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 the ending of a story matters and how to find the right one for your story.
Why is the ending of a story important?
The ending of a story is important 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.
7 different ways to end a story
When it comes to figuring out how to end your story, there are a few different paths you can take. Let’s look at the different types of endings in stories you’ll find throughout literature, so you can find the story ending that works best for you.
1. Circular ending
Sometimes called a tied 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. The protagonist goes on a grand adventure, learns and experiences new things, and then returns to the life they once had, but changed.
You can use themes, settings, literary devices, or turns of phrase to link your beginning to your end and create a circular story. This is sometimes called the “Bookend Effect.” In a short story, it’s an almost foolproof way to give the reader a sense of completion. For instance, you could open with your main character coming in out of the rain, and then close with them snuggling under the covers listening to the rain fall. The image of the rain “bookends” the story and makes the reader feel they’ve reached a satisfying conclusion.
In larger works, such as a novel, your bookends can be a place where your story starts and stops, a thematic idea that your character was working to understand at the beginning of the story, or a metaphor that has taken on new meaning.
2. Resolved 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. Readers of the romance genre have grown to expect resolved endings, 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 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.
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
The unresolved story ending 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 one.
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 entire book 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 characters 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, the ambiguous story ending 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 reader 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. 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 as they consider the ending of your story.
This type of ending is the cornerstone of mystery novels. Through genre convention, readers have grown to expect an 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 reader 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.
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. This 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 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 beginning to end.
1. Start with the end in mind
Many writers begin with an idea of how to write an ending for their story, 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 go. 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 your earlier pages 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 story 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.