Wondering how to end your story? It’s no surprise! Making sure that the end of your book is worthy of your reader’s journey can be a real challenge! And whether you’re a Plotter who plans the end of your story in advance, or a Pantser who uses the discovery writing method to finish a novel, this post should help you figure out which option is right for you!
As well as unpacking all the options for how to end a novel or story, with examples of each, I’ll also be sharing tips and tricks to make sure your ending really works and is satisfying to your readers! And we even have a WRITING CHALLENGE at the end of this post, to help you practise writing different kinds of endings!
How to end a story with a bang? Try the happy ending!
The princess marries the prince and lives happily ever after. An ugly duckling discovers that it was a swan all along… This is the traditional ending for stories of that fairy-tale type we knew and loved as children. Happy endings are a great way to end a story that will make your readers feel good! Great examples of this include Pride and Prejudice, the Princess Bride and (almost) any Disney Movie ever made!
Happy-ever-after endings are the number-one way to finish a category romance story, too. From fantasy novels to whodunnits, cozy fiction to epic sci-fi, happy endings are preferred by the majority of readers. They leave your readers with a feeling that all is right at the end of your story.
So for happy endings, your readers expect the main conflict – whatever problems they were facing – to be resolved positively. At least, positively for their favorite characters! The protagonists should achieve at least some of their goals within the course of their book.
Rather watch a video than read a blog? Check out our video below, and then read on for more details too!
How to write a happy ending?
So what’s the trick to writing happy endings? Well, make sure you create a conflict that can be reasonably resolved within the scope of your story or book!
If your main character’s primary motivation is world peace, that’s going to be a tough one to solve in one story or novel! Instead, try to break their aims down into an achievable goal. For example, you could end your story with that character facilitating peace-talks between two warring nations. It’s not world peace, but it’s a step in the right direction!
To make sure your ending really is a happy ending, consider your main character arcs, as well as their external goals. You need to show each character’s personal growth through the book, and if you can tie that into your ending, so much the better.
For example, if your character is selfish, and has spent the story learning how to care about others, you might find that their compassion is wrapped up in the solution for how to end your story. If your character is prideful, their humility might be the key (as in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example)!
Finally, make sure that your side characters also get endings! They don’t need to be as extended as the main character’s ending, but conclude their arcs, and give them what they want – or don’t! Even in happy endings, not everyone necessarily gets what they want! But your main characters, at least, should be happy and hopeful about the future. Until book two…
To track personal growth and all those side characters, check out World Anvil’s character-building template! It’s the perfect way to keep track of who wants what, and you can even track diplomacy and their secret feelings about other characters!
But if a happy ending seems too neat, or you want a bit more edge to your book, why not consider a bittersweet ending to your story?
Bitter-sweet endings are endings which have a certain amount of sadness tied up in them, although they still end on a high. Often in bitter-sweet story endings, victory comes at a cost. That cost might be human, like a beloved character dying or sacrificing themselves. It might be a change in the status quo, like the end of innocence, or the fall of some force for good in the world. However you do it, in a bittersweet story ending, there should be a note of tragedy paired with victory.
Bitter-sweet endings are particularly good at conveying the fact that the stakes are high in your book. As such they are often used in epic fantasy books, as well as grittier fiction. The later books from the Harry Potter series are a good example of stories with bittersweet endings.
How to write a bitter-sweet ending?
So how do you write a bittersweet ending? After all, it’s not as simple as a happy ending. One good way is to introduce sacrifice – the bitter note – as a fallen character, a fallen institution, or even a fallen civilization.
The important thing is that this sacrifice must be something that your readers care about. If “some guy” dies, your readers will not care very much. That said, the sacrifice or loss should make sense and be foreshadowed. Make sure you show what poor decision-making, character flaws, or betrayals led to this bitter note. It’ll make your bittersweet ending even more satisfying, and help justify it to your readers.
And of course, the bitter tone of your ending should come near the end of your story! The 11th hour, the dark night of the soul, the darkest point – this is the place the bad stuff should happen. But make sure that the final note of your bitter-sweet ending is sweet, and feels victorious. Otherwise, it’ll read more like a pyrrhic victory – one where the protagonists won, but at a crippling price. Sure, there’s pain and sacrifice in your story, but make sure that your main characters find closure, and tie off any loose ends, too. That’s important for any ending, but especially a bitter-sweet one.
Tragic endings or Sad endings
Full-on tragic endings are the least common of these three ending types. That doesn’t mean that they’re bad, but they must be handled carefully. If you’re looking for how to end a story in a less common way, a tragic ending might be for you.
Tragic endings are those where the protagonists do not end content or happy, or on an optimistic note. The main character might die, or fall short of their goal. Often, the main character has a so-called “tragic flaw”, which causes them to fail at a critical moment. From there, we see events spiral out of control.
