The Basics of Endings

By Joe Moore

Here at TKZ, we often talk about advanced writing techniques that go well beyond the basics. And because of that, there’s always something here for everyone—wannabes and bestsellers. I have not been writing for very long. My first book was published in 2005. Because of that, I haven’t forgotten what it wdeadend1as like to know little about writing techniques—I had a story or two struggling to get out of my head and that’s all I cared about.

When I consider the many basic tips I wished I’d know back then, I find a strong desire to share what I’ve learned. Not that anything I suggest should be taken for gospel, but some of this stuff actually works.

So many most new writers stumble and fall out of the gate. It’s why so many manuscripts fail to get published or even get considered for publication. And a lack of appreciation for the basics is a huge source of frustration later on when things aren’t clicking. There are no magic beans or silver bullets in dealing with the basics. And despite some urban legends, you won’t be initiated into a secret society of published authors with a special secret handshake. The basics are just that: basic concepts on which to build your story without letting anything block the flow of your creativity.

Today I want to discuss the basics of creating endings.

It’s obvious that a strong ending is as important as a strong beginning. Your reader should never finish your book with a feeling that something was left hanging or unanswered that should have been completed. It doesn’t matter if the ending is expected or unpredictable, it shouldn’t leave the reader with unanswered questions. You don’t want to wind up with a dead ending.

Oftentimes, beginning writers don’t successfully bring all the elements of a story together in a satisfying ending. There’s no real feeling of accomplishment at the end. Your readers have taken part in a journey, and they should feel that they have arrived at a fulfilling destination. This is not to say that every conflict should be resolved. Sometimes an open-ended conflict can cause the reader to ponder a deeper concept, perhaps an internal one. Or a more obvious reason to have an unresolved conflict is to suggest a sequel or series. But something has to occur that will give your readers the feeling of satisfaction that the journey was worth the investment of their valuable time and money.

There are a number of basic methods you can use to make sure your ending is not a dead end. Consider ending with a moment of insight. Your character has gone through an internal metamorphosis that causes her to learn an important life-lesson. Her growth throughout the story leads up to this emotional insight that makes her a better or at least changed individual.

Another technique is to set a series of goals for your main character to work toward and, in the end, are achieved. Naturally, the harder the goals, the more satisfying the ending will be for the character and the reader.

The opposite of this technique is to have the protagonist fail to overcome the main obstacle or goal in the story. The ending may not be a happy one for the character, but he can still experience an insight that is fulfilling for the reader. An example of this would be a character who truly believes that riches bring happiness only to find that true fulfillment comes with the loss of material wealth. In the end, the goals of becoming rich are never met, but he is a better person for it.

You might choose to end your story with irony. This usually occurs when the character sets out to accomplish a goal and expects a certain result only to find in the end the result is exactly the opposite. A con artist tries to pull off a big scam only to be conned and scammed by the victim. There’s an old saying that the easiest sell in the world is to a salesman. Watch The Sting.

How about a surprise ending? There’s probably never been a bigger surprise ending than the movie The Sixth Sense. A kid keeps telling a guy that he can “see dead people”. Well guess what? He sees the guy because the guy is dead. There were audible gasps in the theater at the ending of that one.

As you decide on an ending and begin to write it, think of the summation an attorney makes right before the jury goes into deliberation. The final verdict will be whether the reader loves or hates your book. Or worse, feels nothing. Present a convincing argument, review all your evidence, and walk away knowing you’ve done all you can to get the verdict you want.


Max is back! Coming this Spring, Maxine Decker returns in THE TOMB from Sholes & Moore. #1 New York Times bestseller Brad Thor calls Sholes & Moore one of his favorite writing teams.

27 thoughts on “The Basics of Endings

  1. A satisfactory end is critically important if you want the reader to come back for more. These are all great tools, Joe. I also make a list of loose ends from the reader’s viewpoint as I do one of my read-throughs. Then I can make sure each point has been answered by the finale. I write traditional whodunits, so there’s always a confrontation between the killer and the sleuth towards the end. But then I have what I call a final “wrap scene” with the protagonist and her friends or family. This is where the personal resolution happens. Whichever way it’s done, that life lesson learned is important for emotional resonance.

