Have you ever turned the page in a book and been disappointed that you’re on the final one?
A good book can never take too long to finish. What makes a great book comes down to many varying factors, but a great ending can make or break the entirety of a book.
Knowing what kind of ending is best for your story is part of the responsibility and pleasure of being a writer. It’s up to you to play around with varying endings and choose what is best for your story.
While there could be many good endings for your story, there is only one best ending.
This guide to how to end a story covers:
- Elements of a good story ending
- Don’t break the tone or voice of your story
- Write an ending readers don’t expect
- Take your time, but not too much
- Reveal your ending, don’t tell it
- How to end a story that leaves readers satisfied step-by-step
- Examples of good story endings
- Need a little help?
You’ve probably read an ending that you couldn’t forget for days and even weeks after finishing the book. Maybe it was sad in the best way possible, it was comedy that you just couldn’t forget, it was a profound statement that has rolled in your head since, or the author revealed a plot twist you never saw coming . . . but somehow still made complete sense.
You’ve also probably read an ending that made you put the book down in frustration. For the reader, there is not much worse than a terrible ending. There’s nothing quite like dedicating hours of time to reading a book only to finally reach the finish line and be disappointed.
While bad endings are not fun to read, they can help writers know what not to do. However, it can be much more enjoyable to look at what makes a great ending and read through examples of great endings.
Writers are often encouraged to pour themselves into their opening line, paragraph, and pages.
It’s crucial for readers to maintain the same skill and dedication for their endings as they do for their openers. If an opener is about grabbing the reader’s attention from sentence one, page one, then endings are about keeping the reader’s attention. Satisfy your readers so well they think about the book long after they close it.
There are a few different types of endings. Traditionally, there is comedy or tragedy. Today you could end with a sad ending (tragedy) that hangs with the reader and makes them think. You could end with a twist that surprises the reader and leaves them stunned but pleased. You know you’ve done your job when a reader walks away saying, “I never saw that coming!”
Every book is different, therefore every ending will need to be different. Choose what’s best for you and your story!
When it comes to learning how to write a great ending well, let’s start at the beginning.
Elements of a good story ending
The elements of a great story ending vary depending on the genre that you write as well as the purpose of why you are writing.
If you write young adult science-fiction, your ending will incorporate different elements than if you write historical middle-grade fiction. The same can be said for nonfiction, sub-genres, etc.
However, there are some key factors that should be noted when deciding how to wrap up your previous 50-100 thousand words.
Don’t break the tone or voice of your story
First, if you’re writing middle-grade fiction from the perspective of a young, energetic child, it’s important to write an ending that fits his personality. Regardless of what your specific ending looks like, it should be portrayed through the eyes of your prospective character.
This does not mean that you should not include a dramatic character arc from first page to last. A great character arc is one factor contributing to a great story. If your character has changed from page one to the last page, that will be a great benefit to your story. Simply keep in mind the tone of your character, as well as the voice of your story.
Write an ending readers don’t expect
Second, don’t give your readers the ending they expect, but don’t completely surprise them in a way they can’t recover from. Plot twists and surprises are part of the fun of writing, but they should not be done so dramatically the reader can’t recover.
The reader should join the protagonist on the journey throughout the book, but they should still feel part of the same story at the last page. When you’re deciding what ending to include, brainstorm.
Whatever your first idea is, write it down, but don’t stop there. Go further. Think of a second idea. Then think of a third idea. Don’t choose the default ending. You’re the creative and you get to decide how to write a creative ending that both fits with your book but also satisfies your reader.
Take your time, but not too much
Third, ensure you give your ending the appropriate amount of time to tie up all the loose ends and give your reader a satisfactory ending. The reader should not feel whiplash closing the book. They should be able to discern that the story is wrapping up and the character has completed the quest, goal, or mission, and changed because of it.
Think of an ending as a goodbye between your character and the reader. Too short of a goodbye and your reader will not feel any resolution. Too long of a goodbye and you could negate the power of your ending.
