When it comes down to it there is really only one rule about writing a good ending for a story: the ending you write has to fulfill the promises you made during your story.
The much tougher part can be coming up with an ending that succeeds in doing that. I think as authors we all want that amazing ending that not only satisfies the reader but makes them think about what they read and remember it years down the line.
Sadly, I can’t tell you how to write the perfect ending, but I can give you some tips about things that will make the ending of your story work. I will leave the creative and artist decisions that make it truly stand out to you.
1.) Don’t Leave Any Questions Unanswered
Throughout your story, your job as a writer is to raise questions (i.e. conflicts). But by the end of the story, the reader should have a satisfying idea of how the primary plot and any/all subplots conclude. You don’t have to wrap up all or any of them with a fancy bow, but the reader shouldn’t look back and be entirely unsure of how things turned out.
It’s okay for the reader to wish he could see the protagonist and love interest get married when the story ends well before that, but it’s not okay for him to have to wonder about whether or not the romantic subplot you were writing actually went anywhere and whether or not the characters even liked each other at the end.
The only times I think you can break this rule are a) if you plan to write a sequel or b) if you are ending the story with an even bigger question posed to the audience (think Inception or Total Recall). But even in that last case, all of the plot lines you present should be wrapped up.
In the case of Total Recall we know that Doug Quaid has defeated his enemies and stopped the plot to destroy Mars. The question of the story is whether or not he could do that. At the end of the story we are left to wonder if what we saw was real or a simulation, but that’s a question posed to the audience after all of the other issues in the story have been resolved.
2.) Don’t Provide Any Easy Outs
The ending should reflect the choices made and actions taken by the protagonist. This is the character who drives the events of the story, and your ending needs to reflect this. So to that end, don’t give your protagonist any easy outs.
Stories are most rewarding when we get to see how a character’s journey impacts the decision he or she makes at the climactic, defining point of the narrative arc. What the character decides to do should make sense according to his or her growth throughout the story, and in turn the ending should follow logically from that climatic point.
If you give your character an easy out that lets him or her circumvent that critical tough decision, then your ending is going to be weak. Everything that happens should line-up with your protagonist’s choices, and those choices, especially the climatic one, shouldn’t be easy.
3.) The Ending Should Make Sense Tonally
If your story is a comedy, you probably don’t want to end it with some really bleak scene where are of your protagonists are killed. I’m not saying a comedy can’t end in death, but you have to make sure that it doesn’t become tragic or bleak. The genre of your story creates a promise to the reader in and of itself, and you have to make sure that you live up to it.
There are some exceptional cases here. For example, perhaps your comedy has a tragic ending as part of a meta commentary on life that you’re making. If that’s the case, okay, but you have to be aware of that going in, and it has to be done intentionally. Even then, it can be difficult to pull off, so I’d only go down this route if it’s essential to the point of your story.
4.) Give Your Readers Something to Think About
This is a slightly more stylistic piece of advice that isn’t absolutely necessary, but I think you’re ending will be better if you don’t tie everything up super neatly. You don’t need to pose that big question the way that Inception or Total Recall do, but I wouldn’t hand feed your readers everything that happens. Let them imagine what comes next so that they stay in the world, even after the book is done.
For all I love about Harry Potter, I actually thought this was an area of weakness for the series. I didn’t need the little epilogue at the end of Book 7 that told me a lot of things I could have pictured on my own. I think the story should have ended up a quieter moment, perhaps right after the Battle of Hogwarts, that let me ruminate on what happened and where the characters were going on my own.
Bonus! Notes on Different Types of Endings:
Note that twist endings still follow the rules I outlined above, and they still must very much fulfill the promises you make during the course of the story. What a good twist ending does is recontextualize those promises. The reader will be going through the story thinking certain promises are being made to her, but when she comes to the twist, she should be able to look back and realize that she got what she was promised all along, even if she didn’t realize it.
The reason that Deus Ex Machina stories don’t work is precisely because they don’t follow these rules, and they don’t fulfill any of the promises made during the story. Any conclusion that comes too far out of left field is going to be frustrating for the reader.
As I alluded to in the first section, being vague in your ending is fine. You can imply what happens to your characters without going into detail about it, or you can leave your audience to speculate on their fate. But you still need to answer all of the major questions in your text.
I hope you find these tips helpful. Are there any you think that I missed? Let me know in the comments. Thank you for reading, and I’ll catch you next time!