By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)
“A novel is like a symphony in that its closing movement echoes and resounds with all that has gone before. … It is this closing orchestration that the novel exists for. If such a close does not come, for whatever theoretically good reason, we shut the book with feelings of dissatisfaction, as if cheated.” –John Gardner in The Art of Fiction.
If a story has worked, readers will have been drawn into the world created for the characters; they will have fully invested in that world. Because they have made this commitment, when they reach the last chapter, page, or paragraph, they will expect an ending that is clear, satisfying, and delivers on what the story promised.
If an ending is successful, readers should be left with a feeling of closure. This means that the central conflict and any subplots have been addressed. It doesn’t mean that every loose end has been tied up in a bow; nor does it mean that the ending has to be happy or be the one readers hoped for. However, if an author leaves a substory unfinished, perhaps to indicate how life goes on, or to set up a sequel, it should be clear that this was an intentional act. If a plot point is introduced and just left hanging, readers will believe the author has forgotten it. Readers should not be left perplexed about what happened to Great Aunt Harriet after they last saw her going to the store on page 172.
There should also be a sense of inevitability about the ending. In other words, readers should feel like this ending is the right ending for this story. Understand that knowing that the ending is the definitive one for the story is different than liking how things turned out on an emotional level. Readers can know that the author made the right choices for the story even as they are sobbing their guts out because the protagonist has met his demise. What shouldn’t happen, however, is that readers immediately start writing alternate endings in their heads because they just know they could have done it better.
Finally, readers should feel that what has transpired has some significance. Readers don’t want to feel like they’ve wasted their time on something completely trivial. One way an ending can disappoint is when it’s obvious. With few exceptions, readers shouldn’t be able to predict the outcome from the opening line—a great deal of the fun of reading fiction comes from not knowing how the story is going to turn out. Another disappointment is the non sequitur—the ending that appears tacked on, because the author either didn’t know how to end the story, or, for whatever reason, just wanted to wrap things up. For example, a serial killer is squashed by a falling piano, whereupon the murders stop, and the detectives in charge of the case quickly put two and two together.
How to end a story depends on both story length and genre. Some kinds of endings are appropriate for short stories, but not for novels, and vice versa: a twist ending to a novel will probably leave readers feeling ripped off, while an epilogue would be superfluous to a short story. Similarly, some endings are more suited to certain genres than others (see below).
When to end a story is almost as important as how. A story should not go on too long after either the central conflict has been resolved or it has become clear that no resolution is possible or readers will become bored and the ultimate ending will be a letdown.
Here are some ways to end a story. Note that the types aren’t mutually exclusive, and that in a longer story or novel the ending will probably be a combination of the types.
- Traditional Resolution: The story builds to the climax, where the protagonist either “wins” or “loses,” thus ending the conflict. The climax is generally followed by a denouement where the author explains what happened as a result and ties up loose ends. The length of the denouement should be proportional to the length of the story. Resolution endings can be “happily ever after,” hopeful (cautiously happy—good if a sequel is planned), or unhappy (though that’s rare in genre fiction—unless the main character is a villain). Common in genre fiction such as romance and fantasy, as well as mainstream fiction.
- Epilogue: An epilogue summarizes the future life of the protagonist and other major characters. The summary should relate a result or consequence of the story, not unconnected events. Because an epilogue generally follows a denouement, a story with an epilogue actually has two endings. Suited to both mainstream and genre fiction, but should be used with caution—often authors use epilogues to tell readers what would be better left to their imaginations.
- Circular: In a circular ending, the protagonist, who has been on a life-changing journey or quest, now returns home to tell the story. Often the final image/scene is the same as the initial one. A familiar ending in fantasy and science fiction.
- Reversal: In a reversal, the ending is the opposite of the beginning. The protagonist can start out with nothing and end up with everything; or conversely, start out with everything and lose it all.
- Train Wreck: Unlike most endings, with a train wreck there is no element of surprise to the reader. The protagonist’s life spirals toward an inevitable disaster that readers can see coming, but the protagonist can’t. Suited to meta-stories, where the author is making a statement about something and the surface story is a mere conduit.
- Twist: To be successful, the revelation must genuinely surprise readers, but it also must be logical and plausible in hindsight. It shouldn’t rely on coincidence or a random event. Trick endings are hard to do well; if handled clumsily, they can come off like the punchline to an extended joke.
- Puzzle: In this ending, a mystery is solved or explained. Usually the reader is enlightened at the same time the protagonist is, but sometimes the protagonist will remain in the dark even after the reader solves the puzzle. Suited to mysteries and thrillers.
- Bittersweet: Here the protagonist must make a difficult decision. It generally involves a choice: the protagonist must sacrifice one thing to obtain something else. This type of ending will work in a variety of genres.
- Open: In an open ending, the author may hint at what happens next or what the protagonist will do, but the final interpretation is left to the reader. Alternatively, the author may leave the protagonist with two equally plausible courses of action, and the reader must decide which the character chooses. Suited to literary fiction; also speculative fiction.
- Illuminating: There is no resolution in the traditional sense, but this ending does clearly indicate what will happen to the characters. This ending often feels abrupt on first read; readers may feel the story “just ends.” The implication is that life will go on as it has through the story. It’s meant to be a realistic depiction of what life is. Suited to literary fiction.