How to Write Endings That Work

During my classes on writing, people often remark that they find the ending of a story the most difficult to write. The ending, after all, is where everything must come together to excite, explain, and validate that which has gone before. Shaky endings leave us feeling unsatisfied and render the entire story suspect. Writing a great ending isn’t easy. But it is, in my opinion, easier to write than the beginning.

Consider the start of the story – what we sometimes refer to as the “ordinary world”. Here, the right genre must be chosen, the dramatic question created, and the theme and moral of the story conceived. The characters must be crafted from scratch, and then established through pertinent traits; the world they inhabit, too, must be thought out and sketched in – in just the right detail to foreshadow the reveals that are to follow.

Of course, your endings, too, have much to achieve — generate heat and excitement, preferably in a do-or-die confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist, answer your story’s overall dramatic question, explain some of the riddles that have occurred along your story spine, show how the protagonist and other important characters have been changed by the journey, and provide the final twist to the theme, or moral premise. Yet, unlike the beginning of a story, the ending is driven by a sense of inevitability that may serve to guide the writer’s hand. Once the writer identifies the central premise, he or she should able to craft the conclusion as a surprising but inevitable result of that premise.

Unlike beginnings, which may commence at any point, endings are constrained by their point of origin and should therefore be easier, although not necessarily easy, to write. This analysis applies specifically to what we call closed endings, rather than open endings. Open endings are inconclusive or ambiguous by intent, as a way of suggesting the uncertainty and multiplicity of life, and are handled differently. (My novel, Scarab, for example, manages to present an open and closed ending simultaneously). In this post, then, we look at four of the most important characteristics of the closed ending – the second turning point, the crisis, the climax, and the resolution, or the return to the ordinary (but changed) world.

The Final Act

The third, or final section of your story, is intimately connected to the second turning point – the last big event that turns the plot around, leading to the obligatory scene. The second turning point causes a crisis which forces the protagonist to choose between what he wants (the outer goal), and what he truly needs (the two are often at odds). This decision leads to the climax – the do-or-die confrontation with the antagonist. The protagonist then returns to the ordinary world, changed by the ordeal, to find that his world has changed too. Let’s see how this works in the example below:

Unforgiven

The second turning point in Unforgiven occurs when William Munny (Clint Eastwood) learns that his friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) has been murdered by Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) and his men. This leaves him no choice but to seek revenge over and above the job he was hired to do, which was to kill the men who cut up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. For a man who has fought hard to leave behind his days as a ruthless killer, this represents a crisis point. What he wants is revenge. What he needs is to leave his old violent life behind. His decision to avenge Ned’s death leads directly to his confrontation with Little Bill, which he wins hands down. His thirst for vengeance sated, Munny rides back to his ordinary world to raise his children in the manner his wife would have wanted. Although there are many embellishments and complications to each structural unit, the ending, as a whole, follows the classical pattern mentioned above – second turning point, crisis, climax, and resolution. Crafting your ending in this way ensures that your overall structure is sound, allowing you more freedom to add depth, colour, and resonance to your story.

Please feel free to add a comment, ask a question, or suggests further topics for forthcoming posts.

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Stavros Halvatzis

I'm a writer, teacher, and story consultant.

9 thoughts on “How to Write Endings That Work”

  1. i enjoyed your ‘Scarab’ – except for the ending. After so much throughout the story
    i found the ending psychologically and emotionally nothing for me.

    What was i expecting? well, i don’t know. But it is like the landscape which meets
    and exceeds our expectations/understanding-of-what-should-be.
    You once commented that the it-was-just-a-dream story was ‘difficult’ (or something
    like that, which i cannot quite remember) and I think Scarab shows this.

    How are we to bring the story to a close? Especially, how are we to bring the story
    to a close which is psychologically and emotionally fulfilling for the reader/viewer?
    I mean sure, it’s my story, but don’t i have a ‘responsiblity’ to close it well for my reader/viewer?

    1. Thanks for the comment, and for reading the book! In fact, Scarab belongs to an emerging narrative type known as multiform narrative — the subject of my PhD thesis. Takings its lead from quantum mechanics, this means that there is more than one reality, and the narrative jumps around from one to another without apology. Jacob’s Ladder, Shutter Island, Inception, Vanilla Sky, Paycheck, Groundhog Day, and Next, are but a few of many such stories to employ this technique. What happens in Scarab, is in fact, not just a dream, but a leap to an alternate reality. It follows the structure that some have labeled as “forking-path” narrative. Are such narratives emotionally satisfying? That depends on the individual. I’ve had several reviewers write and tell me that they enjoyed the ending the most! I think as narrative continues to evolve and we begin to become more dissatisfied with “pat” formulaic endings, “open” endings of the sort found in Scarab will become more acceptable.

  2. I have to agree but only to a certain extent. I think writing the ending is easy but finding it is difficult. Think about the best endings in cinema and how they took the audience by surprise. Of course, most movies throw clues in to guide you to this conclusion (such as The Sixth Sense or The Others). It definitely helps the writer in finding the ending. But what about a movie like Se7en? That was amazing. Unpredictable. That’s what I want for my screenplay and, I think, that’s why it’s been so difficult to find. I could write the ending in a New York minute but I have to know what it is going to be. Something a lot of writers know before they start… but not me. I prefer to write it all out first, find the ending, and then go back over what I’ve written a few hundred times.

      1. Definitely. Although, my beginning was actually easier on Name of Nowhere. Strange, right. Maybe it’s because half of the beginning is in a place all too familiar to me and the other half of the beginning was meant as a joke. Like a “priest and a jew walk into a bar”.

  3. I re-wrote the ending of my first book three times before I really felt it was powerful enough to move my story along. In the second book I wrote the ending first. 😉 I knew exactly how I wanted it to end and couldn’t wait to get there. In the last book of my trilogy, I know how I want it to end, but can’t decide who all is going to do what yet. So…I’m writing from the beginning. I think every story is different (even in trilogies) and we tell them slightly different as well.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Krystal. Yes, each story is different. I find that knowing the ending invariably allows me to deal with the story problems more effectively. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I’d always write the ending first. Just that I’d like to know where I’m headed. Let us know how your third book in your trilogy turns out!

  4. Glad you enjoy the posts, Shea. You say some pertinent things. In the case of youngsters not knowing the true nature of their goals, this does not mean that they have none, of course. Just that they are not perhaps the right ones yet. This falls in the craving-what-they-want but not yet knowing-what-they-need category.

  5. Hi, Stavros.
    Big cheese here,.
    I agree that the ending is not hard to write. Often, as a learning writer, I find that my Idea for the story in the first place usually derives from a single idea. That single idea being my climax and conclusion. The build up is the part that tends to play with my head and make it either a pleasant or unpleasant experience. Due to the content of the final idea, it was only inevitable that I would have an unpleasant beginning to an even more unpleasant end. Even though the ending was the most enjoyable to write, and ten times more sadistic then the beginning.

    I have also found that teenagers in films such as mine, are still unaware of there inner goal and for some reason , It doesn’t matter they have no goals, Because this story happens at a time of there life, that will create the goals later, but remain unseen. Also, you can read the story ” Rolled Oats” by Russ Welsh, which ties in at the end of my story ” Remnants “. The main character in Rolled Oats is briefly seen in Remnants walking beside a girl he likes, while smsing on his phone to another.

    Great blog once again Stavros. Keep em coming! This is quite fun reading your blogs, Once again jam packed with wisdom.
    Hope you are well.

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