10 Ways to End a Story

10 Ways to End a Story

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

Last month, we looked at 10 Ways to Start a Story. Let’s flip that around and consider 10 ways to bring it all to a close. For many writers, the ending is as much a challenge as getting those first few words when they begin. And for some writers, it’s even a greater challenge.

But make no mistake. Just as how you start a story is vital, how you finish is equally important. Getting to “The End” can’t disappoint or frustrate your reader — whether you wrap it all in a nice neat bow or leave the reader in contemplation, your ending should work with the whole story. Consider these 10 approaches to see how each one affects the end of any story. We’ve given examples and have done our best to avoid spoilers.

1. Back to the Beginning (Circle or Frame) Mary Shelley’s gothic horror novel, Frankenstein, begins as Dr. Frankenstein is rescued in the Arctic Sea by an obsessed ship captain. The driven doctor recognizes the captain’s obsession, so he shares his story of creating the Frankenstein Monster to warn him how he came to be there, chasing his monsterous creation to the North Pole. An equally creepy modern title to check out for this approach is Fight Club.

2. Implied Ending (Walk into the sunset) Many western genre stories end with the protagonist and companion “riding off into the sunset” and presumably to live and face another day, side by side. This kind of can be a fine example of show, don’t tell. An implied ending can be ambiguous. For example, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers offers readers the sound of water in a bathtub to set a kind of closing mood that could be “sorrow or gladness”. Our narrator chooses to think he and his brother are likely safe; the reader is not so certain.

3. Sequel (We’re baaaaack) Oh, there are so many sequels out there — trilogies, series, cross-pollination (think the Marvel Universe), prequels and so on. The good news is that writers who have long, complicated stories (The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games) can separate them into connected standalone novels. Remember, however, standalone is key. The end of each of The Lord of the Rings trilogy had to satisfy its readers, while at the same time enticing them to read the next book.

4. Open-ended (Choose your own ending) with Frank R. Stockton’s 1882 story The Lady, or the Tiger, readers must decide at the end what choice the princess makes; will she choose to let her lover be devoured by a tiger or let him live in arms of another woman. It’s a question that has troubled readers for over a century. And not a bad way to get your story to keep your readers thinking. And thinking.

5. Twist (Surprise!) A variation on open-ended conclusions, this approach builds on expectation. Author O. Henry was a master at this form and The Gift of the Magi is one of his most memorable tales when a wife’s and husband’s love and sacrifice at Christmas — surprise! — both negates and honours each of their gifts.

6. Happy Ever After (smiles all ’round) Of course, romance stories are supposed to end in this same way: girl gets guy or girls get guys (as many of Shakespeare’s romance plays end)… romance is all about love.  And there are many forms of love — girl gets girl or guy gets guy — but not all of them sexual. And happy ever after doesn’t need to even centre around a romance. Indeed, once Gretel pushed the witch into the oven, she and Hansel reunite with their remorseful father and live, we are certain, happily ever after.

7. Mirror (architecture echo) It was the worst of times and the best of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities starts off with a 119-word long opening sentence, a description of duality echoing the conflicted chaos of the French Revolution. But he doesn’t end it the same way. He echoes the basic architecture of the opening comparison but with a short and tight finality that makes clear that this is “the end” of the story and of one of the characters. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

8. Lesson (Pay attention and learn) Aesop’s Fables are all written with a moral lesson endings — that fox never gets the grapes and is sure they’re just sour anyways. Many fairy tales also have a moral or a lesson, sometimes it’s just implied like Goldilocks:  Goldie, don’t go in strange houses or Red Riding Hood: Red, don’t talk to strangers and for Pete’s sake, Hansel and Gretel, don’t nibble on strange houses.

9. Reveal (Elementary, my dear Watson) A classic ending for mystery or thriller novels, the protagonist (dogged detective or amateur sleuth or unjustly accused victim) pulls together all the clues, red herrings included, and dissects them one by one. The final clue, the moment of ah-ha, is delivered with a flourish and the reader remarks either, Gosh, I didn’t see that one…or…I knew it! The point you need to remember is to be clever and careful; today’s readers don’t expect Sherlock Holmes’ genius and acute observation skills.

