Nothing beats a really satisfying ending. Nail your ending and the reader will shut your book with a smile on their face and an eagerness to find out what else you’ve written. But execute your ending poorly and you’ll leave them with a sour taste in their mouth and earn yourself unflattering reviews. Endings matter.
It’s not enough to come up with a clever climax scene. The ending of every good story is the result of everything that led up to it. In planning your stories, you should be planting seeds on page one that will come to fruition in the final moments.
If you fill the story with intriguing promises to the reader, character choices that resonate in the world, and multiple arcs which will come together in the finale, you can create an ending which is meaningful, satisfying, surprising, and feels earned. You want your readers to go, “Oh my gosh! No way! That’s nuts!” Then hours later when they’re lying in bed and thinking back on the story, they say to themselves, “But of course, it had to end that way!”
There are a lot of questions to consider when trying to pull this off. How much foreshadowing do you include? Do you end it in the middle of the action or wait until things have calmed down? How much should the characters have changed by the end? How much can you surprise the reader with a clever twist without losing their trust?
Some authors actually start by planning their ending and work backwards from there. Others outline heavily and know exactly how the story will conclude before they even begin writing. Then there are those who just start typing and see where the story takes them. If one of these approaches works for you, great! But regardless of how you approach your planning, prepare to tweak and revise to make your ending perfect.
Always take into consideration the type of story you’re writing and your intended audience. With some genres, there are automatically going to be specific reader expectations when it comes to an ending. Your romance readers want a happy ending. Detective novels should end with the mystery solved. Epic fantasies needs a big, bold, magical battle. That’s the general rule anyway, and though there are always exceptions and wiggle room, understand that marketing your book in a specific genre is promising the reader a specific experience. Break that promise, and you’re going to annoy a lot of readers.
Be prepared to make changes to the plan you had in your head. Your characters and the choices they make during the story shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. They need to impact—and be impacted upon—the story world around them. Be ready to follow the logical consequences of the events in your story to create a believable ending.
Set It Up
Great endings don’t happen by accident. All the foreshadowing, the buildup of tension, and the rise and fall of character arcs and relationships must be laid out properly to come together at the right moment.
There should come a point in your story where the main character or characters face a choice, and deciding to go on pushes them past a point of no return. At this juncture, the ending—some ending, anyway—becomes inevitable. Make sure the reader knows that the choice will have consequences and what’s at stake for the character.
Depending on the story you’re telling, those stakes might be objectively high (an asteroid is going to destroy the Earth!) or subjectively high (“I’ll ask my crush to the dance and they might say no!”). Whatever is at stake, it should matter to the character. If it doesn’t, then it definitely won’t matter to the reader.
There are usually two different types of stakes: the external stakes (surviving, winning a contest, saving the world, etc.), and the internal stakes (becoming friends, gaining self-respect, accepting a call to greatness, etc.). In some stories, there are also philosophical stakes, wherein the character must learn a lesson (altruism trumps selfishness, community matters, find a balance of individualism and conformity, etc.). Typically, the climax of each of these subplots should come together as close as possible at your ending. We’ll discuss how to do that next.
When All the Pieces Fall into Place
One of the most famous endings in modern storytelling can be found in the 1980 film “The Empire Strikes Back”. The film actually has two main climaxes, one external and one internal.
The external story arc is about resisting the Galactic Empire. It reaches its apex when Luke duels Darth Vader. Meanwhile, the internal story arc deals with Luke’s emotional struggles about becoming a jedi, fighting the Empire, and his desire to save his loved ones. These emotional stakes go off the charts when Luke learns that Darth Vader—the embodiment of everything evil about the Empire—is actually his own father.
Both these endings are powerful in and of themselves, and we can easily imagine them being given their own independent scenes, but instead, the screenwriters put them smack dab together. Lightsabers swing and flash, Luke’s hand is sliced off, and just when you think things can’t get worse…
”I...am your father.”
