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How to end a story: Write satisfying closing chapters

If you have ever found a book spoiled by its ending, you know it’s important to learn how to end a story well. Here are 8 pointers on how to end a novel. When you’ve written a draft ending, submit it for writing critique.

If you have ever found a book spoiled by its ending, you know it’s important to learn how to end a story well. Here are 8 pointers on how to end a novel. When you’ve written a draft ending, submit it for writing critique.

1. Decide the type of story ending you want

Ending your novel requires many decisions. Will your story ending be happy, sad or somewhere between the two? Will you tie everything up, or do you plan to leave loose ends? If you are leaving loose ends, what purpose do those loose ends serve: Is your book an installment in a series? If you’re leaving your reader with questions, what will those questions be? How do you want your readers to feel once they set your book down for the last time?
A story that is completely resolved in the final pages can sometimes feel too pat. Choosing an appropriate ending also requires understanding the conventions of your chosen genre. For example, literary fiction tends to have endings featuring all degrees of resolution.  Some literary endings leave core plot conflicts unresolved. By contrast, your mystery readers are going to be unhappy if you leave major plot points hanging.

Let’s take a look at some endings and last lines from classic novels and see why they do and don’t work. Some spoilers lie ahead, but they’re worth mastering the art of writing great endings:

2. Avoid unintentional foreshadowing that sets readers up for disappointment

Generations of girls and young women have gnashed their teeth over the fate of Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. The headstrong heroine of this classic novel looks set for a path to literary stardom — much like Alcott herself — and perhaps a romance with her childhood best friend Laurie. Suddenly, love blossoms between Laurie and Jo’s younger sister, Amy. Jo ends up married to a cranky older German professor, Professor Bhaer. Here are some reasons this ending feels unsatisfying:

  • It feels unearned. The book spends a great deal of time developing the relationship between Laurie and Jo. The professor and Jo’s feelings for him seem to come out of nowhere.
  • It feels like a betrayal of Jo’s character. Even if Jo doesn’t end up with Laurie, the professor does not seem like the type of man she would marry.
  • It feels rushed. The novel has a leisurely pace for the most part. Yet near the end Alcott seems focused on wrapping things up for the March sisters too quickly.

From Little Women, we learn that we should consciously set up events that will happen at the end early in the book. You can do this either from the outset (with planning) or during the revision process.

Little Women was originally published as a serial, and it is entirely possible that Alcott did not have the entire story worked out, including the romance of Jo and Professor Bhaer, when she began writing.

3. Learn how to write satisfying and fitting endings from James Joyce’s The Dead

By contrast, this is a story that ends on a perfect note. Joyce’s story concerns an Irishman who discovers that his wife is pining, and perhaps has pined throughout her life, for a young man she had fallen in love as a teenager who died as a result of coming out into the snow to try and meet her.

Gabriel, the husband, has imagined that he and his wife will take advantage of a night away in a hotel. Instead, the romance and passion he anticipates are spoiled by her remembered grief. As his wife sleeps, he reaches an acceptance of the mortality of all of them, and the final line reads:

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly fall, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

This ending works for several reasons:

  • The word choices and rhythm of Joyce’s language here have the effect of poetry. The repetition of the letter s and the words ‘fall and faint’ as well as the repeated imagery of things falling or descending create a mood within the reader that is appropriate for the melancholy feel of the story.
  • This is a literary story, and within the context of the story, it works that Joyce does not neatly resolve the situation.

From The Dead, we learn that it is not always necessary to wrap everything up in a tidy ending. We can also learn about how word choice and rhythm work together to make a story ending just feel right.

4. Learn how to write downbeat but powerful story endings via George Orwell’s 1984

How to end a story - George Orwell quote

George Orwell’s 1984 is another classic novel with a strong ending and a powerful final line: ‘He loved Big Brother.’ This appears to be a simple declarative sentence. In the context of the novel, though, the protagonist’s efforts to resist a totalitarian government (the ‘big brother’ in question) makes the sentence (showing his capitulation to state power) terrifying. In this final line, we understand that the spirit of the protagonist, Winston Smith, is finally broken. Here are the reasons this ending works:

  • Orwell’s novel is a cautionary tale about totalitarianism. It would make less sense to end it on a note of triumph because the point of the novel is to demonstrate just how terrifyingly dangerous this type of government can be. The ending reinforces the message that a government that has free reign to abuse the resources at its disposal can break individuals at will.
  • While there is suspense as to whether or not Winston will be successful over the course of the novel, on finishing the novel, it seems clear that he never truly had a chance against the government.
  • The world created in 1984 is a brutal, merciless one, so Winston’s fate is consistent with the tone of the novel.

