A satisfying ending is one that delivers on the promise, providing new insight or comfortable confirmation or vicarious happiness. Even when it’s surprising in some way, the ending feels inevitable, because it fulfills the promise of the story. And—this is important—the ending feels satisfying only because the beginning set up the implicit promise in the first place.

The ending must make use of those same forces and conflicts, with nothing important left out and nothing new suddenly appearing at the last minute.

Mr. Shakespeare: Every character in your story doesn’t need to know how everything works out for everybody as long as your reader knows. These final scenes are unnecessary and they slow down the action at the end because, frankly, we’ve all heard all of this explanation already. Sometimes twice already. So essentially the audience/reader is forced to sit through a summary of the action while all the characters get caught up.

– from The Literary Lab, Loose Endings

 

A successful ending must be tied not only to the author’s implicit promise and the forces dramatized in the middle, but also to the protagonist’s nature. A test for your ending is this question: If my protagonist were a radically different person, would this story still end the same way? The answer should be No.

Finding the right ending sometimes takes time. Once it took me thirteen years.

– Nancy Kress, from Beginnings, Middles and Ends

 

Provide an ending worthy of the beginning.

Often it’s helpful when you start writing a story to have at least a vague sense of what the ending will be. That little bit of knowledge serves as a beacon to guide you as you make choices about the story.

[One] reason an ending may fail to satisfy is that the author is trying to spare the characters some hurt, this time the anguish of confrontation. Remember, you cannot protect your characters—the words protagonist and antagonist have agony built in.

– Schaum’s quick guide to writing great short stories by Margaret Lucke

 

The ending must answer the question you posed at the outset. Does it? Clearly and unequivocally?

– from 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M Bickham

 

A story, like a sentence, can end in only four ways: with a period, an exclamation point, a questionmark, or an ellipsis…

The needs of your story and your attitude may dictate ending with the feeling of a period, an image or line of dialogue flatly making a declarative statement such as “Life goes on.” “Love conquers all.” “Good triumphs over evil.” “That’s the way life is.” “There’s no place like home.”

An ending can give the effect of an exclamation point if the intent of the work is to stir action or create alarm. Science fiction and horror films may end on a note of “We are not alone!” or “Repent or perish!” Stories of social awareness may end with a passionate tone of “Never again!”, “Rise up and throw off chains of oppression!”, or “Something must be done!”

In a more open-ended approach to structure, you may want to end with the effect of a question mark, and the feeling that uncertainties remain. The final image may pose a question such as “Will the hero Return with the Elixir or will it be forgotten?” An open-ended story may also trail off with the feeling of an ellipsis. Unspoken questions may linger in the air or conflicts may remain unresolved with endings that suggest doubt or ambiguity. “The hero can’t decide between two women, and therefore…”, “Love and art are irreconcilable, so…”, “Life goes on…and on… and on…”, or “She proved she’s not a killer, but…”

One way or another, the very ending of a story should announce that it’s all over, like the Warner Bros. cartoon signature line “That’s all, folks”. Oral storytellers in addition to using formulas like “…and they lived happily ever after”, will sometimes end folk tales with a ritual statement like “I’m done, that’s that, and who’ll ease my dry throat with a drink?” Sometimes a final image, such as the hero riding off into the sunset, can sum up the story’s theme in a visual metaphor and let the audience know it’s over. The final image of Unforgiven, a shot of Clint Eastwood’s character leaving his wife’s grave and returning to his house, signals the end of the journey and sums up the story’s theme.

– from The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

 

Related Links

How to write the ending from Joanna Penn

Make Your Ending As Big As Possible from Lydia Sharp

Three Important Rules For Writing Endings from The Write Practice

Endings Shouldn’t Make Your Point from Cockeyed Caravan