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Story endings good and bad

I have been challenged to write about story endings. Which, if I am honest, I do not feel so confident writing about. I know when endings are good. I can try and work out why I feel an ending is rubbish. As for why they are what they are… Well, I have not given it much thought.

And we all know what that means – research time. To write about endings, I have had a look at what other people have had to say. Then I tried to boil endings down to simple and slightly more advanced advice. Each section ends with a video which covers much the same points more completely.

What is an ending?

The function of the ending is to present the final conflict and its resolution. By this point you should have kept all the promises you made with your opening.

An ending should feel like a satisfying conclusion to the narrative. In music, we have a formula for endings (usually, 1-4-5-1). In writing, no such luck. All we have are approaches that are easy to use and ones best left to the experts.

Good and bad endings – the basics.

Like anything in writing there are some methods that are better than others. When we talk of “bad” endings here, I really mean ending types that are almost impossible to do well. Likewise when I talk about “good” endings, I mean endings that are quite likely to be satisfying.

To write this section, I watched a children’s classroom program from the BBC. Yes really. I learned something too.

Bad ending types

  • Flat ending
  • Nonsense ending
  • The far too obvious ending

Good ending types

  • Reflective ending
  • Twist ending
  • Dialogue ending

Whats bad about the “bad” endings?

With a flat ending, you had plenty of fizz for the main story but the ending is lifeless and as limp as six week old lettuce. A flat ending feels like the writer just got bored and stopped writing. This is even worse if you make everything that went before meaningless (it was all a dream). Yawn.

Likewise an ending that all the readers saw coming from the first line is unsatisfying because it was too obvious. That’s not to say that an obvious ending cannot be fulfilling but you will have to work very hard to make the ending provide any level of satisfaction.

What “bad” endings have in common is that they are unsatisfying and frequently disappointing.

Why are the good endings better?

The good endings here each pay off an emotional reward for the reader.

In the reflective ending, the characters muse over what they have been through. Perhaps identifying a moral to the story. We see that they have learned something and grown as people. This is satisfying because we got to come along for that journey.

In the twist ending, something that should have been obvious, with hindsight, surprises us. If on the last page the sidekick pulls off his mask to show that actually he is a space alien would be great if there had been clues. On the other hand, if you just dumped that on us out of the blue, that feels like cheating (it is a nonsense ending, not a twist ending).

The dialogue ending lets us leave with the words of our favourite characters as they talk about the future. This can be satisfying because we realise that the journey is over. A dialogue ending can also be a reflection ending.

These endings explained in a simple way

Here is the simple and child friendly introduction to endings.

If you want more on endings at this level, try BBC Bite-sized’s story endings revision aid.

A deeper look into endings

According to Aristotle’s model of story, the ending brings catharsis. The ending releases both reader and character from the strong or repressed emotions of the narrative journey.

In other words, the ending is the emotional pay off that the story has been teasing us with throughout the protagonist’s struggles. Be it doom-and-gloom or happily-ever-after (or some mix of the two), we feel emotionally fulfilled by a good ending.

Denouements – a little more story after the ending

The final battle is over but we stay with the heroes just long enough for them to go back home for tea and medals. The denouement is the part of the story that carries on after the final conflict has been resolved.

A denouement can be used to tie up a few loose ends, show the happy ending being lived, or make space for a little after action reflection.

The longer your denouement lasts, the greater the chance that the reader will get bored. Pay off any remaining promises and satisfy emotional closure as soon as possible.

Deus ex machina endings

Literally “the god in a box” ending where a magical being or a god pops in and fixes everything. This deus ex machina is deeply unsatisfying almost always because nothing the characters have done contributes in any way to the resolution.

An example of a reasonable deus ex machina is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Raiders is, by any measure, the exception rather than the rule. The protagonist knew the ark was not supposed to be opened and tries to stop it. When the evil villains open it anyway, we learn that the hero was right. Doctor Jones is saved by virtue of the righteousness of his failed quest. An ending that only a master storyteller was able to pull off.

However, most of the time a deus ex machina robs the protagonist of agency. In doing so, the reader is denied a chance to see the protagonist triumph over the obstacles. As a result, we feel cheated because the ending was unearned.

As a rule of thumb, say no to deus ex machina.

Plan for your ending

Discovery writers can find it hard to get a good ending by writing themselves into a corner where the only answer is “it was a dream” or “they are all in purgetory”. Buh, we say, what a poor ending.

You can avoid getting trapped without a possible ending by having at least some idea where you are taking the story. Even if you want to give yourself a lot of space to be surprised, some idea of the ending you are shooting for helps greatly.

A story might be a journey but a journey at the very least aims for a destination. Aim for a story end and you should find that you are less likely to get stranded in the desserts of “how on earth do I wrap this up?”.

You do not need a twist every time

Sometimes the hero faces his greatest foe, they fight, and he emerges victorious. Everyone is saved. They celibate for a week. The end.

There is nothing wrong with a straightforward victory ending. As long as the victory was earned, the ending will be satisfying.

James Bond does the same thing every film. He (somehow) defeats the baddie and gets the girl. Every time. It is still a good ending because he has spent the entire film earning that moment. In many ways, we are watching for that moment. Yes, we knew it was coming, but we enjoy it nevertheless.

Sequel hooks come before the ending

In the age of vast franchises, it can be tempting to lace your ending with material for the next book. This is rarely a good idea. Most of the time, an ending that is nothing to do with ending and all about the next book dilutes the power of the ending.

Instead, seed the hooks of your sequel well in advance. Allow your protagonist a proper ending. They have won this battle so let them bask in victory before you remind us that the war is not over yet. The victory offers hope. Hope that you might dash in the early stages of the next part but hope that makes a good ending nevertheless.

10 Story Ending Tips

These points I have raised are covered in this video (and more besides).

The End?

I hope that you enjoyed this trip through story endings as much as I enjoyed researching it. This project has allowed me to put into words some things I had only an instinctual understanding of as well as allowing me to learn a little more about writing (and endings).

What ending tips would you add? Have you ever used a “bad” ending type for a satisfying ending? Are you great with endings or do you struggle? Tell us your thoughts on endings in the comments below.

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