationship (even if it’s fictional) looks like, but last impressions shape how we remember those relationships, and so a story’s ending needs to leave readers satisfied and content to have engaged with the story in the first place.
To be satisfying to readers, endings should, to some degree or another:
- Resolve the main conflict(s) of the story
- Change and develop the main character(s) in some important way
- Ease us out of the tension and suspense in the storyline
- Give us something that we don’t fully expect or understand
These points make it feel like the stories we’re reading are important, and like they were worth our investments of time as well as mental and emotional energy.
Different types of endings
Now, of course, not all endings are built alike, and the degree to which you do any of the things listed above changes depending on the story that you’re crafting and the structure that’s led us to the ending itself.
Let’s say for example we’ve got a very classic hero-goes-to-save-the-princess story. Here are a few different ways you can end it.
A full resolution, or a resolved ending, does exactly what it says on the tin - it completely resolves all of the conflicts, subplots, character arcs, and plot points brought up in the novel, tying everything up in a neat bow. This kind of ending is common in kids' books, standalone novels, and some classics, especially those that cover heavily moral stories.
In our example, this would mean that our hero and his princess return safe and sound, the villain roundly defeated and either dead or imprisoned. We are explicitly told that the hero and the princess get married, have two kids, and live happily ever after because good conquered evil. The textbook happy ending.
A no-resolution or unresolved ending is pretty much the exact opposite of a full resolution in that our story ends with most of the major questions still unanswered and one or two big mysteries left to solve. This is a great tactic for books that are part of a series, where the audience can expect to find their answers in the next book. It’s also a great way to end a story that isn’t meant to have a moral, or in which the moral is simply that the world is uncertain.
So, for example, our hero might not find the princess, having come across her place of capture and found it completely empty. If we’re setting up a sequel, we might find clues that she’s been moved somewhere else, or that she was never there to begin with and is instead somewhere completely new.
An ambiguous end of a story is when the story leaves off with something but doesn’t directly explain what that something is, leaving it to the reader’s mind to interpret what happened and come up with an answer that suits them. It often answers most of the big questions and mysteries of the plot but leaves what happens next up to the reader. This is a great ending for stories that have big moral questions they want to explore but not offer a direct solution for, and for stories where the journey is more important than the outcome.
Our hero in this case might find the princess but do so just as her tower is collapsing. In an effort to save her, he may push her out of the tower just as it crumbles on top of him, and our next shot is of someone waking up in the rubble. Is it the princess? The hero? Did they live? Did one of them die? We’re not told, but it can be fun to theorize based on the clues we get.
Twist endings, or unexpected endings, happen when an element of the story comes out of left field and surprises the audience. Now, that doesn’t mean that this has to be a completely new element - foreshadowing is a really good idea! - but it does mean that the clues to it were subtle and don’t follow the usual conventions of the story’s genre. This is great for series, as it leaves room to introduce new big bads late in the game, and for mystery books, where the whole point is to figure out whodunit and not get stumped (fans of Agatha Christie are very familiar with this kind of ending).
What if, in this example, our princess wasn’t captured by the dragon, but is the dragon? She’s run away to try and keep the kingdom safe, and so in coming to find her, our hero has both revealed her secret and doomed either her or the kingdom.
Cyclical or “tied” endings bring the story around in a full circle, ending right where they began. This might be literal - returning to the same place and nothing much has changed - or figurative - characters or settings take up the roles of previous characters or settings. This is a great tactic for stories whose moral revolves around life cycles or patterns, and for stories where inheritance is a big player.
So, our hero saves the princess, but what if she’s incredibly unhappy in her palace? She explains on the way back why she left, but the hero has a duty to fulfill, so he brings her home. Still, seeing how unhappy she is, he can’t leave her there, and he steals her away again in the night, leading to another hero being tasked with bringing the princess back all over again.
Expanded endings are also called epilogues, and they’re one of my favorites to write. These are little vignettes of your characters or setting after the end of the story that give more context to what happened and what the long-term effects were, even if they don’t explain everything. I appreciate these because they offer a sense of closure, of “all was well,” to stories that might otherwise have been hard to bear.
