The question of how to write great story endings is one of those questions that seems simple to answer, but is much harder to actually pull off. An ending is the last thing a reader sees before they turn your story back over to its shelf, and the last thing they will remember long after they’ve forgotten what happened in the middle. Great story endings have a lot of power, and that can feel pretty scary if you’re someone who’s new to the craft. To help you navigate this challenge, we’ve put together a list of actionable tips for how to write great story endings.
- 1 Make your protagonist an active agent in the ending
- 2 Carefully balance information throughout the story
- 3 Keep the emotional change up to pace with information
- 4 Differentiate the antagonist’s motives from yours
- 5 Make the stakes meaningful
- 6 Add a false ending
- 7 Avoid the contrived ending
- 8 Incorporate your themes
- 9 Base your resolution on the character’s arc
- 10 Join the Commaful Storytelling Community
Make your protagonist an active agent in the ending
Readers have to see the protagonist as an active agent within the story, and should they be making choices, whether the choices are moral or logistical. Readers want to know that the ending of the book, which is the climax of the story is organic. If you make the protagonist an active agent in the ending there’s no question that the ending was written in. Your readers can see that the ending is organic and you deserve the lion’s share of the credit for their imaginations.
Let’s say that your readers struggle with a character and would love nothing more than for the character to have it get what they deserve. Letting the character have it happen at the climax of the story makes sure this happens. If a character takes a cowardly act and lives — then were readers ever jolted and outraged? If a character repeatedly takes it upon himself to commit violence, and it’s not allowed to happen until the climax — you will have an explosive closing that is faced with anticipation with the reader.
Carefully balance information throughout the story
Spend some time planning but not too much. Endings are hard and they always have been, probably more for you than it was for your readers, since you are so close to it. For that reason, do your plotting just enough to know beforehand where things are going and where your main characters are going to be exchanging things like keys and memorandums. The important thing to remember is that you don’t need to map out every last detail and part of your story, just the parts that need them and the ones in which you think they are most needed. If you trust that your writing will lead your audience to the right places, the trust is likely to pay off right at the very end.
Keep the emotional change up to pace with information
One common storytelling mistake is for the protagonist to remain the same person at the end of the story as he was in the beginning–but this doesn’t feel authentic to real life or really good storytelling, because people change. Sometimes that means they learn new information and process it–but usually it’s that they take on an emotional reaction in response to that new information–and it’s often anger, in response to new hurt. If you end your story with your main character reacting to new information but remaining in the same emotional state she was in at the start of your story, your epilogue will feel like the biggest cop-out ever. This goes double if there’s a love triangle ending. If character A can simply let go of character B without a second thought, while character B still pines away, character B is clearly the real winner here–the author just forgot to do the crucial work of emotional development in that relationship.
Setting up character emotional arcs at the beginning of your story means being brutally honest and realistic–especially when it comes to your characters’ flaws. It shouldn’t just be about physical and external traits, like their hair color and their family’s position in the social hierarchy. Their innermost quirks and feelings, the splintery jaggedness under the surface that determines tonality, attitude, and tendency, all of these come to predominate their future actions.
Differentiate the antagonist’s motives from yours
Okay, “villains” aren’t necessarily the scariest thing when you’re wondering how to write great endings—climaxes are. But that’s because they’re so tricky. These are the challenges and setbacks that your protagonists must overcome in order to claim victory. How you handle the climax will go a long way toward defining your story. To understand why, it’s helpful to take a step back to look at the ending as a whole.
Most of us instinctively think of it as a race. The climax is a dramatic last “lap” to the finish line, the grand climax and denouement embody the theme, and the second act is the training montage, in which the climax gets gradually closer and closer. But that’s not entirely accurate.
In good storytelling, the spine of any story is about change. To understand that, consider a two-by-four. What if this versatile, durable lumber comes into your office and upends your desk? Maybe it becomes your new desk, right there. Maybe it becomes a door. Maybe it becomes a boat. The big question is, what change does it undergo? Can you use it to solve a problem? Does something happen to the two-by-four that sets it on a new course?
Because the climax drives the change, you want most of your story’s tension — and thus your reader’s, too — to focus on the antagonist. Of course your characters have problems, and those are important. But the antagonist, by definition, opposes your protagonists on their worst days. Figure out ways to characterize the antagonist, to make it clear why this character cares enough to fight your protagonists through every obstacle and setback they encounter. Once you know that, you can start to work backward, and think about how the antagonist’s efforts arc against the protagonists’ choices. The middle of the story shows how those choices get pushed, challenged and persistently overcome — setting up the satisfying conclusion that we want to see.
Make the stakes meaningful
If you think that nothing counts unless the lives of the main characters are on the line, you may be writing a great story, but you may also be threatening your reader’s motivation to keep reading. Make your readers care by doing more than telling them you need them to. Getting your readers to become invested in your story’s characters and how they view the world starts with your opening, but can also be achieved through setting, dialogue, and a series of events that build towards emotional climaxes.