10. Epilogue (Fortune teller reveals all) At the end of Offred’s narration in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it isn’t 100% clear on whether protagonist Offred is being arrested or, as she believes, in the hands of an undercover resistance member on her way to freedom. However, there is an epilogue that helps us decide on that question — and gives us more information about the time in which Offred lived.

No matter how you end your story, remember that it is always a story that the reader wants. A great story will pull your reader along to the end. So a clever and creative ending will make little difference if what comes before it lacks energy, doesn’t have compelling characters or loses its way to reach that ending

And for now, that’s got to be The End.

Write The Elusive End

Write The Elusive End

Ruth E. Walker

Oh, the love affair of writing the novel. The first blush of an idea. The rising heat as you pound out page after page of an unfolding story. You don’t want it to stop.

You constantly think about your novel, about your characters, your plot, your wonderful, endless possibilities… Until you find yourself without an ending.

Yeah, End-less: Your sense of dread when you need to finish your novel but there is no ending in sight.

Or End-less: Your sense of disappointment with an ENDing that is LESS than satisfying.

Poet and playwright Y.B. Yeats referred to the ending of a poem like a “click”:

The correction of prose, because it has no fixed laws, is endless, a poem comes right with a click like a closing box. (1935 letter to Lady Dorothy Wellesley)

While I might argue with him that prose indeed has many fixed laws for its “correction”, I’ve always liked Yeats’s idea of a “click like a closing box.” In my opinion, not just poetry needs to possess that “click” at the end.

No matter the issue, if you come to the end of your novel with a whimper instead of a bang, or at the least, the lovely satisfying “click”…your readers will be unhappy. And nobody wants unhappy readers.But if you’ve written a great beginning, do you need to give the same focus to the end? Prolific crime novelist Mickey Spillane said:

Your first chapter sells your book. Your last chapter sells your next book.


Spillane’s not talking about sequels. A wise writer remembers that a disappointing or weak ending will undo all the joy your reader got at the beginning.

So what inspired this post? I’m working on the ending of my novel. I have three written (or at least, sketched out.) One tragic. One that leaves room for a sequel. And one that ends more positively. I’m undecided but I feel that I’m getting closer to the right ending. To help me work through the possibilities, I did some exploring on what a good ending needs. I’m sharing some highlights here:

A good ending needs:

To show change
  • Growth/change in your POV character is a common expectation for readers. But you could have a POV character who is “static” and remains unchanged right to the end. In that case, your reader must somehow be changed, have a new/deeper understanding of the impact of that character’s lack of change.
To be inevitable
  • This is not the same as predictable; no reader wants an ending that has been hinted at in every chapter since page one. And no reader wants deus ex machina endings with the ‘gods’ suddenly appearing and fixing everything.

To read something brilliantly written with an inevitable yet often unexpected ending, check out any of Alice Munro’s stories. I can re-read one of her stories and still get that yummy satisfaction from an inevitable, but often surprising, end. Munro’s “Dance of the Happy Shades”, about an uncomfortable children’s piano recital, has a masterful and quietly profound ending.

Not to be afraid to be unhappy
  • Who doesn’t want a happy ending? But if Romeo and Juliet ran off and lived to a ripe old age, how memorable would that be? Theirs was an “inevitable”, if tragic, ending. We may want a happy ending, but our lives (and some good stories) don’t always comply. And really, they are often better stories if the ending is not all rainbows and sugar plums.

In sum, a good ending needs to be satisfying for the reader…and for the writer. Whether it is a “click” at the end, or a sunset being ridden into with the future uncertain, a good ending needs to make sense. But how do you know if you’ve written the right ending?

In a later post in The Top Drawer, we’ll explore techniques and tips for knowing when you’ve achieved the best possible “The End.” Hopefully, by then, I’ll have found mine.

Did you know:

From endings come new beginnings. Writers in Ontario (and beyond) learned at the Ontario Writers’ Conference that it would be the last such gathering. Gwynn, Heather and I were so sad to hear that. We’d been at every OWC since its launch in 2006. But then the OWC announced an exciting new start. It wasn’t ending after all, just changing format and exploring how to offer writers its signature networking and education opportunities in new and exciting ways.

While it retools, OWC is still holding its monthly Story Starters contest, using images to spark the imaginations of writers. There are prizes to be won and bragging rights to add to your bio, so check out Rich Helms’ quirky and fun image and enter.