In our example, we might get an epilogue from long after the hero and the princess are gone, of a teacher explaining to her students why the hero was so important and how he was honored by the princess for the rest of his days, and why the princess’s child was named for him.
How to set up your ending
So once you’ve figured out what kind of ending you want, you’ll need to set that up. Ideally, you’ll have some kind of plan for your ending before you ever start writing your first draft. That way, your story ends up cohesive. Realistically, you might have no idea where you’re going until you get there.
So, if you’re coming to the end of your story, even if you don’t have a proper plan for everything, there are a few things you can do to set it up so that it looks like you knew what you were doing all along.
Figure out what you want for your characters
The most important thing about an ending is that it gives your characters something important - either what they want or what you want for them. So, you need to know what that thing is! Here are some questions you might ask:
- What has this character been fighting for throughout the story? Can you give them that thing? Would it be right for them to get the thing, or would they learn more from not getting it?
- What is this character’s dream ending? Would it make sense for them to get it? Can they get something from it without getting the whole thing?
- Does this character represent a specific concept or idea? How would that best be conveyed?
Figuring out what your character wants versus what you want for them can help you give them a satisfying ending.
For instance, say you’ve got a story about a girl who’s running from her destiny. She’s spent the whole story fighting for a chance to make her own decisions, but it’s really important for the story that she actually does complete her destiny. So, you might have her realize that she can complete her destiny her own way and still live her own life in the meantime.
Some advisors call this a point of transformation. It’s basically the point of your story; why were we watching this character? What changed about them from the beginning of the story to the end, and why was that important?
You’ll want the ending to be satisfying for everyone involved, which leads me to the next point…
Have a plan for your arcs
Yes, you can definitely get away with writing by the seat of your pants if you’re smart about it, and that means, at the very least, having some idea of how your major story arcs are going to play out.
Arcs, as a quick refresher, are the larger plotlines we follow for both the story as a whole and each individual character. For example, in the Harry Potter books, a story arc is the rise and fall of Voldemort’s movement in the wizarding world - we watch this play out over the entire series - but a character arc is the fall of Gilderoy Lockhart - we watch this play out over the course of one book, and get minor callbacks to it later. A story arc is big and involves lots of different characters, while a character arc is smaller and usually revolves around one character and their personal growth or development.
Arcs are named because of the rough shape their stories take. We start at the bottom, rise up with tension and reveals, hit the top of the arc with a massive reveal or decision, then come back down for the resolution. Your endings should have most or all of your arcs on that last downward slope.
Tie up the important loose ends
Of course, the ending is usually the place where you’ll want to make sure you’ve got everything the reader might have questions about resolved or at least addressed. Yes, this means resolving your arcs and individual character stories, but it might also mean addressing little things that have gone unanswered.
Whatever happened to this particular item? Where did this side character end up? Who’s taking over this important role? Did this terrible law change? Go back through your book and look for points that you started talking about and didn’t finish, and address them in your ending - even if it’s just to recognize that, no, you don’t get to know what happened to that thing.
This is where beta readers come in very, very handy! Beta readers will inevitably point out something that you’ve forgotten about and ask questions about loose ends floating around in your story world. Take that feedback to heart and incorporate it into your writing, especially if you’re having beta readers go through your work as you’re writing it!
Leave us with some mysteries
Look, I know I just said that endings are where you wrap everything up in a neat little bow, but that’s not strictly true. In a good ending, there’s always going to be something left up to the reader’s imagination. I’m a big proponent of the idea that reading is a conversation; if you leave nothing at all for your reader to solve, then it’s like talking to that one guy who won’t let you get a word in edgewise.
It’s okay for there to be little mysteries at the end of your story. Will the hero and the princess get together? Will the kingdom actually do well under new leadership? What happens to the bad guy’s henchmen after the bad guy dies? This kind of thing makes great speculation material for fans.
Things to avoid in endings
Ending a novel the right way is hard, but not ending it the wrong way might be harder - it’s relatively easy to accidentally create an ending that won’t make anyone happy. That being said, as long as you know what to look out for, you can avoid common writing pitfalls when it comes to endings.
