Story Endings

An author's duty to provide a satisfying ending for their readers.

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:

  • Genre
  • 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.


  1. // Reply

    Good post. As a speculative fiction author, the ending is always a fine line with how much needs to be revealed vs how much should be left for the reader to noodle over. My attempt is usually to leave a philosophical question. The main character either failed or succeeded against their primary conflict (sometimes both). Personally I can’t remember being plagued with feeling “shorted” at the end of a story, I know it’s happened, but if the story was a good one, I tend to like it.

    I have, however, been bored to the brink of death by long, tapered, multi-tiered endings that go on for several chapters after the main conflict is resolved. LOTR comes to mind, but Jeckll and Hyde was the worst, essentially recapping the entire story from another perspective. I could have done without the second half of that book, and it would have been fine.

    1. // Reply

      Thank you. A good place to find bad endings is in TV Series. People spend years following a show only to be left hanging, or the last season gets crammed with everything they still wanted to do, or just a weird end that comes out of nowhere, or worst yet undoing everything that had taken place in the last season in the final episode. Kind of the “it was all a dream” mess all over again. Bad endings of TV Series is what made me first think about the duty a writer owed their audience and how that applies to books too. Sometimes elements are easier to see in a TV show or movie because of the different medium or difference in time it takes to consume it. But I’ve experienced the same thing with books. There’s not a single book I love where I also hated the ending. I do remember times in both books and movies where I thought, this may be the best I’ve seen in a long time and then the end comes and I honestly walked away hating the whole thing because of the ending. Everything that has been built, all the time that was invested can be unraveled by the ending.
      I think where the biggest mistake can happen is when a writer is trying to be clever. I find that whenever I’m amused by my writing and think “boy, that was clever,” it’s a sure sign I need to cut whatever I just had that reaction too. For me, at least, it’s usually a sign that the narrator has popped out of the book and said, “Look at me,” which you don’t usually want.
      This is one of those posts that can so easily get out of control, because there are so many things to talk about with endings. On the brightside, I’ll have more things I can write about endings in the future.

  2. // Reply

    I think that the ending of a story should have some similarities to how a good sonnet is written and the volta, where the first part of the poem should “state the problem” with the volta providing the solution… to me this is a bit like a twist in a broader sense… when applied to the story the volta could mean the twist where you bring a surprising end to a problem, very much like a detective story where you realize that the author had tried to mislead the reader (and the protagonist), but it could also mean a happy end, or even a deus ex machina where the author simply end it all with divine intervention…

    However I love ends that are ambiguous, this is partly because then the book will stay with me afterwards, a partly open end leaves me room to fill in the blanks and see different options… this is not a cliff-hanger but closer to life where an end is just a new beginning….

    1. // Reply

      Definitely good connections between poetry and stories. The deus ex machina is an interesting plot device. We should have a discussion on that in a post one day. I think it’s quite tricky to use it well. In fact, I’ve read that you should avoid using divine intervention in a story because it’s too easy to explain why something that was impossible is suddenly solved. It doesn’t require the same work to conclude the conflict. That’s the theory behind why not to use it anyway. I think it’s one of those areas where many people try it and it’s not successful and then there’s an author every so often who comes in and uses it and the result is brilliant.
      It’s interesting that so many people are fans of ambiguous endings. I’d like to say that I’m not, but I’m not sure that’s true. I write in a way that suggests that I like those types of endings sometimes. But even those stories feel like I know where the ending is going, and I think I do the same with a book. I’ve decided on a certain course the story is going and while the ending is left open for interpretation, I feel the path is very clear. But someone else may read that same book and determine the course of the story goes in quite a different direction. I guess, for me, it really depends on how open-ended the story is left. If it’s too open-ended, I don’t feel like it’s finished.
      These are all great things to think about, Björn. Thank you for adding them to the conversation!

  3. // Reply

    Great post, Mandie! I love open endings once they leave enough room for me to fill in the blanks. I agree that when an ending is horrible, the book would not be memorable.

    1. // Reply

      Thank you, EM! I was just telling Björn in another comment how interesting it is that so many people enjoy ambiguous endings. It’s not the first time I’ve read that in the comments to this blog. I’m going to ponder on that for a bit.

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