I don’t know about you, but the ending of the book is always a bittersweet moment.
On the one hand, you’re sad to leave this imaginary world and its inhabitants. On the other, you’re excited to see them triumph.
It’s this bittersweet feeling that we want to instill in our readers.
And if you don’t want that bittersweet ending, you’re going to have to lay the groundwork for an unexpected plot twist or move your readers to tears or laughter. No matter what you do, you need to leave your readers feeling fulfilled at the end of the tale.
Today, we’ll cover the different types of endings that you can use for your own story and some things to keep in mind as you write.
** Please note that this post does contain spoilers. **
Things to Keep in Mind When Writing Your Ending
Writing your ending isn’t all that difficult if you keep the following tips in mind:
- Don’t introduce new information. It’s the end. The story is finishing. Nothing new should pop-up. Your book could be part of a trilogy, but you still shouldn’t introduce anything new. It’s not cool. Readers like endings because of their finality.
- If you do have new information, foreshadow it. The second Hunger Games book tells reader that things in Panem are uneasy. So when the tributes are rescued, it’s not a big surprise.
- Foreshadowing is your friend. Readers don’t really like surprises if they can’t figure out how you came to your ending. Leave hints and clues throughout your book that point to the actual finale.
- Write with your ending in mind. From Jerry Jenkins: “How you expect the story to end should inform every scene, every chapter. It may change, evolve, grow as you and your characters experience the inevitable arcs, but never leave it to chance.”
- Don’t forget your hero. We’ve been through lots with your protagonist throughout the story, don’t forget to include them in your ending. Your character must act upon what they’ve learned and be present in the moment, or that scene will feel hollow.
- Rework until it shines. Don’t be afraid of doing the hard work. Rewrite or come up with better and better endings until you have something that makes you get emotional.
- Hope. No matter what type of ending you go with, you need to leave some element of hope. Yes, the story is over, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t leave some note of purity in your novel. Even a book where everyone dies has a little bit of hope to it.
Ideas to Ponder: Endings for Your Story
The ending has an enormous impact on how (and if) readers will remember your book in years to come. If they are dissatisfied, they probably won’t reread it or share it with others. While the first sentence hooks a reader’s attention, the end will determine if they turn from a reader into a fan.
Thankfully, you have many great ending ideas to choose from. So let’s look into some of the ways that you can end your story.
Ending with an Unreliable Narrator
Here’s a question for you: “Is the narrator reliable?” You’ll often hear this question asked in a university class setting.
The first person narrator is always somewhat unreliable because we only get the thoughts and opinions of just one person. It’s the same with third person limited perspectives. No matter what point of view you use, there will always be a grain of doubt about whether we’re getting the full picture, creating the opportunity for an exciting and thought-provoking finale.
This approach can keep readers guessing as they try to figure out what’s going on. If done correctly, readers are shocked by the shift in perception when the unreliable narrator’s true nature is finally disclosed. In other words, the unreliable narrator is a great way to introduce a plot twist.
And to make things even better there are five types of unreliable narrators:
1. The Innocent, Unknowing, or Misunderstood.
Who is included? Children, adults with developmental disabilities, and anyone who came from one culture and is plunked down in the middle of another.
Why? Because children, people with lower than average intelligence, and those in a new environment aren’t always capable of interpreting what they see or hear in the same way that full-functioning adults do.
For example, a character might not know some vocabulary or cultural references, or miss the meaning in nuanced repartee. Another character may understand a word’s denotation but not its connotation. They may report the words but not the intonation, missing cues that identify sarcasm or irony.
We see this a lot in The Big Bang Theory. We have Raj, the foreigner, who does not get most of the cultural references. Sheldon does not pick up on the social cues and sarcasm that many of us would’ve picked up on.
Although the rest of the group can be accused of this as well in certain situations. (I.e., Leonard and Penny’s relationship is usually in jeopardy because the two fail to communicate effectively.)
We also saw this in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout does not always interpret what’s going on around her correctly and draws conclusions based on her limited experiences. In the end, we find out who Boo Radley is and why he’s not who Scout thought he would be.
