Imagine this: you’re reading a thrilling, breakneck story full of deep thematic resonance and memorable characters. The plot is powering towards its climax, and you’re clutching the pages as the clock beside your bed careens past one o’clock in the morning. And then—! The book suddenly grinds to a puzzling, disappointing, and ultimately unsatisfying halt because the writer didn’t know how to end a story the right way.
Don’t be that writer.
Knowing how to end a story is one of the most important, yet undervalued, skills in a writer’s toolbox. Let’s look at why a satisfactory ending matters and how to find the right ones for your own stories.
Why is the ending of a story important?
The ending of a story matters because it’s the final note that the reader will walk away with. Your story’s ending shows the reader what to feel as they leave your story world behind and return to the real one, what lessons to learn from and incorporate into their own lives, and what to expect from you, the author, as they wait impatiently for your next book.
Knowing how to write a good story ending is the key to “closing the deal” with your reader.
How are story endings connected to genre?
You might have noticed that some of your favourite books end in the same way. If you read a lot within the same genre, you might even be able to predict the ending before it happens! This is because certain literary genres come with predetermined expectations based on the patterns we see most often.
You don’t have to use the classic ending for your own story, but it’s good to have an idea of what your readers will be expecting when they open your book. Familiarising yourself with their expectations will also help you subvert them in new, creative ways.
Here are some of the classic literary genres you’ll see most often, and the endings that usually go with them.
1. Romance endings
In romance novels, we’ve been conditioned to look for happy endings. From the opening scene through all the clever plot twists and machinations, everything in the book is working towards a happily ever after for the two romantic leads.
The protagonists go through their own character arcs as they discover more about themselves and their relationship with the world, but ultimately they’ll end up doing pretty okay by the story’s conclusion.
This doesn’t mean you can’t challenge genre norms and give your main characters a bittersweet ending or leave their love story unresolved; however, in this case you might end up moving away from writing a traditional romance and towards something more like literary fiction (we’ll look at that below too).
2. Mystery endings
The golden rule of mystery novels is “expect the unexpected.” If the story you’re writing follows a clear, logical path from start to finish and lays everything out for the reader, they may come away with a frustrating experience. Mysteries and thrillers will be filled with plot twists that keep readers turning pages to find out who done it, or why.
These types of stories aren’t a great match for open or unresolved endings. Even though the reader wants to be surprised, they also want to know exactly what happened and what’s going to happen next. Did the murderer go to prison, escape, or die trying? Did the protagonist uncover the truth and bring the criminal to justice?
There is no right or wrong answer, but the answer does need to be a definitive conclusion rather than something left to interpretation.
3. Horror endings
Horror novels are more flexible than mysteries. They might have a happy or unhappy ending; they might answer all the remaining questions, or they might leave some open to keep the reader mulling things over after the book is closed.
Horror stories are particularly well-suited to ambiguous or unresolved endings. You’ll probably recognise this in some of your favourite horror films or TV series finales:
The heroes finally defeat the monster and celebrate with an extra-cheesy pizza and plans for the future they now have. In the corner of the screen, the dirt where the monster was buried begins to shift ominously. Roll credits.
By leaving a few lingering questions, you make a lasting impression on your reader.
4. Tragic endings
Tragedies are defined by their sad ending. Unlike mysteries, which are filled with twists and turns, the tragic ending should feel inevitable; the hero, through their own weaknesses or choices, brought it on themself.
Tragedies have fallen somewhat out of fashion in contemporary literature (probably because they’re kind of a downer to read), but Shakespeare loved writing them. These types of stories are designed to teach us something about human nature and what happens when we let our weaknesses control us.
Tragedies might use a resolved ending or an implied ending, leaving the final conclusion of the story to happen off the page.
5. Literary endings
Really, all fiction is “literary.” But when we say “literary fiction,” we usually mean books that are marketed as “contemporary,” “women’s fiction,” or realistic historical fiction. This type of story tends to be introspective and thematic, and is suited to both long-form novels and short stories.
In a short story, you generally won’t have the space to flesh out an ambiguous or unresolved ending. These are best suited to a circular ending—for instance, if your story begins and ends in the same location (we’ll take a closer look at circular endings below!)—or a clear ending that show how your main character has undergone some personal transformation.
If you’re writing a novel of literary fiction, you have more room to play with ambiguous, unresolved, or extended endings—so long as they support the broader theme you’re trying to communicate through the work.
We’ll look at all of these types of endings in more detail below!