Tragic endings are often used in morality tales, or to get a particular point of view or message across to the reader. In Oscar Wilde’s “The Nightingale and the Rose” the protagonists prove themselves unworthy, and so the nightingale’s sacrifice is for nothing. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is another classic example – Dr. Frankenstein dies of illness, and Adam, the monster he has created, heads off to the North pole to commit suicide. Depressing, huh? Certainly! But it makes sense for the story that Shelley is trying to tell, though – it’s a logical ending for those characters in that situation.
There are some good arguments to write a sad or tragic ending to your story. For one, your readers will, in general, not entirely expect it. However well you foreshadow your ending, your readers will still have a little bit of hope that things will all turn out well. After all, almost all stories have happy endings. And if you handle a tragic ending well, it’ll stay with your readers far longer than a happy one.
How to write a tragic ending?
That’s all well and good, you may be thinking, but how do you write a sad or tragic ending? If you want to write a sad or tragic ending to your story, you must foreshadow, foreshadow, foreshadow! I can’t say this enough! Whether it’s tragic flaws, terrible decision-making, or a noble last-minute sacrifice, make it clear why your story is ending in tragedy and what went wrong for the main character. This will help you justify your ending to your readers, and make it feel more poignant.
One great technique for resolving a tragic ending comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Once it becomes clear that Macbeth is an irredeemable character, that his choices have taken him from “it’s complicated” to “tyrannical madman”, Shakespeare does a bait and switch. He selects a secondary character to stand in as the hero. By the end of Macbeth, we are rooting for MacDuff, the guy who eventually faces off against Macbeth and kills him. MacDuff has been personally wronged by Macbeth, so this feels both logical and justified. Evil sowing the seeds of its own destruction, as it were. As a reader, it’s a satisfying ending.
And remember, even if you’re writing a sad ending, to vary the tone of your story. If everything in your novel or story is miserable from start to finish, you’ll have a tough time keeping your readers. Creating moments of joy, humor or happiness within your story will only make your sad ending more poignant!
And finally, Ambiguous endings!
If you’re looking for how to end a story and you haven’t seen anything you like yet, how about an Ambiguous ending?
An ambiguous ending is one that leaves your readers wondering. Some stories don’t finish with clear conclusions. Maybe there are questions or mysteries left unexplained. Maybe it’s not clear if a character lives or dies? Famous examples of this ending include The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and the film Inception. This is a tricky one to pull off, but it’ll keep your reader thinking about your book!
How to write an ambiguous ending?
One tip for how to end a story with an ambiguous ending is to make several options seem plausible. If one of the implied options for your story’s ending seems less likely, then readers will not consider it very ambiguous.
Another tip is to introduce doubt into the mind of the point of view character. If at the end of the novel the reader is presented with character doubt, they are more likely to interpret the end of your story in an ambiguous way.
And of course, whatever kind of ending you’re writing, make sure you check out World Anvil’s worldbuilding and series bible features which are free to explore at www.worldanvil.com!
My husband and I designed World Anvil together so that writers and worldbuilders (like you and me) can always organize and find their setting, character and plot notes! It’s full of worldbuilding, plot and character templates to get you inspired, and you can make timelines, family trees and turn your maps interactive with it too!
Plus our novel writing software recently hit the market and it’s already being adopted by bestselling authors around the world! It’s easy to use and also integrates completely with your world setting, so access all your character, setting and plot information as you write your novel, from one sleek interface!
How to decide the ending for your story
If you’re STILL trying to figure out how to end your story, why not try plotting out more than one ending? That will help you discover the impact of each ending on your main characters, and get a feel for how the readers of your story or novel might react.
You can also do something called AB testing. Finish your story in two ways. Then give one version to one set of beta readers, and another version to another set of beta readers. Their reactions will help you decide how to end your story or novel! Again, World Anvil‘s advanced access system can help you with this, as well as keeping track of which Beta Reader said what!
How to End a story: the Writing Challenge
Iiiiiiiiiit’s challenge time! Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is:
Re-write the plot of a classic fairy tale, like Cinderella or Sleeping beauty, but change the ending to a Tragic, Bitter Sweet, or Ambiguous ending.
Submit your prompt here, follow this URL linked in the description, and make sure you check out other people’s entries too! There’s always someone doing something awesome over on World Anvil!
This challenge will really help you explore other kinds of endings than happily ever after. Make sure you dig into what makes these endings tick:
- add places where you’ll be foreshadowing tragic flaws or betrayals
- introduce reader doubt for an ambiguous ending.
What’s YOUR favorite way for a story to end? Share your answer in the comments!
Not quite ready to end your novel yet? Check out our post on how to end a chapter or scene! Or how about our video below, on 5 Amazing plot devices?!