Sometimes we know exactly how our story is going to end. And other times, we have no idea how to end a story.
Let’s be honest: most of the time, we have no clue. Perhaps there’s a general idea or sense of the finale in our minds, yet when we sit down to write the conclusion the words don’t come. We’re stuck. We don’t know how to find our story’s ending.
Despite all the troubles with writing the final moments of your story, it is possible to conquer this particular writing obstacle and learn how to find your story’s ending!
The Problem With Endings
Perhaps the biggest problem with writing an ending is the pressure we put on ourselves to “get it right.” Endings are usually the most memorable part of a story, leaving the greatest impression on the reader. We want to figure out how to end a story right, to fulfill every possible expectation of us and our story, leaving no one disappointed.
Another logical reason you might be stuck is that the characters’ problems seem insurmountable. You’re stuck because your characters are stuck, and they don’t know how to get out of the mess they’re in. And while insurmountable odds are a necessary part of a satisfying conclusion, they are often the very thing that stops you in your narrative tracks.
Finally, I often find myself stuck because I’ll have a specific “happily ever after” (or “dreary ever after”) ending picked out, but don’t know the way there. The destination seems clear, but the path to it is shrouded in the fog of creative war.
All of these situations lead to immense frustration and, sometimes, failure to fight the good fight. You stare into the horizon, praying that the ending would miraculous appear on the page. Then, if you’re like me, you slam the laptop shut and give up.
These disappointed reactions don’t solve the problem, though. While it’s a good idea to give yourself some time and space to let the story evolve in your mind is a healthy thing, it’s not a good idea to let frustration consume you and hijack your writing.
3 Steps to Find Your Story’s Ending
A successful story ending has three essential components. If you’re stuck, or don’t know what to do, you can begin sketching and drafting rough ideas for each of these and see how they work together. Then, with something resembling a pirate’s treasure map, start looking for that elusive ending.
Here’s how to do it.
1. Crush With Consequences
Every major story choice is fraught with risk. One of your jobs is to pay that risk off, bringing your protagonist face-to-face with the worst possible outcome of his or her choices.
Pixar does this brilliantly. In Inside Out, Joy actually falls into the “memory dump” pit where everything is forgotten. All hope, it seems, is lost.
Or take Ratatouille, my favorite of Pixar’s works, where all of Remy and Linguini’s fellow chefs abandon them as the food critic waits for an impossibly perfect dish. All hope, again, is lost.
If your protagonist’s choices aren’t burdened with tremendous risk, or if his choices haven’t “earned” some kind of punishment, then your problem isn’t the end, but the middle. The protagonist’s journey must be marked with trials, mistakes, and paradigm-shifting choices.
And the spark that ignites your ending is crushing your protagonist, and often other characters, with the consequences of his or her choices.
2. Surprise With the Protagonist’s Reaction
The next element of a winning ending requires the protagonist to emerge victorious (physically or morally) from the consequences he or she has suffered. And for this step to work, it needs one powerful element: Surprising Action.
First, the protagonist must take some kind of action to get out of the mess he or she is in, or a “reaction” to the consequences. But it can’t be the logical or obvious choice (if there is one). It also can’t involve a magical “get out of jail free card,” known as deus ex machina. It must be an action that truly resolves the crisis through his or her own agency.
Second, it must be a surprising choice. It must be surprising first to the audience, and second to the protagonist. This is where careful planning pays off. When you draft your ending, it allows you to go back and plant the seeds for an authentic-but-surprising reaction to the consequences the protagonist must suffer.
By planning and rewriting, you will deliver a choice that surprises the reader because he or she only sees the doom and gloom of the pit (Inside Out) or the empty kitchen (Ratatouille).
But it must also surprise the protagonist. If he or she knows ahead of time how to get out of the mess then all suspense is lost. The climax of your story because a chemical formula, not a thrilling drama.
When you combine the deep despair of punishment with the shocking joy of a clever, redemptive action, you tell a story that takes your readers on a rollercoaster ride.
That’s exactly what you want!
3. Conclude With a Denouement
Once you’ve taken your reader on the ride of his or her life, the story needs to properly end. And there’s actually one last thing that most readers will want: A denouement, or the point in the story when all the plot threads are tied up.
To hearken back to our Pixar examples, the denouement of Inside Out occurs when we see Riley settling into San Francisco life while her five emotions get a new control board. In Ratatouille, the denouement is when Remy narrates that the restaurant, Gusteau’s was closed, but the food critic invested in a new café where the protagonist is now a real gourmet chef.
To define the denouement for your purposes, think of it this way: It answers the question, “How?”
If you say, “They lived happily ever after,” a denouement briefly shows how that is happening. It gives enough detail to satisfy the reader.
Out of these three elements, this is the least important. When you plan, be ready to change the details of any denouement you have in your mind. It has the smallest impact on reader experience and satisfaction. It is the bow tied around the present. If the gift stinks, but the bow is nice, the gift still stinks.
The Process of Finding
Writing is an art, not a science. We authors operate under principles, not rules or laws.
So there are no rules when it comes to figuring out how to end a story. Yet principles can help you navigate the murky and frustrating waters of storytelling when you don’t know where to go, or how to get your characters out of trouble without cheating.
Remember that this is a process. Even if you have a detailed outline, putting it into prose will be difficult at times. You’re still allowed to slam your laptop shut.
But plan to come back. Cool off for a few minutes while devoting yourself to return to the task and try something new. It’s the only way to survive the war of art.
Do you have any tips for how to end a story, or how to find that perfect ending? Let us know in the comments.
Take fifteen minutes to journal about the end of your current work-in-progress.
What consequences can or should the protagonist suffer for his or her risks, choices, or mistakes? How can he or she react to those consequences in a surprising way and authentically get out of trouble? How will he or she live out a “happily ever after,” or “miserably ever after”?
When you’re done, share your reflection in the comments below. And be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers’ ideas!
You deserve a great book. That's why David Safford writes adventure stories that you won't be able to put down. Read his latest story at his website. David is a Language Arts teacher, novelist, blogger, hiker, Legend of Zelda fanatic, puzzle-doer, husband, and father of two awesome children.