So, here are some top red flags to steer clear of.
Cutting things off too quickly
Cliffhangers are fun, but there’s a huge difference between a legitimate cliffhanger ending that brings an element of surprise while remaining satisfying and an ending that is simply unfinished. Even cliffhanger endings sum things up to some degree; if your readers are left looking for extra pages that aren’t there, you’ve cut the story off too short.
To avoid this, make sure that you’re sticking to one element of surprise and shock and giving the rest of the story time to resolve. That way, the audience’s focus goes to that element, and not to unrelated loose ends.
Dragging things out too long
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the last point, it’s very easy for endings to stretch on far too long. Conventionally, your last chapter should be shorter than most of the other chapters in the book, especially if it’s an epilogue. You’re giving just enough information to the audience that they know the story is closing out - you don’t need to write the entire life story of your characters from the end of the adventure onward.
Try to make the very last chapter of your book, after the main conflicts resolve, into something of a “where are they now” section - give us an overview of what happens next, but let us imagine the details of it all.
“It was all a dream”
This is by far my least favorite cliche ending of all time: suddenly revealing in the last chapter that everything we as readers experienced was a dream and wasn’t real in any way to the characters we’ve grown to love. The “it was all a dream” ending essentially invalidates the entire story preceding it - if it’s all a dream, why should we care about any of the characters, their struggles and triumphs, or any of the development that happened because of them? There needs to be a weight of consequence to what happened in the story. Otherwise, your readers may feel that they’ve wasted their time on the experience.
There’s a caveat to this one, though: dreams can be a good way of adding ambiguity to a story if it is established early on that the entire plot may be taking place in a dreamscape, and if there is some question left as to whether or not it really was a dream or something more. If you build the idea of the world existing in a dream into the plot early on, then it won’t feel like pulling the rug out from under your audience later, and it may lead to an interesting consideration of what it means to be real and whether the things we imagine can be important to us.
Drastic changes in tone
It’s fine to want to give your characters a break, but going from an incredibly depressing battle scene where the characters have just lost dear friends and had to kill to survive straight into a celebratory banquet where everyone’s laughing is…to say the least, slightly jarring.
In the ending of your story, you’ll want to keep the tone consistent with the rest of the book. Make sure that your characters remember what they’ve been through and feel the consequences and rewards of it in equal measure. This helps keep your audience immersed; it’s more realistic for us to see characters responding naturally to their circumstances rather than being arbitrarily made happy despite their trauma or sad despite their victories.
Characters and plots that come out of nowhere
One big thing to avoid in your conclusion: bringing in characters and plots that seem to come out of nowhere. Nobody likes a last-second deus ex machina that quickly solves the story’s main plot conflicts. The general advice for this is that you shouldn’t introduce anyone new or any new plot into the story in the last 50 pages or so - everyone there and everything happening should be at least somewhat familiar to the reader. Introducing anything this late means that your reader doesn’t get a chance to know what they’re looking at or who they’re following, which can break their immersion and make it difficult for them to feel satisfied by the ending.
To avoid this, you can foreshadow earlier in the book. This is especially important if you’re doing a character reveal; make sure that their existence in the world is mentioned, even in passing, earlier on so that it makes sense for them to appear in the ending.
The ending to an endings tutorial, eh? I better make this good.
Endings are the part of a story that can sometimes feel the hardest for the writer, on both a technical and emotional level. You’ve just spent all of this time creating a world, filling it with characters, and watching the lives and dramas of those characters play out as you chronicled their escapades. Maybe you’ve been working on this story for weeks, months, or even years - by this point, you know this cast inside and out, and you’ve probably grown to love them. You of all people want to give these characters a solid, satisfying ending, whether that’s happy, sad, or somewhere in between.
You know your characters best, so at this point, the best way to write your ending is to trust your gut and get writing. You may have to do some revisions and technical work, but if you’re in the headspace of your story, you’ll probably have a good idea of how to make your ending interesting and appropriate. Keep these tips in mind; ask the right questions, answer those questions, and trust that you know your story well enough to see it through to the bitter or beautiful end.