Start out strong and grab your reader’s attention quickly through high stakes challenges. Make the threat feel personal through the emotional stakes and make the physical risk feel immediate through action-driven details. Lead up to those dramatic moments by saving the action for last, and build your way there through flashbacks and exposition. In a romance, for instance, make sure you’ve set up the nature of the couple’s relationship first, or you may find that your reader has lost interest within the first few chapters. This doesn’t mean you can’t delay the action — you can, as long as you’ve built suspense early by raising questions and setting up your story’s unique world.
Add a false ending
In a three-act structure, the first act is your setup, the second act is the rising action, and the third act is the conclusion. Most stories use some kind of three-act structure. One of the challenges of using this structure is that you need to create tension for the reader just as you’re building the tension in your story. One way to do this is to put a way to climax in the middle of your story—and then move it.
In order for it to be satisfying, there needs to be a final battle, a final temptation, a final test—but that moment can’t come until the second or third act. Since that’s the peak of the story, you shouldn’t “kill” it or solve it until you’ve brought your characters to a moment of incredible tension and self-awareness, where they have to make the most important choice of their lives. If your first climatic battle isn’t your final climactic battle, then that first climatic battle should be as close to your final climactic battle as possible. Your third act is dedicated to the climax of that set of conflicts.
Avoid the contrived ending
Most writers come to a story with a particular plot or message in mind. But when it comes time to end the work, they may feel tempted to suddenly introduce a plot twist or a character deus ex machina to solve a problem they’ve created. The problem with contrived endings is that they tend to punish the audience or undermine the point of the story.
Smart writers instead work great ending twists into their canon and structure. In some cases, a twist at the end of the story isn’t even necessary – all the writer needs to do is look for an alternate outcome that still gets at the point of the entire piece. In a tragedy, you can end as low as you want as long as your ending leaves the audience satisfied. Come up with something proactive, but natural. And keep the big idea in mind whenever you’re writing a story ending.
Once you know what your end is meant to be, you can concentrate on both technical and thematic aspects of your story. What are the one or two profound things you are trying to say with your story? Don’t let readers, agents, and editors distract with specifics when you have the larger meaning in play. Why does your protagonist need to be here? Why does the antagonist have to do what they do? What gives meaning to these acts? Is there an overarching idea that needs to be illustrated? Trace back to the very beginning, to your theme, and visualize the ending as the crescendo of everything that comes before it. This should help you understand both structural and thematic components of your plot.
Incorporate your themes
Whether your theme is a lighthearted message or a relevant warning, it doesn’t mean much if you don’t use it in your writing. Even the most meta and existential of literary themes are more effective when they are demonstrated rather than merely expostulated. And readers won’t truly recognize your theme if you haven’t carefully led them to it.
This is where theme comes into play in a story’s ending, and this is also why crafting the right themes is so immensely important in your story’s life. Make your theme the central source of your tension by showing what will happen when it is or is not followed, and craft a logical and satisfying ending for your theme.
Writing conclusions for effective story endings is no easy feat. Having the right ending takes hard work, creativity, and a willingness to look your truth in the eye. You cannot pull punches for your themes — you must give your characters true closure for them to ring true. This is why it is never enough for an ending to just tie up loose ends.
Good conclusions don’t ignore plot threads, nor do they ignore good writing. A conclusion that feels resolved is one that engages with its characters and reflects their narrative with meaning. It all comes down to the art of tension — pushing a story to its limit on purpose, right up until the point of shattering the universe. If you can pull that off with confidence, your conclusion will be one you can be proud of.
Base your resolution on the character’s arc
The ending of your story is your chance to paint a picture of the world after the stakes have been resolved, and to exemplify the meaning of the story in a tangible way. It is your chance to compare the protagonist’s situation in the beginning of your story with the one they have at the end, and to show how they’ve changed.
Choose the character’s arc that allowed them to achieve a satisfying end, rather than one that leaves loose threads hanging and future readers gnashing their teeth. In some cases, you need to show how ending the story naturally follows the character’s arc. It’s also up to you to impart this information on the audience. One of the clearest ways to do this is to put the character into the same setting they started in at the beginning or in a new setting similar to it and show how this setting drives them to achieve the one you chose. You can also use internal communication to explain or rationalize the character’s change, rather than showing the audience directly. Ask yourself how the protagonist has already cut the ties they need to cut, how they already set themselves in motion, built themselves the components they need to achieve their solution, or made the sacrifice necessary to achieve their resolution.
Great endings are difficult to pull off. Learn to take risks, and learn from them. Every failure teaches you something. Revise and edit, revise and edit. Make sure that your story finale leaves nothing on the table. And if you find you’re stumped, take inspiration from these famous writers to get over the plot line-it-is.
Ultimately, a great story ending hits a synthesis of forward narrative movement and integrity of design. It ties up all the loose ends, and provides a dramatic and emotional peak moment for the protagonist. With these essential writing tools at your fingertips, there’s no reason you can’t write a story ending these readers will never forget.
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