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Sunday, January 11, 2015

How to Write Effective Story Conclusions

I started writing a novel for NaNoWriMo 2012. Although I didn’t “win” NaNoWriMo that year, I had a great premise for a novel, which I have continued to work on during holiday and summer breaks.

Although this novel used to have an ending, it doesn’t have one anymore after countless (but necessary) revisions (a.k.a. total plot make-overs). Now I need an ending and there are so many ways this could end that I’m having trouble finishing it.

Conclusions are important because if you are successful in hooking your readers to the very end, it is usually the conclusion that the readers remember long after they’ve finished reading.
So I’ve done a little creative writing research for inspiration on how to finish the story. Seems like I’m not the only one who has problems with conclusions. Here are some of the best pieces of advice I’ve found on writing story endings. (Click the links for more details.)

Guidelines for Writing Satisfying Story Endings

  • Effective endings show (or suggest) the result of the story's conflict.
  • Effective story endings come from the main character's actions.
  • Satisfying story endings use elements from the story's beginning and middle.
  • Great story endings make the reader feel something.

Types of Endings to Avoid (Because They Are NOT Satisfying)

  • The happily ever after
  • The drawn out dream
  • The guilty hero’s monologue
  • The lover’s life

Other Types of Endings that (Dis)Satisfy

  • The “right” ending
  • The unpredictable element
  • The plot twist
  • The dark moment
  • The epiphany
  • The could-have-changed-but-didn’t dead end
  • Comingling happy and sad
  • Leave room for interpretation
  • Ties up loose ends quickly

Best Book Endings (According to Publisher’s Weekly)

I appreciate this list, though it’s worth noting the male authors outnumbers the female authors here. Who are some other female authors who have written effective book endings?

  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Atonement by Ian McEwan
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  • Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  • Being Dead by Jim Crace

How Should I End My Story?

I don’t like endings that wrap it all up in a nice little bow. I enjoy endings that leave something open to reader interpretation because those kinds of endings make me ponder and learn about myself and my world outside the scope of the novel. They are also great conversation starters.

I’ll re-explore some of my favorite novels to see how they ended. And then maybe I’ll draft a few different endings and see which one fits best. Wish me luck!

Do you have any tips for writing conclusions? What are some of your favorite story endings?

Written by Anne Greenawalt, writer and writing instructor


  1. This is a great post, Anne. What I noticed which is disturbing is how many WRONG ways there are to end a novel as opposed to right ways. :) That said, i wonder if this isn't another one of those subjective things. I like happier endings but a lot of people don't--so, I tend to gravitate toward happy ending novels and mine are probably more like that, too. However, I also like an ending that suggests the characters live on and have lives even after the novel ends. SO, in both my novels, I left it like that--here's what happening now with the hint that here's what's going to come. I guess that might also open the way for a sequel, but not necessarily. Best of luck in finishing your novel. It sounds like you have really put a lot of time and thought in it, and I think that means it will be great!

  2. Anne--First of all, good luck. It sounds like that NaNoFromLongAgo is worthy of finishing...

    Jodi Picoult writes great endings. They usually aren't happy, but they ARE true to the characters and the storyline.

    You didn't ask, but I think "Gone Girl" has the WORST ending. I don't think it fit with the male character--kind of a weenie ending, in my opinion...

    Before you go to sleep, ask for a dream about the ending. It might come to you while you sleep.


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