Reveal your ending, don’t tell it
Readers read to imagine a story world in their head, not to be told what happens. The adage, show don’t tell, can be applied to your entire manuscript, but specifically to your ending.
While it may seem simple to sum up the ending of your fiction or nonfiction book by simply telling what happened, this isn’t fair to your reader.
They’ve invested their time in reading your book and now it’s time to pay off their investment by showing, not just telling, a memorable ending.
Give the reader time to enjoy their investment and sit in the payoff they’ve read the entirety of your book to reach.
Depending on your specific manuscript, a short epilogue may be necessary but ideally, you will want to show your endings rather than sum them up. This gives honor to the reader and their time investment, as well as demonstrates your writing capabilities.
Show your ending in a way that satisfies, then write that last sentence and let the reader go.
How to end a story that leaves readers satisfied, step-by-step
How to end a story depends on the genre you write. If you’re writing nonfiction, your ending will look quite a bit different than if you write fiction. However, fiction techniques are often applied to nonfiction. Both are a story, one is simply true and one made up.
Regardless of your genre, ending a story in a way that leaves readers satisfied is generally dependent on a few key steps.
It’s imperative to be aware of all the loose ends you need to tie up. Whether you’re writing a standalone novel or a series, fiction or nonfiction, make sure you leave the reader satisfied with answers, not asking questions.
Finalize your character arcs in a way that makes sense for your story. If you’re writing fiction, make sure your characters have grown in the appropriate way. If you’re writing nonfiction, make sure your protagonist, whoever that is, has had a successful character arc. Growth needs to be revealed by the last page, regardless of genre.
Write the ending you want to write. Many endings could work for your story. But there is likely one that is best and that you want to write. Write the ending you’re most passionate about.
Passion reads well.
Examples of good story endings
The following are some examples of great story endings. *Spoilers ahead!
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
“It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”
Notice the tone of the last lines. Your ending should reflect the tone of the rest of your book. This helps the reader feel that resolve, even on the final page.
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
“And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, every one!”
Notice which perspective character Dickens chose to use, and the optimism he ended with.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
“Are there any questions?”
This is an ironic way of nearly breaking the fourth wall and ending the story, while also inadvertently asking the reader: Do you have any questions?
The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah
“Wounds heal. Love lasts. We remain.”
Summing up an entire novel in six words takes talent. It gives credibility to what the protagonist has been through, shows the resolve at the end of the story, but alludes to the fact that long after the book closes, the characters still remain.
Atomic Habits, James Clear
“Tiny changes. Remarkable results.”
These four words are essentially the book idea boiled down to a motto. If you write nonfiction, try doing this for your manuscript.
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
“You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”
This is a fantastic summation not just of what the book was about, but the why behind writing it.
We Were Liars, E. Lockhart
“I suffer migraines. I do not suffer fools. I like a twist of meaning. I endure.”
Similar to the ending in The Nightingale, this ending calls out the plot twist while showing the growth of the character.
How Far You Have Come, Morgan Harper Nichols
“The questions kept me trusting the journey home was worth living for.”
Nichols’ entire book is poetic prose, and she stays aligned with the tone of her book by following the same voice all the way through the last line. She also leaves a touch of hope at the end.
As you read the above examples, notice the tone in each one.
They differ depending on the genre of the book, but many of them also include a profound statement.
You could end your book with a statement similar to one of the above: Narrative, inner monologue, or even dialogue as Atwood did.
Whatever method you choose to take, remember that you can always change it. All writing is rewriting and it is perfectly normal to edit an ending until it looks completely different than it did the first draft.
Some of the best endings have likely seen the most edits.
Best wishes on your ending and you make it shine!
Need a little help?
Check out our full Fiction Writer’s Handbook.
With 6 Lessons covering the fundamentals of fiction writing and how to lay out your book and story, this easy to use guide can save you a lot of heartache later on.