After a reader finishes a book or a short story, it’s often the ending that resonates most strongly. In some ways, the whole book is about its ending: Everything leads up to the ending, and once it’s over, everything points back to it.
But great endings are hard to do well. They require a writer to have a lot of control over the narrative tension and pacing. They often gather many plot elements together into a singular compelling moment to create a high-tension climax. No easy task!
Here are a few elements that can make for a great ending for your book or story:
The “right” ending. A good ending is in line with what came before it. Consider the deus ex machina technique of ancient playwriting. At the last second, the gods swoop in and save the right people. The end.
These days, that kind of contrived ending doesn’t jive with readers. The ending needs to be a logical, appropriate conclusion for what came before—not an ending that comes out of the blue.
The unpredictable element. Even though your ending needs to follow the action that came before it, the best endings aren’t predictable. This doesn’t mean you have to write a shocking plot twist; it just means the ending incorporates some element of surprise.
The plot twist. A plot twist ending can be ginormous or subtle, but what’s most important is that it’s not expected. Some writers have reported that the best plot twists “surprise” even them. Other plots twists are scripted from the get-go. Either way, a good twist feels surprising, but it’s also natural, appropriate, and somehow right.
The dark moment. Your characters’ dark moment arrives when all is apparently lost, when the gulf between hero and heroine seems too big, when it’s clear the aliens will win, when the truth makes the world look doomed and bleak. The blacker your dark moment, the bigger the emotional payoff if/when your characters triumph. Read more about character development.
The emotional epiphany/change. Your main character’s eureka moment can make for a good ending if the moment is big enough. The moment can be one of sudden understanding or insight. Whatever your eureka moment, be sure it has big repercussions for your main character, but also for all the characters around him/her.
The could-have-changed-but-didn’t dead end. If your book is character-driven (or literary), this ending might be especially useful. In this scenario, your character is given a clear opportunity to turn his/her life around. Everything hangs in the emotional balance. But in the end, the character goes back to his/her old ways.
Comingling happy and sad. Often, the best endings aren’t exclusively happy or exclusively sad. By writing an ending that’s both satisfying and full of complex emotion, your reader will be thinking of your story long after he/she turns the last page.
But, as always, it’s important to know your genre. If your readers expect a 100% happy ending, give it to them (or joyfully embrace the risks you take as a writer and cultivate realistic expectations).
Leave room for interpretation. Some great endings are open-ended. When you leave your ending open, you get people talking, thinking, and looking for answers.
Tie up loose ends quickly. After the climactic moment, don’t linger with long explanations of “what happens next.” Once the party’s over, go home. Scenes that follow the climax tend to be low tension.
The Right Ending For Your Book
Some writers find they need to experiment with different kinds of endings before landing on the one that works best for them. So don’t be afraid of trying different endings on for size, and pick the one that feels best. Read more: 5 Common Synopsis Mistakes That Fiction Writers Make