“This is the End – How to Write an Effective Ending”

Posted November 19th, 2011 in Uncategorized / 4 comments

I want to talk about endings. No matter if it’s short fiction or a novel, you have to have an effective ending. How we choose to end our work will change how our piece is perceived by the reader. But remember every reader is looking for something different, so you really can’t please everyone. Some like the open-ended wrap-ups, some want to cry their eyes out, and some just want to be satisfied with a happy ending.

Some of your endings will be determined by the genre of our work. In romance you will rarely see a sad ending. People read romance to turn the last page and feel happy that the couple got together in the end, no matter the many obstacles they faced.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, “The book was good but the ending ruined it for me.” Endings can be just as important as beginnings, which I will be posting about later. Once you have hooked your reader with a great beginning, you have to make sure to leave the reader satisfied with the ending.

As some of you may know, I have been attending the Inlandia Workshop. We just recently had our last class and we learned about endings. I was thrilled to learn some things I had never heard of before. And so I want to share these great insights on endings with my followers.

There are six common types of endings you will come across as both a reader and a writer:

  1. Explicit ending – This is the ending that wraps everything up and answers all the questions. This ending will frequently tell what happens to each of the major characters, and is usually very satisfying in its completeness. Particularly well suited for novels (over short stories), when using this ending, it is especially important to watch for plot holes and missing clues. Example: Watership Down by Richard Adams.
  2. Implicit ending – If you like an ending that is strongly based on interpretation, then you like implicit endings. These endings are more common in short fiction. An example is The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clark.
  3. Twist ending – As the name implies, this ending is unexpected or twisted. As a writer, everything you’ve led your reader to believe gets thrown out at the end, and is replaced by a new revelation when well done. If done poorly, your reader will feel cheated. The TV show The Twilight Zone was known for it’s twist endings.
  4. Tie-back ending – This ending ties the end of the story back to clues planted in the beginning. The example provided in the endings class is the short story entitled The Star by Arthur C. Clark, where the story opens with what the main character’s conflict is and ends with why.
  5. Unresolved ending – In unresolved endings, the main conflicts are left unanswered, such as in The Lady, or the Tiger by Frank R. Stockton. The reader is left to ponder the outcome. Cliffhanger endings would also fall under this category.
  6. Long view ending – These endings tell what happens to the characters in a significant time frame into the future. An example is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling, which ends telling who married whom, who had kids, etc. out into the future.

I also found the following types of endings and the examples very helpful. Though the examples are a little simple and sappy, they help none-the-less:

To illustrate the several types of endings, let’s imagine we already have written a story with the protagonist John, antagonist Edward, and a third conflict-causing character or love interest, Millicent.

Hollywood Ending: This is the happy ending where the hero will get the girl or win over a villain and bring peace to the planet. Into John’s eyes filled the light from the flicker of the Christmas decorations when Millicent handed him a glass of eggnog. “Edward is gone for good,” she said.
John put the eggnog on the table and led Millicent by the hand, until he stopped her under the mistletoe.

Ironic Ending: This is the bittersweet ending when the hero may win with a loss with a sort of Pyrrhic victory or may win in losing. Sometimes, stories in literary and mystery genres use this type of ending.

“I can’t stay with you with all the ugliness,” Millicent said, tears bursting from her eyes and stinging her vision. “So much hate, so much blood… No one is left from my family, but here’s the computer chip I took from Edward before he died. You can have it for whatever it is worth.”
Like a famished desperado, John grasped the chip and ambled into the headquarters. Just before entering the building, he turned back to capture one last lovely image inside his memory, Millicent unlocking her car door.

Tragic Ending: The hero loses and the antagonist wins or they both die, but even if the conflict is resolved at the hero’s expense, the argument in the story idea is confirmed.

Edward lay rigid on the cold tile his eyes wide open, staring like two glass beads at the ceiling. He was dead.
John, too, was on the ground, bleeding. He uttered his last words. “We did get him. He won’t hurt anybody anymore.”
Millicent sobbed, buckling down at the threshold.

Surprise Ending: The surprise lies in a twist or a revelation that changes the understanding of the trajectory or the spirit of the story. If skillfully carried out, this type of ending is the most successful.

“I find it hysterical that you were so mistaken,” Millicent chuckled, unlocking the trigger. “I now know you, the district attorney of the Cayola County, were the real thief who stole Lady Ashley’s diamond. But a significant fact escaped you, the fact that Edward is my husband, not Lady Ashley’s.”
John bent his head, waiting for the gun to fire. Never in his life, had he suffered so much fear, even after having sent several people to their deaths.

Vague or Undefined Ending: This is when the story is left open-ended, leaving the reader imagining what could happen. This type of ending is not very effective with most genres, except for horror.

“Now that Edward is resting in eternity, are you going to come back?” John reached out for Millicent. Millicent, however, faded away into the fog, waving good-bye.
John turned around and trudged away from the graveyard, not noticing Millicent’s slender outline of a ghost following him. 

Hey, don’t look at me. I didn’t write those endings. I warned you they were a little sappy and let’s not forget the info dumps, but they get the point across. There are many ways to end your novel, some are text-book and some are original, but with either one you choose what really matters is making it unforgettable and interesting. There are also some general tips in writing endings I want to share:

– Make the ending logical. It should flow with the rest of your book.
– The ending should deliver as much emotion as the rest of the book did. The reader should be feeling the same emotions as the main character.
– The ending should fit your genre, so do your research.
– Resolve all sub-plots by the end.
– Actually end your book, or make it a trilogy. Too many loose ends without a second book to answer the readers questions is just annoying.
– Try to make the ending come naturally based on the characters you created and tone of your work.
– Finish with a strong sentence. One that either has meaning or portrays a picture.
– Make sure to convey some character development by the end.

As writers, we can choose to end our story any way we damn well please. But you can never forget your readers either. You must make the ending memorable, so that your readers will remember your writing long after putting it down.

References on Workshop handout:


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4 Responses to ““This is the End – How to Write an Effective Ending””

  1. Lisa

    I ended my novel with a poem. I went back and forth on it, but I decided that since there were 4-5 poems written my my character in the book, she could write a hopeful poem (because the others are dark, depressing poems).

  2. J.D. Mc Glacken

    Hi Jennifer. I love this post and really enjoyed reading it. It’s given me a lot of food for thought and for a while there, I thought I was on a diet ; ) Thanks! J.D.

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