If you want to become a better author, learning how to end a book well is crucial. After the final page, the reader shouldn’t feel how Dorothy Parker did when she (allegedly) wrote in a review, ‘This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force’. Here are 8 tips to write better story endings:
1. Build to an intriguing climax
2. Make sure your ending is earned, not improbable
3. Leave room for readers’ imaginations
4. Review the best novel endings for insight into how to end a book
5. Bring home how your characters have changed
6. Use the ‘5 W’s’ to create finality
7. Keep in mind how not to end a novel
8. Think about types of story endings that would suit your book best
Let’s examine each of these points in more detail:
Build to an intriguing climax
A great ending is all in the build-up. A taut climax isn’t equally important for every genre. A novel that relies on twists, turns and tension (a murder mystery or thriller, for example) will require a stronger build-up.
Books that aren’t as reliant on suspense, such as romance novels, also benefit from a satisfying build-up. Placing complications between your would-be lovers that get in the way of their happy union until the final hour keeps readers interested in what will happen next.
How do you build to a climactic novel ending?
- Make it harder for characters to reach their objectives – what stands in their way?
- If applicable to your story, increase characters’ peril.
- Vary pace – write shorter scenes and chapters to increase momentum.
- Keep the largest confrontations between characters for your final chapters. Hint at their approach.
Make sure your ending is earned, not improbable
This doesn’t mean that you cannot have an outlandish, fantastical or unexpected ending. There are very few absolute rules when it comes to writing fiction. Yet laying groundwork for your ending and building the anticipation of a specific outcome (even if the outcome itself proves different to what you’ve led readers to expect) creates a sense of direction and objective.
An irritatingly unlikely ending may result if you get yourself into tricky tangle in your plot. Many fictional characters are a little too lucky and are saved by the bell. Be careful of letting a strong sense of cause and effect slip away in your closing chapters for the sake of convenient resolution.
Leave room for readers’ imaginations
An ending doesn’t have to be the last nail in your character’s coffin. Many readers were frustrated by J.K. Rowling’s epilogue [no spoilers] to her Harry Potter series.
Rowling’s prologue leapt forward in time, like the ‘where are they now’ segments that roll with the credits in documentaries. For some, this seemed a ploy on Rowling’s part. It seemed a device to announce there would be no more novels in the series (or, at least, novels about her three main characters’ student years).
Story endings that leave room for readers’ imaginations are enjoyable because readers get to picture what comes next, without being told. A little mystery, a little bit of incompletion remains.
This is especially important when you write series. Make sure that your final chapters convey a sense of something new developing or beginning, even as this particular narrative thread draws to a close. A serial killer anti-hero, for example, is witnessed disposing of evidence by an unknown observer.
Review the best novel endings for insights into how to end a book
The best novel endings are masterclasses in how to end a book. Think of the closing lines to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for example:
‘And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. […]
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’
Fitzgerald’s ending, where his narrator Nick Carraway muses on everything he has learned about his mysterious neighbour Gatsby (and life in general), is compact and powerful. The tone, like much of the rest of the novel, is elegiac and nostalgic. The ending reminds us of the events of the novel while simultaneously looking to the future.
When you write your ending, pick up a few of your favourite books. Read the final paragraphs. Note:
- How the book’s ending connects to preceding chapters (does it repeat memorable imagery from earlier? What is ending-like about its language or ideas?)
- The tone of the ending – does it fit with everything that precedes it?
Bring home how your characters have changed
Story lies in change. Showing how your characters have changed at the end of your novel as they’ve reached (or fallen short of) their objectives creates a satisfying sense of development.
In the example from The Great Gatsby above, Fitzgerald’s narrator and protagonist Carraway has learned that a person’s past can dog him but he still has to keep moving forwards – ‘tomorrow, we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther’. There is a note of resolve and determination to keep persisting despite Carraway’s awareness that history tends to repeat itself.
In your novel’s closing chapters, show how your characters have changed. What have they learned and how have they grown? You can convey this information via actions, dialogue or narration.
Use the ‘5 W’s’ to create finality
In addition to showing how characters have changed, use the ‘5 w’s’ – who, what, why, where and when – as a whole. Shifting to a climactic location for your closing chapters, for example, adds to the sense of an ultimate destination.
This is what Tolkien does effectively in his Lord of the Rings cycle. Frodo and Sam venture further and further into the heartland of Mordor, the domain of Tolkien’s villain. The change of place – to the homeland of Middle Earth’s malevolence – helps to establish a sense of climax and direction.
Similarly, use shifts in setting along with character goals and motivations to show that your story is reaching its final destination.
Keep in mind how not to end a novel
A bad ending that fizzles out or miraculously rescues characters from a tricky situation can ruin a good book. Anti-climax, of course, is a valid literary device in itself. For example, Kazuo Ishiguro makes the reader expect a major event in his novel The Unconsoled, only for it not to happen. Even so, this is a risky path to take as some may see not delivering what you have foreshadowed as a cop-out.
When you write your novel’s ending, avoid (or at least put a different spin on):
- Cliched twist endings (e.g. ‘it was all just a dream’)
- Miraculous rescues (lightning strikes the villain just as they’re about to kill your protagonist? Thanks, nature!)
- Total lack of resolution/continuity (the protagonist spends the entire novel preparing to face the antagonist but decides to move to the Bahamas instead?)
Think about types of story endings that would suit your book best
There are many different options when you decide how to end a book:
- The full circle: Everything comes back to the beginning scenes
- The surprise twist: Novels such as Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn pull the rug out from underneath readers, keeping readers guessing to the end
- The ‘choose your own adventure’: Some novels’ endings are open to interpretation. The reader must decide how to interpret the outcome with fewer certainties
- The ‘happily ever after’: Everything resolves tidily, fulfilling expectations established in the course of the novel
These are just some possible approaches. Think about the structure of your novel. Will your ending make readers see preceding chapters in a new light? Or will it simply confirm the impressions and expectations you’ve fostered up to this point regarding how your story will pan out?
If you’re not sure what type of ending to use, write multiple endings and let them sit a while. Read through your entire manuscript from the beginning and see which flows best and makes the most cohesive sense for your story as a whole.
Writing the end of your novel? Get constructive feedback on your closing chapters from Now Novel’s writing community.