2. The Guilty.
Either you feel at fault or are at fault in this category. The narrator may be lying to protect and preserve whatever they have or think they have. Or the narrator is an actual criminal.
An example of this type of narrator would be Humbert Humbert from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Lolita. Within the opening page, Humbert admits that he is a criminal and that the reader is part of his jury. As readers, we have to interpret his story to figure out if what he is saying is true or not – and whether he’s hiding anything else. We know he’s unreliable because he leaves out information that could change how we view the story.
3. The Emotionally Taxed or Mentally Ill.
Mental illness is not the same for all people. There is a wide range of symptoms that range from mild to severe. Some of which can culminate in the character’s creation of an entirely new world.
For example, your narrator might have schizophrenia and believes their hallucinations are real, a new mother suffering from postpartum depression, a war veteran diagnosed with PTSD, or a teen experiencing a hormone-fueled meltdown.
Here are two real-world examples for you:
In Dennis Lehane’s novel, Shutter Island, US Marshal Teddy Daniels visits the Ashecliffe Hospital to find an escaped prisoner. By the end of the book, we discover that Teddy’s reporting is inaccurate. His version of events is a combination of past occurrences and hallucinations, as Teddy is a hospital patient.
The second one I want to mention is Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. Both the unnamed narrator and the enigmatic Tyler Durden are both unreliable tales. Both characters are hiding things from one another and that they have reasons for lying.
4. The Incapacitated.
Alcoholics and drug addicts will most likely give a skewed account of what they see and do, making them unreliable narrators.
Paula Hawkins’s novel, The Girl on the Train, is told from three points of view: Rachel, Anna, and Megan. The story focuses on their experiences with one man, Tom. Since Rachel is an alcoholic who has frequent blackouts, and the other women have reasons to delude themselves or openly lie, all three narrators are suspect.
5. The Paranormal.
Last but not least, your narrator could be a ghost, the devil, or an extraterrestrial being with an agenda of their own.
For example, in Clive Barker’s novel, Mister B. Gone, narrator Jakabok Botch is a demon trying to exorcise his hate for his abusive father by writing horrific, sadistic short stories. Botch repeatedly tries to get us, the readers, to burn the book in our hands. He ultimately reveals that if we’d done so, he would have been freed to kill us. It ends with Botch recommending that the reader give the book to someone they despise. This conclusion, in which we discover Botch’s true motivation, is a fitting and satisfying final reveal.
A Wider Lens
Employing a wider lens means that the story’s denouement plays out from an unexpected, but logical, alternate view.
Think about going through a long tunnel where your only frame of reference is a small pinprick of light in the distance. Once you get outside of that tunnel and look back, you notice that the tunnel is only a narrow tube in the wider landscape. Neither perspective is wrong, but opening up that different viewpoint throws the story into a broader context.
Take Chuck Hogan’s thriller, Prince of Thieves. The protagonist, Doug, is a young man who’s confident he’ll end up in prison or die young, as do so many of the men in his life. Then he meets Claire, and for the first time, he perceives the possibility of salvation. The story focuses on Doug’s struggle to become worthy of Claire while resisting his outlaw friends’ efforts to pull him back into a criminal life. Readers think the story ends when Doug is gunned down – but it doesn’t.
Doug manages to drag himself to Claire’s house. He wants to know why she never asked him to stop robbing banks, explaining he would’ve done anything for her. Claire looks at him like he’s crazy.
“And there in her bewilderment, he recognized his grave mistake. … When you give someone the power to save you, you give them the power to destroy you as well.”
Until that moment, Doug thought they were a couple, not understanding that to Claire, he was just a guy she’d dated a few times. Doug also grasps the deeper meaning. Claire hadn’t failed him; he’d failed himself. This shift in perspective makes for a gripping, character-based epiphany.
Resolved and Unresolved Endings
A resolved ending means you either wrap it up all nice and tidy for your readers or leave them guessing a little. Wrapping up the plot, characters, and subplots is what your readers expect from you as an author. Most of us prefer this type of ending.