What about sci-fi and fantasy?!
We didn’t forget, don’t worry! But science fiction and fantasy are actually more marketing genres than literary genres—they tell a reader to expect elves, robots, sorcerers, portals to other worlds, etc, etc. But, they don’t tell you much about what to expect from the plot. You can have a fantasy novel that’s also a romance, mystery, horror, tragedy, or literary story.
Travis Baldree’s Legends & Lattes is a good example of a book that subverts expectations by cramming every possible high fantasy trope into a work of literary fiction.
This means that a sci-fi or fantasy book can comfortably close with any one of the seven story endings we’ll look at below.
7 different ways to end a story
When it comes to figuring out how to end your story and tie up its lingering loose ends, there are a few different paths you can take in your writing. Let’s look at the different types of endings in stories you’ll find throughout literature, so you can find the perfect ending that works best for you.
1. Circular ending
Sometimes called a tie-back ending or a full circle ending, a circular ending brings the story “full circle” back around to where it began—with subtle differences that show how your characters have grown within their world.
Most stories that follow the Hero’s Journey story archetype have a circular plot structure with a tied ending. The protagonist goes on a grand adventure, learns and experiences new things, and then returns to the life they once had, but changed.
In larger works, such as a novel, your circular elements might be a place where your story starts and stops, a thematic idea that your protagonist was working to understand at the beginning of the story, or a metaphor that has taken on new meaning.
2. Resolved ending
Sometimes called a “tied ending,” a resolved ending ties up all the loose ends in your story. Shakespeare was a big fan of resolved story endings; so was Jane Austen. Romance readers have grown to expect a resolved ending, which usually involve everyone living happily ever after (except the villain, who slinks off into obscurity).
Your resolved ending doesn’t necessarily have to be a happily ever after, but it should give the reader a sense of conclusion and fulfillment. For now, at least, everyone’s story has reached its finish line and there’s nothing left to say.
This means tying off all your artfully crafted subplots, addressing all of the dramatic questions raised at the beginning of the story, and ensuring that any lingering secrets have been laid to rest. If your main characters deserve a happy ending, this is the moment they finally reach it.
Giving your story a resolved ending doesn’t mean that your characters’ lives won’t go on beyond the last page in the book. It means that this particular chapter of their lives has come to a close, and now they can embrace a blank slate from which to begin a new one.
3. Unresolved ending
Unresolved story endings leaves loose threads so that the story can continue after the book is closed. This is especially popular with books in a longer series. When you end your story on a cliffhanger, your readers remain engaged with your story until they get a chance to read what happens in the next installment.
Even when you use an unresolved ending to close your story, it should still have that essential sense of completion by the end. You wouldn’t finish the whole story the way you’d finish a chapter. By the time you reach the ending to a story, the major, central conflicts of the plot should be resolved and your players should reach a resting place between battles.
However, an unresolved ending will leave some questions unanswered, and raise new ones about the future of your characters and their world. It’ll always give the reader the feeling that the story continues after the last page.
4. Ambiguous ending
The purpose of an ambiguous ending is to make your readers think. Like an unresolved ending, ambiguous story endings leaves some lingering questions at the end of the book.
The difference is that with an unresolved ending, the reader needs to wait to get the answers from the writer later on. With an ambiguous ending, the readers can reflect on the story and look for answers within themselves.
The best ambiguous endings offer two or more equally conceivable possibilities. For example, your story may end with a separated couple agreeing to meet for coffee. The readers are left wondering: Do they get back together? Or do they get the closure they need so they can move on? Both are within range, and it’s up to the reader to decide what they believe the real truth to be.
Ending the story ambiguously is also a great way to bring your readers together. It will make them want to compare ideas in forums, discussion groups, or with friends. Ambiguous endings engage the reader in a creative and cognitive way.
5. Unexpected ending
Commonly known as the “twist ending,” this ending gives the story one dramatic, final turn as it reaches its close. This works like a literary sleight-of-hand—you tell the reader, “Look, here, at this perfectly incongruous hat!” while your story mechanics are working to create something much more powerful and surprising.
Even though your story ending may be unexpected, it still has to make sense within the world you’ve created. This means laying the groundwork in bits and pieces through plot, character, and setting in a way that slips beneath the reader’s notice, but that they can easily refer back to in their memory so that everything makes sense as they consider the unexpected ending of your story.
