There’s not one right way to end a story, but there are many things to consider when writing one, and even more ways to write a bad ending.
One thing that I think is sometimes forgotten when ending a story is the author’s duty to readers to provide a satisfying ending. Is there a duty?
As a writer, I understand wanting to surprise a reader with the ending of a story. I like twists, or I like to make the reader believe the story is about one thing when it is really about another. I find this satisfying when I pull it off successfully, and I believe and hope that the reader does as well.
There is a danger with this though, and as a reader, I’ve been frustrated many times by similar stunts. While I like a twist, I don’t like five twists in the last five pages. It feels too gimmicky, like the writer was trying to show off by how many surprises they could throw into the story. And while I like to be misdirected in a story, I don’t like to be lied to. If I make an assumption based on the breadcrumb trail the writer leaves for me and I follow it and it turns out that isn’t really what is going on, I’m usually delighted to find I’d been tricked. However, if the writer tells me something as fact and later says something else that contradicts the facts that led me to know something about a story, I feel frustrated. That’s not to say that a protagonist can’t believe something to be true and later find out they were wrong, that’s different.
While a writer creates a story in their particular style and voice, if the intent is to publish the piece to share with other people, then it has another duty other than satisfying the writer’s creative interests.
The interesting thing about the ending of a story is that it has the power to change a reader’s impression of the entire story. If a beginning is bad, the reader will probably put it aside and move onto another book. Same with a droopy middle. But a bad ending can ruin an otherwise exquisite piece and leave the reader feeling cheated.
The power of an ending is this: if it’s horrible, it will make the reader forget every part of the book they loved up until that moment, if it’s well done it can linger with the reader for days, weeks, or maybe their whole life.
So, yes, there is a duty to the reader to provide a satisfying ending. That doesn’t mean there can’t be twists or death. There can be lingering questions, but the reader needs to feel like they can conclude what would happen or feel okay about not having all their questions answered.
Other things that influence how a writer ends a story include:
- Story length
- Whether a book is part of a series
Different genres have different expectations, this includes the ending. In horror, for example, it is common to find endings where the evil in the story is defeated and gone, but it’s also common to have the immediate threat of danger removed but the overall evil to linger, perhaps unknown to the characters. In a short piece, it’s easy for a reader to accept that the horror of the story is still present. However, with a longer piece, as the reader goes along for the ride of the ups and downs of tension, there becomes a certain expectation that by the time they finish the book, the horrifying element of the story will be dealt with in some manner so they can go to sleep in peace.
Does this mean a writer has to eliminate the evil in the story and tie it in a bow? No, but this expectation should be kept in mind so that the immediate threat of the story is removed even if it is not gone from the world. But if a horror writer’s intent is to make sure the reader never sleeps again, then it needs to feel satisfying in another way. The reader needs to leave thinking, “I’m never going to sleep again, but it was totally worth it.” That may be an even better goal than having the reader feel like the world is safe again, but it’s also harder to pull off.
Another thing to consider for the ending is whether the story is part of a series. I would not recommend a cliffhanger to end a book in a series. This is often times a sign that the author didn’t know where to end the story, but it was already too long so they stopped in the middle somewhere. Some issues may remain and carry into the next book, there may even be an overarching conflict or enemy that continues through a series, but each book should have its own plot with a main conflict that is resolved by the end of that book.
The main point is not to limit how or what you write but to remember the overall goal is to deliver a satisfying experience to the reader.