Spoiler alert: No matter how great your story is, if the ending falls flat or doesn’t ring true, it ruins the entire story for the reader.
You would think that endings should be easy to write—just wrap up all the story’s loose ends, tie the whole package with a neat little bow, and be done with it, right? Nope! If the story ends too perfectly, readers may discount your ending as contrived. But if it’s too messy and not carefully resolved, readers may be dissatisfied. To write an ending that’s compelling and satisfying, think about trying out the following techniques:
A plot twist. While this type of ending is alluring to writers because it can be exciting for readers, use it with caution. The plot twist should be unexpected, but not unbelievable. The ending must still flow naturally from the previous events. (For example: If your story is about a couple falling in love while seated in a downtown coffee shop, don’t surprise them with a ninja attack as your ending.) And remember, even small twists that have been set up from the beginning can be just as satisfying as gargantuan bombshells.
An element of surprise. While plot twists like those described above should be set up from the get-go, some stories do benefit from a true wild card thrown in at the end. Your surprise ending doesn’t have to be shocking—nor does it have to be overwhelmingly huge. Rather, it should simply be an ending the reader wouldn’t have expected. This will give them something to think about—and a reason to revisit your story later on.
A bittersweet combination of emotions. Instead of going for the classic “everyone lives happily ever after” type of ending, add a touch of sadness or regret as well. And if your ending is maudlin, perk it up with a hint of optimism or good cheer. Complex endings often feel rounder and fuller to readers than endings that strike just one note.
THE END…or is it? Did he or didn’t he? Was she actually the murderer? Leaving the conclusion of your book open for interpretation may annoy some readers, but it’s guaranteed to get them thinking—and talking—about your story long after they’ve finished reading it.
A dead-end ending. If your story is strongly character driven, and the plot hinges on the character’s capacity for change, then the dead-end ending may be for you. Bring your character right up to the point of possible maturation—then show him or her reverting to old ways. This type of bittersweet ending has long been a staple of literary fiction.
And keep in mind as you’re finishing up…
Don’t linger. Once your story comes to its fitting finish, it’s time to stop writing. Don’t give in to the urge to explain what happens next—one ending is enough!
Know your genre and your audience. The success of some stories live or die by the conventions of their genres. If you’re writing in a given genre and readers are expecting a certain kind of ending, think hard before you decide not to give it to them.
Don’t be afraid to go off the map. Finally, remember that some of the best endings come from experimentation. If the original ending you planned for just isn’t working, don’t be afraid to try something different. Experimenting can often lead to an ending that’s totally unexpected, but perhaps that’s exactly how the story should draw to a close.
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