This type of ending is the cornerstone of mystery novels. Through genre convention, readers have grown to expect a twist ending that will shock and delight them, but in a way that feels like a natural progression of the story. Done skillfully, the unexpected ending can pack a huge emotional punch and secure you a fan for life.
6. Expanded ending
Also known as an epilogue, this is a second, smaller story built out of your story’s ending. This gives the writer space to explore what happens after the story’s close, and to address any last questions the readers may have.
Do the hero and heroine ever see each other again after they save the world? Does the little girl really grow up to be a doctor like she always wanted? Does the misogynistic young pilot ever grow out of his flaws and become a better person? These are all things that you may not have space for inside your story, but you still want to share with the reader to give them a fuller understanding of your story world. An expanded ending will give your readers the answers they’re craving.
The expanded story ending gives your readers a little more time with your characters before they have to say goodbye. As readers, we understand that their story goes on even after our role of observer has ended. The expanded ending isn’t meant to be a resolution to your plot, but rather a window into what the next chapter of life holds in store for the characters we’ve grown to love.
7. Reflective ending
A reflective ending happens when the protagonist is able to look back at their experiences and consider them through the lens of their growth over the course of the story. They may ask themselves, “Was it really worth it, in the end? Did I do the right thing? How different does the world appear, now that I know the things I do?”
This creates one final, intimate connection with the reader as they explore these ideas together.
This reflection might happen if the character is looking back at an event from their youth, or if their circumstances have changed dramatically through the events of the plot. This type of ending is popular in fantasy and science fiction—for instance, if the character returns to the “real world” after a period of intense fantastical experiences—as well as in creative nonfiction, where the author may be reflecting on some formative events in their real life.
How to find the ending to your story
Now that you know the seven major ways to end a story, how do you decide which one is right for you? Knowing how to end a story is one of the most important steps in finding your story’s trajectory. Let’s look at three ways to write a story ending as you work through your plot from its opening scene to its powerful last lines.
1. Start with the end in mind
Many writers begin with an idea of how their story ends, and build their plot around it. This is particularly true for murder mysteries, where many writers will identify the crime they want to write about, and then form the rest of the story around clues leading up to it.
In other genres such as romance you may have an idea of where you want your characters to end up, and then you’ll spend the rest of the time figuring out the best ways to bring them there.
Starting with the end of your story already in mind is useful for keeping your writing on track and not getting pulled away from the story’s path. You already know that your characters are going to end up together, that they’re going to find the buried treasure in the end, or that they’re going to vanquish the forces of darkness that have risen up against them.
Knowing where your story is going to lead takes away some of the pressure, so that you can enjoy maneuvering your characters through obstacles and life lessons before they reach the finish line.
2. Match your ending to your character arc
Since all story is born out of character, part of your story planning will involve looking at the ways your character is going to learn and grow over time. Often, this will help you see where they need to end up.
For example, if your protagonist is avaricious and sacrifices his relationship with his family to excel at his job, you may decide that by the end he’ll need to have shuffled his priorities and learned the value of what really matters in life. This creates a natural character arc to carry your story from beginning to end.
In a romance, you may have a character who has spent their life disenchanted by love after watching their parents’ messy divorce. Therefore, a natural ending to their story may be that they learn how to avoid their parents’ mistakes and take a chance on a healthy, happy relationship.
By exploring what your character needs, the inevitable ending to their story will become clear.
3. Let the ending surprise you
Some writers find they work best if they explore their story as they write. As in life, the events of a great story may be things we could never have predicted.
As you move through the events of your plot, you may find that your characters take on a life of their own and pull you in directions you didn’t expect.
The great thing about this method is that you can be as fluid as you like; no one ever said you have to write every page in the proper order. As you discover new things about your story world and get a clearer and clearer idea of what the ending is going to look like, you can go back into the early stages of your story and lay the groundwork.
If you decide to incorporate an unexpected twist into your ending, or the people you had planned on ending up together wound up being completely wrong for each other after all, you can return to earlier scenes and gently shift things around so that your ending looks like a natural progression of everything that came before.
Neil Gaiman famously (and wisely) said, “The process of doing your second draft is a process of making it look like you knew what you were doing all along.”
Go out with a bang or a whisper, but go out the right way
With so many different ways to end a story, and so much riding on your story’s big finish, deciding how to end a narrative can be a little intimidating.
Knowing how to write a good ending is essential in finding success as a storyteller, but fortunately, we’ve got your back. With these tips, tricks, and examples, you’ll find that figuring out how to end a story can be the most fun and rewarding part.