An excellent example of a resolved ending is Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The tale intertwines the Buendia family’s story and the small town where they live, from its creation until its destruction. In the end, Marquez destroys our hope for a sequel by killing everyone and burning the town to the ground, fitting in with the themes of the book.
(Resolved endings are perfect for the romance genre. Most readers expect a happily ever after or happy for now type ending.)
But if you can pull off an unresolved ending, you can let your reader think about what comes after “the end” and reflect on the themes you explored in your book. There will be some resolution, but it will more likely pose questions at the end and leave some doors open.
J.K. Rowling used an unresolved ending perfectly in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. We all know that the showdown between Voldemort and Harry is impending, and if Rowling stopped the series there, we’d be outraged. Thankfully, she didn’t, and it set things up for the last book perfectly.
Open for Interpretation
Also known as ambiguous endings, this type of finale is about “what ifs.” They allow the reader to think about what comes next without establishing a right or wrong answer. Things don’t feel unresolved but more open to interpretation.
For example, Lois Lowry’s The Giver focuses on Jonas, a teenager living in a colorless yet seemingly ideal society. He uses his newly assigned position as the Receiver of Memories to unravel the truth about his community and forge a new path for himself.
Readers will wonder what happened to Jonas once he finishes his journey, and what happens to the town and those left behind. There are three more companion books with more plot points, but readers will only see Jonas as a side character. No one will find out how he rebuilt his life nor how his old community fared. There might be speculation, but an answer is never clearly given.
The Plot Twist
This type of ending goes hand-in-hand with the unreliable narrator, but it also has some other applications. Your goal is to make sure that your surprise ending still makes sense and is satisfactory for your reader. Mystery writers love to use this type of ending.
Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is an excellent place to look for inspiration. The book tells the tale of ten murders without an obvious culprit in an isolated island mansion. Everyone is a suspect, and they all die in the end. It isn’t until a message in a bottle shows up that we find out who the murderer is and how they managed to set up the remaining murders.
Christie was able to plant enough clues that when readers went back through the book, they could figure out why the plot twist was so perfect. And you need to do the same to make this type of ending work.
(For more on tips on constructing the perfect twist ending, check out this article by The Write Practice.)
Ending at the Beginning
Stories are cyclical, especially when using the hero’s journey in your tale. You bring everything that’s happened in the novel to a close where it began.
For example, in Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, we start in Oedipus’s place of birth, he gets abandoned by his parents due to a prophecy, grows up into a hero, and ends up marrying his mother. The story starts at his place of birth and ends at his place of birth.
You find this type of ending a lot in tragedies and literary fiction. The goal isn’t to make it easier for you to writ, but to show how your character has changed throughout the story.
Do you know that rule where when you end the book, you finish it? Yeah, let’s bend that rule a bit. So epilogues are designed to give your readers a glimpse into the characters’ lives after the finale.
If you need to tie up loose ends but could not do it within the actual story, then this is the ending for you. However, it should not be used as a traditional ending or to compensate for a weak ending. It should give further insight into the characters and provide a more comprehensive resolution for readers.
In Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Death himself narrates the story of a young girl living in Nazi Germany. In his four-part epilogue, Zusak provides insight into Liesel’s life after the bombing, her adult life, and even her death.
Instead of going into great detail, Zusak uses short chapters that feel more like sneak peeks into her life. Additionally, it serves to join Liesel, the main character, with the narrator, Death, and allow them to have a conversation on more equal terms.
There are so many beautiful ways to end a novel. You really can’t go wrong with whatever type of ending you go with. Just make sure that it fits with your overall themes and narrative.
And if you have to go back and rework it numerous times, don’t worry about it! You want to get it right. Move your readers to tears or laughter. Make them feel the injustice of a dystopian world.
As long as you tie up all of those loose ends and give your readers some hope for the future, you can do no wrong with your ending.
What’s your favorite ending in a story? Why do you like it? Please let me know in the comments below.
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.