  2. Good summary, Joe. Plenty of inspiring options. I like a “full circle” element to my endings where I put my character in a location where it brings closure. An example of this may be a detective who visits the grave of the case victim to say goodbye and let go.

  3. An ending I like (and have used in my WIP) sort of combines several. Protagonists are seeking the golden maguffin which turns out not to be where/what they thought, and the search turns into a fight for survival. They conquer the antagonist and are feeling glad just to be alive and important lessons were learned, yadda yadda, yadda … when, right at the end they realize that maguffin must stll be out there somewhere! And they’re off. It creates the feeling that even though the book is done, the adventure continues, And it leaves room for a sequel.

  4. A message to writers…

    If you are a writer of suspense, mystery, whodunnit novels and put clues and and hints inside your story so the reader can try and “figure out” the antagonist (killer, criminal, super villain, etc.), then by all means keep with the integrity of the clues and don’t play mind games with the reader. What I mean is if the protagonist (detective, investigator, soccer mom during day PI during the night, etc.) finds a handgun clue, don’t tell the reader at the end of the story that the handgun was not a handgun, but really a cigarette lighter. From a reader’s POV, that’s cheating! And, yes, I am thinking of a specific writer and book!

    Just one of my pet peeves, lol!

  5. Joe, thanks for a great post. Thanks for opening up this discussion.

    I heard an author say that a twist ending should be totally unexpected, but the only reasonable explanation when the reader reviews the facts, like The Sixth Sense.

    Like Jordan, my favorite is the “full circle” ending. It just feels so complete.

    Thanks for the post. Looking forward to THE TOMB.

  6. I also admire a writer who has the guts to have a less than happy ending (Michelle Gagnon’s Kelly series is a perfect example.) There has to be resolution, but is can be a painful one.

    I don’t like overly sweet endings. An example, using the detective visiting grave would be, “and then the horn honked and he looked around to see his wife and two kids waving at him. Susie had decided to take him back and call off the divorce and they were headed to Disney World.” I see too much of that as well.

  7. I think the way a story ends is critical to the major themes in the book, i.e., reason why the author wrote the story and what they wanted to say about the world in it.

    I once had an editor suggest I change the ending. I didn’t because I felt the story wouldn’t say what I wanted it to say, or at least the “message” would have been too clear, and I wanted people to have to think about what the story meant (about vigilantism.)

    Try an experiment with some novels you’ve loved. Imagine a different ending (e.g., vigilantes get caught; don’t get caught) and what the reader would think about the author’s views. It’s a fun exercise.

    • Agreed, Sheryl. It’s like watching the deleted scenes section of a DVD. Once you see those scenes, you know why the were left out. I’ve yet to see an alternative ending that was better than the one used.

  8. Joe–
    We’re all the better for your need to share what you’ve learned, and I mean that. I would argue, though, that beginnings matter more than endings, for the obvious reason that a bad beginning makes it unlikely the book will be read. BUT: lousy endings leave a bad taste. The reader has invested hours of the most valuable thing anyone of us has–time–and she closes the book feeling cheated. Goodbye to any chance she will pick up another title by that writer.

    • Okay, Joe, I read it, and think it makes perfect sense. But as I’m sure you’d agree, there is quite a range when talking about makes perfect sense. I am thinking for instance about my suspense novel The Anything Goes Girl, and the second novel in the series, Deep North (due out later this year). I use a prologue in the first, an exotic opener in the second, with no reference in either to my protagonist. With no foolish claims to actual comparison, I seem unable to forget Hamlet. The first big scene involves many things, but the protagonist himself is only referred to. I like this approach–generating expectation, curiosity, even a sense of impatience to find out what the action-oriented opening has to do with the main story. In each of my novels, someone dies. Why? What’s it got to do with the main plot? That’s what I want my reader to have on his or her mind.

    • Thanks for reading the previous post, Barry. At the end of the day, all that really matters is what works for you and what you feel comfortable writing. For those writers who are still searching for their style and focus, I offer my humble basic tips. Thanks again for being a loyal TKZ visitor.

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