Eventually, the story must end.
The writer’s challenge is finding the right place to stop. So, where should we end our tales? What kinds of endings work or don’t work? And what techniques can help us prepare for a satisfying conclusion — or fix a messy one?
”But no, he would not give in. Turning sharply, he walked towards the city’s gold phosphorescence. His fists were shut, his mouth set fast. He would not take that direction, to the darkness, to follow her. He walked towards the faintly humming, glowing town, quickly.”— D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers
This ending sucks… but why?
According to an interview in the Paris Review, Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending to his classic novel A Farewell to Arms 39 times because he was “getting the words right.”
Most often, a weak ending is not about getting the words right. It’s a symptom of a larger problem with the story, and fixing the final scene may not help.
Beware of endless tinkering.
Instead, take a look at the rest of the story. Does cause and effect drive the main character’s arc from one logical scene to the next? Do the scenes support the story’s central question or theme? Have you fulfilled the promise to the reader, addressing the story question you raised at the beginning, or have you sidestepped the big conflict?
Let’s take a look at some elements that make an ending good or bad.
”Presently the wind began to blow and we struck out seaward to double the long sheltering headland of the cape, and when I looked back again, the islands and the headland had run together and Dunnet Landing and all its coasts were lost to sight.”— Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs
The do’s of ending a story
At the end of a story, the character’s transformational arc must reach its logical end. What happens after this, we can’t predict. The character has pursued the story question as far as it can go, and although the future may be full of challenges, they don’t relate to the central question you set up at the beginning of your story.
A few tips on endings:
Mirror the beginning
According to Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey, Western and especially American culture prefers circular stories, where the ending is closed (I have my doubts; more on that below). In technical terms, a closed ending benefits from mirroring.
On the surface, the final image can be nearly identical to the opening image, or some element can be repeated. The repetition can be the setting or a piece of dialogue or an action or particular words. Even an object.
Whatever the repetition is, it should serve to measure the transformation that has happened since the story began. For example, in stories where the main character goes on a journey and then returns, home may look no different, yet her transformation has been profound, and she sees the familiar in a new light. The reader, having seen her change, also experiences it differently, and that makes her transformation tangible.
Fix the beginning
If your ending works well, but you feel your opening is weak, look to the end for inspiration — rework the beginning to mirror the end. That’s what’s great about revisions: the end of the story can teach us what the beginning should be.
Hint at the future
The story’s central question has been answered, but that transformation sets the characters up for a new reality. Give us a hint at what that reality may be. This might even be a flash forward or the characters anticipating what lays ahead.
In Cormac McCarthy’s bleak novel The Road, the ending doesn’t resolve the cataclysm the characters are enduring. The world is still broken. But the characters arrive at the end of their journey, and there is comfort and hope.
In Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog,” we end with a new question being introduced that points to an uncertain future:
”How? How?” he asked, clutching his head. “How?”
And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.
Chekhov gives us a single sentence hinting at the future, allowing the reader to imagine what happens. We shouldn’t do much more. Resist the temptation to turn the ending into an epilogue that summarizes everything about what happens to your characters in the future. These epilogues invariably drain the strength of your narrative.
It’s OK to leave your reader guessing about what may happen after the end. In fact, it’s ideal. End the story so that it continues in the reader’s imagination.
Cut the ending
In the first draft, overwriting can be helpful. By writing too much, we discover details about our characters that bring them to life. But in revision, we need to cut the fat off the bone. Less is more. Trim so there is room for the reader’s imagination to expand. Often, endings are overwritten, and you’ll need to cut the last line. Or the last paragraph. Or the last scene.
”They made them march in single file along the walkway. Funny! He had turned up his collar like the others! And he had forgotten to look at the window, he had forgotten to think. He would have all the time in the world afterward.”— Georges Simenon, Dirty Snow
The don’ts of ending a story
Avoid trick endings
Trick endings suck; well-earned twists don’t. Avoid endings where the story reveals a surprise that was not foreshadowed. For example, the narrator or main character has dreamed the entire thing, or she’s not human (she’s a robot, alien, cat, etc.) or she’s dead.
A twist is not a trick. A twist requires meticulous setup. When it works well, it is so deeply embedded in the story’s theme, narrative structure, and plot question that the surprise at the ending feels shocking, inevitable, and well-earned, in equal measures. See, e.g., the book Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk or the film The Sixth Sense by M. Night Shyamalan. In both examples, there are clues along the way and, most importantly, the twist reveals something about the characters, their transformation, and the answer to the story question.
