Let’s take a simple example. Suppose your story centres around a startling event like a murder. Should the murder be solved? If you’re writing a cosy mystery, yes. If you’re writing a political thriller or a police procedural, you probably have to solve the murder, but it’s not mandatory. If you’re writing a contemporary or experimental novel, you might not present any concrete answers about the murder—you might use the event to explore other questions.
So if you’re struggling to identify what your ending should be, the first place to look is the genre expectations. All stories provoke curiosity and raise questions. That’s what keeps the reader’s attention through hundreds of pages. Your genre is characterised by where you direct that curiosity. What does your reader care about most? Solving the puzzle and restoring order? Studying relationships where there are no easy answers? Picking apart the structures and flaws in society and our power systems? Identify your ideal reader’s pleasure and what the genre implicitly promises, then use your ingenuity to fulfill it in an original way.
What Do All Good Endings Have?
But there are other considerations—especially if we’re writing a story that doesn’t have such strong conventions, where anything goes. One rule of thumb for effective endings is that they have two general qualities: surprise and inevitability.
Let’s break those down.
Surprise is an interesting quality here. A good ending will essentially contain an element of the unpredictable, even if there are certain tropes that must be obeyed. If lovers are to get together, you must make the reader yearn for it while convincing them the obstacles are so great that failure is more likely than success. At the same time, the solution mustn’t come out of the blue or the reader will feel cheated. Somehow, you make it surprising—while laying careful groundwork.
Almost all surprise endings seem fair when you look back. This means the writer needs to use misdirection; while we stack the odds so that the true ending looks impossible, we must also plant clues so the reader accepts the solution when it’s unveiled. This is one of the hidden arts of the storyteller: making twists and revelations seem reasonable rather than randomly invented. A good ending is seeded carefully throughout the story and the reader doesn’t realize … until you’re ready to reveal your hand.
And that’s how a surprise can also be inevitable. It’s a nice emotional chord composed of two complementary tones—a pleasing complexity for a story’s final note.
But What If We Know What Will Happen?
What if the major story outcome seems obvious? If it’s clear that, for example, that all the characters are going to die, how will you give the reader something surprising? Well, that surprise might be a new emotion. For example, Nevil Shute’s On The Beach is about the last survivors of a nuclear war. It’s only a matter of time before the radioactive winds catch up with them and they die. The end is obvious on one level. The surprise is in how the characters face their deaths and how the reader feels as they witness them. The true journey of the book is how the characters face and accept the inevitable with courage, and it only becomes apparent in the final scene. This moment, when it comes, is very satisfying and moving for the reader.
This leads me to another quality of a great ending. It will do more than answer puzzles, knot the loose threads and confront the problems. It has a quality of thoroughness and closure—a feeling that nothing more can be said. Perhaps the monster is vanquished, if not in a literal sense, then metaphorically. Perhaps the heroes will be happier. Perhaps they have more self-knowledge, which may be a comfort but could also be a burden. Eva, the mother in Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, is left picking over the debris of a long and terrible battle. Her husband and daughter are dead. Her social status is ruined because her neighbors—and indeed the entire country—blame her for the deeds of her son. In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the schoolboy Ralph, rescued from the island, weeps for the loss of innocence.
Also, keep in mind that tying up all the loose ends is optional. If you’re writing a story that aims to go deeper than the events, perhaps you don’t want to finish or explain everything. The movie Insomnia ties up most of its physical threads; it ends when the case ends. Morally, though, it is anything but neat. The characters leave the story with unfinished business and nagging burdens—and this is its true power. It is the toll paid by those who have to deal with murder. The viewer carries it too, as a sharer of this experience in all its ambiguity. The story plays fair, but it deepens the human mystery.
Stories don’t always have to give us answers. Sometimes the questions they give us are as important. That question might be an epiphany, so the reader’s last thought is, I’ve suddenly seen. THIS is what the writer is showing me.
Instead of slaying their monsters; our characters might discover they are monsters themselves. The jealous, obsessive central characters of Josephine Hart’s Damage and William Sansom’s The Body end their stories having discovered their own true depths.
Tips for Effective Endings
If you’re wondering how to end your novel, consider the following tips:
- Consider the must-haves of your genre, and use your ingenuity to tick those boxes in an original way.
- Do you have any loose ends? Do they add depth or do they make the story seem unsatisfyingly incomplete?
- If your story events are quite predictable (e.g., it’s obvious the characters must die) should your ending emphasize their journey rather than the literal destination?
- Have you missed the main conflict? Give your manuscript to a trusted reader and ask what the main question is and whether you’ve tackled it. Sometimes we don’t realize what we’re writing about until an astute critic identifies it for us.
- Have you planted the seeds of your ending early in the story? Even though an ending should have an element of surprise, it shouldn’t seem random. The earlier you include a hint about the question that will be answered at the end, the more satisfying and rounded the story will be. If you’re tempted to add a new element to bring about the ending, look back through the story and see if there’s something else you could reuse or extend, and your ending will seem much smarter.
- It’s sometimes a good idea to write on past the ending. You might make surprising discoveries—perhaps you stopped the action too early or the characters will make a more fundamental and resounding change if you let them riff a bit longer. On the other hand, I see quite a lot of manuscripts where the writer carries on too long with the characters, perhaps because they don’t want to let them go. If the pace is flagging at the end, it could be that the story finished earlier than you suspected and you need to speed up the leave-taking.
A good ending will usually feel like a settling, a sense that there is a new order. The last scene of The Wings of the Dove by Henry James has a line that is a fine maxim for any story ending:
We shall never be again as we were.
If you’re planning an ending to a situation in which there is no obvious solution, end when there has been a substantial and irreversible change. This is a good compass point to follow.
Roz Morris is an award-nominated novelist (My Memories of a Future Life; Lifeform Three), book doctor to award-winning writers (Roald Dahl Funny Prize 2012), has sold 4 million books as a ghostwriter and teaches writing masterclasses for The Guardian. She is the author of the Nail Your Novel series, with books on writing process, characters and plots. She has just published a collection of narrative non-fiction, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction. Find her at her website and on her blog.