By having the external and internal arcs collide in the ending, the impact of both is multiplied. It’s an emotional punch that the audience won’t forget. That’s the power of a simultaneous climax. In many stories, this technique will be the most effective way to bring your arcs to a close, especially in shorter works where there simply isn’t time for another separate scene.
There are however times in which trying to wrap everything up at once becomes too much, especially in longer novels or at the end of a series. For example, in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”, Harry’s internal arc (sacrificing himself to help defeat Voldemort and give magical protection to his friends) reaches its conclusion two chapters before the external arc (actually defeating Voldemort) does. Rowling didn’t feel the need to rush the ending after seven books with intricate plots, and giving each arc a separate scene allows the reader to process what was happening. One climax leads to the other.
This is, by the way, one reason why the climax in the film version of “Deathly Hallows” is so much weaker than the book. The movie adds an action fight between Harry and Voldemort after Harry’s internal arc has ended. This added climax is pointless. It adds nothing, because at this point Harry has already won, internally. There are no consequences to that action scene. And if you’re writing any part of a story—especially at the finale!—that has no consequences to the plot, that is sloppy writing.
The Calm After the Storm
Occasionally, the climax of the plot occurs on the last page, but more often than not, your story will require some return to downtime after the dramatic finale. Readers want to see that the status quo has changed, they want to witness firsthand the consequences of your character choices and the way the journey has changed them. Otherwise, what was the point?
Sometimes it’s enough to simply hint that things won’t be the same. Other times you want a full-blown life-changing Ebenezer Scrooge-style reversal of character and tone, from “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” on page one, to “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city knew” on the final page.
The amount of time you spend on this last bit depends on the type and length of your story.
In short stories or some shorter novels, you might merely infer that things are going to start to change. Other times, you need a full-fledged chapter or two to establish the new status quo.
Not every story needs an M. Night Shyamalan-level twist, and in some genres, a major twist might even be considered cheating. Nobody wants to reach the end of their feel-good romance paperback with the wedding dress on the cover, only to discover that a speeding train strikes the couple’s car as they drive away from the church, splattering blood across the words “Just married”. (And if you would have loved that scene, great, but then you’re not the target audience.)
But in almost all stories, you want to at least surprise the reader in some ways. Find a creative way to deliver even an inevitable ending. Or if you do simply give the reader the ending they wanted, do it with an emotional intensity that they didn’t expect. The ending has to wow! them in one way or another.
If you do wish to do a big-time twist, an Earth-shattering revelation that force the reader to contextualize everything they’ve read up to that point, go for it! This can be super fun and make endings totally unforgettable, but it’ll probably take some trial and error to get right. You usually want to lay subtle clues throughout the manuscript so that the twist doesn’t come completely out of left field. Fine-tuning these clues can be easiest with the help of alpha readers. Ask them when they first guessed that something big was going to happen. How did the twist make them feel? Typically, you want the average reader to figure out the twist either right as it’s revealed or maybe a page before. Some readers are going to guess it earlier and some will have no idea it’s coming. That’s fine. But you don’t want most readers to either guess it very early or be very confused when it happens.
Epilogues and Appendices
The meal is done, dessert included. But sometimes, you just gotta have that after dinner mint.
With both epilogues and appendices, the chief story you’re attempting to tell must already be wrapped up. These additional sections should act as separate pieces of your world. Sometimes they’re used to build interest for sequels, add to the themes of your story, or just to throw out some fun supplementary information for the fans. But when creating the plot arcs of your story, the ‘ending’ needs to take place in the final section or chapter, not in the epilogue or appendices.
Most books do not include either, though it is not unusual to see a short epilogue at the end of many genre novels. Appendices are most commonly included in epic fantasy.
Some books also end with an author’s afterword, acknowledgments section, or an appendix of terms to help the reader. The decision to include any or none of these comes down to the desires of the author and the publisher.