Traditional mysteries rely on a twist at the end: the killer is not who you thought it would be. However, as dedicated mystery readers will tell you, there is such a thing as “fair play.” You must not withhold a key piece of information until the last minute. That’s cheating. If we look back on the story and see no logical trail of clues leading to the final twist, then it’s not a twist, it’s a trick.
“If it was not for death and marriage I do not know how the average novelist would conclude.”— E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel
Drop the deus ex machina
Another type of trick is the deus ex machina. It’s Latin for “god out of the machine,” and it comes from ancient Greek drama, where actors playing the gods could be lowered onto stage by a machine to provide a last-minute solution to conflict. Even back in Ancient Greece, it was considered lazy writing. It still is. Basically, because it allows the writer to sidestep complications and wrap up the story without doing the tough work of pushing the plot to a hard-earned conclusion.
Some examples: the hero is surrounded by aliens, but right before the long-fanged worms can sink their teeth into him, the army turns up and blows them to pieces; the sadistic kidnapper, who has made the heroine’s prison impossible to escape, has a heart attack, allowing her to get the keys and escape; a flood or earthquake or hurricane wipes out the opposition, resolving the protagonist’s troubles.
Fantasy stories seem especially vulnerable to deus ex machina, perhaps because mythical creatures (like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Giant Eagles) and magic spells are such convenient devices for getting characters out of trouble.
Aristotle seems to excuse it in stories that end with misfortune — presumably because intervention by the gods only heaps more disaster on the tragic hero’s self-inflicted misery. In general, however, you should avoid deus ex machina — it tends to break the willing suspension of disbelief and leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth.
If there is a moral to grapple with, allow space for the reader to engage with it. Raise the moral quandary, but resist providing an easy answer. The most powerful stories leave us with some ambivalence, even if rationally we know the “right” answer, it’s clearly not a tidy solution to the story problem.
Let’s say the main character must learn that a friendship can be as rewarding as romance, and that she ought to treat her friend with the same respect and attention she heaps on her lovers. The character arc in the story could show us her journey, from neglecting her friend as she chases lovers to prioritizing their friendship at the end. But maybe this happy ending comes at a cost. She regains her best friend, even as she postpones her dream of marrying and establishing a family. As readers, we’ve been rooting for the two friends to reconcile, and we’re pleased by the ending. Yet, we also sense that part of her life remains unfulfilled. The story arc has been resolved; her life hasn’t.
At the end of the story, the writer might be tempted to have the character reflect on her decisions and what she has sacrificed. Maybe in dialogue with a secondary character. If it’s a first-person narrator, the protagonist might even engage in interior reflection, effectively telling the reader what she’s gained and what she’s lost, and why her choices are right. Maybe the writer has an ideological reason for wanting to favor the Platonic over the romantic, and so the ending becomes an opportunity to step up on the soapbox and lecture about it.
Please, don’t. A true dilemma requires a character to make a sacrifice, and that sacrifice will make her story powerful. Show the dilemma, the character making the difficult choice, and the imperfect outcome. But if you tell us why it matters, we’re likely to throw your book across the room.
Did you notice my reference to show and tell? Yes, the old writing advice about showing instead of telling applies here. As with too much telling in a draft, moralizing is often a symptom of overwriting. Cut out all the stuff about learning life lessons, and you’ll probably have a much stronger story on your hands.
This is the end
A few final words on endings.
“Reading a piece of fiction that ends up nowhere — no win, no loss; life as a treadmill — is like discovering, after we have run our hearts out against the timekeeper’s clock, that the timekeeper forgot to switch the clock on.”— John Gardner, The Art of Fiction
As I mentioned above, Vogler claims that “closed” stories are more popular in the West, in particular in American culture, while the rest of the world prefers “open” endings. That sounds like a gross oversimplification to me. Hollywood’s blockbusters have closed endings, and audiences across the globe flock to see them. Agatha Christie mysteries have closed endings, and the Queen of Crime has sold well over two billion copies worldwide, making her the best-selling fiction writer ever.
Anyway, my examples and tips above focus on closed endings. A deeper dive into open or ambiguous endings must wait for another time.
But let me say this now: The ambiguous ending must, like the plot twist, reflect the structure and theme of the story. If an otherwise straightforward, kitchen-sink-realism novel simply ends mid-sentence, the reader will feel cheated. However, a narrative that has prepared us for fragments, ambiguity, or interruptions may deliver an unresolved ending that feels surprising but inevitable — and provide great pleasure for the reader.