From 1984, we learn that it is possible to write a novel that is both artistically and commercially successful with a downbeat ending. This book is also an excellent example of one that leaves the reader feeling satisfied on reaching the end. This is  because even though there is hope for Winston earlier in the book, the downbeat ending seems inevitable in retrospect. A happy ending would have felt like a compromise.

Here are some other tips on how to end a novel effectively:

5. Be consistent and only thwart expectations deliberately

There’s no definitive example of how to end a story best. Even so, when you revise, ask yourself whether your ending is consistent with the rest of your novel. This is not just a matter of plot and structure. Your ending also needs to be tonally consistent. A raucous comic novel that ends on a note of high drama might confuse readers if there’s nothing to forecast this development.

Additionally, your characters should not start behaving radically different in the final quarter of the novel simply in order to move the plot forward. You also should make certain that you have not set up expectations earlier in the novel that do not even receive a nod in closing.

6. Make sure ending catalysts and changes fit your character arcs

These are two important elements of a satisfying ending. In a character-driven story, your protagonist should be central to whatever catalysing event sets the climax in motion. To create a strong sense of character development, your novel’s protagonist should emerge a changed person. In some cases, as with Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984, a character may be irretrievably broken by their experiences. This is the basic closing structure of many a moving tragedy.

There are exceptions to nearly every rule about writing, including rules on how to end a story. As an example, active protagonists are often preferred to passive ones, but there are many stories with effective passive protagonists. This works best when the author has an express intention behind choosing this character type. In other words, the protagonist’s passivity is central to the point of the story.

The novella The Metamorphosis is an example of a story with a passive character that works. In Franz Kafka’s story, Gregor Samsa is a salesman who is transformed into a cockroach overnight. One of the main points of the story is that Gregor is a man who simply lets things happen to him, and his quiet acceptance of his situation in supporting his family is carried on in his acceptance of his fate as a cockroach. Gregor changes little in the course of the story, but his family does a great deal as they realise they can no longer rely on him. Therefore, Gregor’s transformation is a catalyst for change that makes sense given his character type.

7. Avoid writing a story that ‘just ends’

Sometimes a story ending simply feels too abrupt. You aren’t prepared for it, or there are not sufficient markers suggesting the ending is imminent (besides unread pages decreasing).

In order to avoid this in your own novel, be sure that the final quarter of your novel has several structural elements:

  • A momentous change for a central character. This might be moving away or a homecoming, the arrival of a new relationship or another significant event.
  • A climax. This may seem obvious, but it can be easy to leave out this final rising action when you are trying to wrap up all the loose ends of your story.

There is no set rule for how to end a novel but learn the techniques and devices available to you. This will make it easier to write effective endings.

8. Plan your ending right if you are writing a book series

If you are writing a series, will each novel end on a cliffhanger? Will you wrap things up rather so that each novel can more or less stand alone? The answer will depend upon how much of an overarching storyline your series has. You have a few choices:

  • You need to balance making your readers want to pick up the next book with not frustrating them. Decide how much satisfaction to give them when you come to wrapping up subplots. Which ones can you wrap up and which ones will you leave dangling to create anticipation fpr future books in your series?
  • What major hook will draw your reader on to the next novel? Will it be a complication that has been developed throughout the novel? Or rather a new complication that arises near the end to be fully developed in the next?
  • Another consideration to keep in mind is that characters in a series may not change at the end of every novel. In fact, in a long series, this would start to feel tiresome. It is more likely that the big arc of character change will occur over the entire series with smaller changes throughout individual novels.
How to end a novel - the end written on old paper

Endings can make or break a novel, so it’s important to get the ending right. Your ending should be consistent with the characters and plot as set up throughout the rest of the novel. Your protagonist should be a major player in the way the novel ends and needs to undergo a change.

Finally, remember that there are slightly different considerations when you’re ending a novel in a series versus a standalone book.

If you have written an ending to your novel and find it unsatisfying, go back and ask yourself if you have been consistent. Sometimes, the key to figuring out why your ending doesn’t work lies much earlier in the book.

Join the Now Novel community now to get constructive writing feedback and improve your story endings.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

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