Greetings Storytellers! Last month I introduced the topic of endings and how important they are to creating a satisfying and lasting impression of our books: Writing the End, Part One. Now, it’s time to browse through some common types of endings.
Not all types of endings are mutually exclusive, and the goal isn’t to pick one kind of ending and force your story to conform. Instead, it’s to focus on what you want to emphasize as the most important element of your book, what final experience you want to give your readers as they close the last page. It’s how you fulfill the promise you made at the story’s beginning.
There are 8 common ways to end a story.
- Resolved Ending
- Unresolved Ending
- Ambiguous Ending
- Surprise Ending
- Tie-back Ending
- Altered World Ending
- Altered Character Ending
- The Epilog
Today I’m going to chat about the first four.
1. Resolved Ending
A Resolved Ending is the most common way to finish up a book and the perfect choice if you want everything wrapped up and tied with a bow, happily or miserably ever after. Authors frequently employ this type of ending when writing standalone novels or the final book in a series, and it easily crosses genres.
Romances rely heavily on Resolved Endings, and readers expect those Happily Ever After wrap-ups after all the emotional turmoil. Mysteries are much the same where, despite all the confusion and red herrings, the details are cleared up by the last page.
The popularity of these genres may be, in part, due to their resolved endings, which most readers find highly satisfying. These endings conclude plotlines and tie up character threads. There’s no conjecture needed and few questions left unanswered. The reader knows what happened, and has a good idea of what’s ahead for the characters.
Keeping track of plotlines and questions raised by the narrative is a good idea. Eventually, you’ll need to address how Aunt Matilda ended up in the basement and whether Rupert found his missing iguana even if those aren’t major parts of the storyline.
That said, even with Resolved Endings, there’s a limit as to how much detail you need to wrap up. Rather than adding whole chapters to make sure you’ve answered every question the story raised, you can allow readers to reach some conclusions on their own. It’s also acceptable to resolve some of the subplots right before the climax. Perhaps Rupert finds his iguana the day before the heist goes haywire!
2. Unresolved Ending
An Unresolved Ending is the opposite of a resolved ending. The overarching plot remains unfinished, and the writer leaves the final outcomes of some of the characters’ arcs unknown, especially that of the main protagonist.
This type of ending is well suited to a series or serial. It leaves questions unanswered, tasks undone, and conflicts lurking in the mist. If done well, it should raise a desperate desire in the reader to know what happens next. A new hook at the book’s conclusion is vital and a unique aspect of this type of ending. It deserves as much careful crafting as the hook in the first chapter.
Cliffhangers at the end of books are an option with serials, and readers often have mixed feelings about them. Some readers love the excitement and anticipation, while others hate being left hanging, which they’ll let you know in their reviews!
Serials (one long story told over a number of books) may leave numerous unresolved plotlines and character goals as they work up to an epic Resolved Ending. These are common in trilogies, especially in fantasy and science fiction, but they’re by no means limited to those genres. And they often don’t stand alone. The first two books of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are good examples of serials with unresolved endings.
Series (versus serials) often require endings with more closure and, in many instances, they can stand alone. Readers of series generally understand that parts of a story will remain unresolved when they reach the last page. That said, it’s important for writers to keep in mind that not every element in the story should be left swinging in the wind. In general, a good rule of thumb for writing Unresolved Endings is to tie up subplots while leaving the main plot open as a hook into the next book. The assassin is dead, and the hostage has been rescued, but the terrorist mastermind still has the nuclear codes. Think about what threads you want to tie up, what doors you want to leave open, and what questions you want to pose to draw the reader onward.
3. Ambiguous Ending
Ambiguous endings can be thought-provoking and linger in a reader’s mind for days, or they can frustrate a reader who expects a tidy resolution. They’re effective if you want your readers to reflect on the meaning of your book, ponder what actually happened, or muse over what might happen next.
With ambiguous endings, there’s no next book. The conclusion is unclear or unknown. The author withholds information or allows several logical explanations to exist at once, leaving the reader with questions and an opportunity to speculate without having a right or wrong answer.
- Was it murder or suicide?
- Did the government kill the rebel or let him go?
- Is the narrator reliable, confused, or completely mad?
Not all genres work well with these endings, but many do, especially complex stories about “things we can’t or don’t know.” Books with unreliable narrators fall into this category if the reader is left questioning the character’s interpretation of events and what really happened.
These stories still need a climax, and planning this type of ending from the start is essential in preparing the reader for the lack of a full resolution. In these stories, allowing different interpretations should be more satisfying to the reader than having a definitive explanation.
4. Surprise Ending
If you lead your readers to believe a book will end one way, and then you add a big old plot twist or completely unexpected turn of events, you’ve written a surprise ending. Sometimes, the whole story is flipped onto its head with a previously-believed fact turning out to be false.
- The murder victim isn’t really dead
- The jewels they’ve been fighting over are all forgeries.
- The organ donor was her estranged father.
- Innocent old Aunt Bettina is the werewolf!
Surprise Endings are good for toying with a reader’s emotions. Depending on the type of story, surprises can quickly lift a reader’s spirits or send them crashing to the floor. Either way, they create a dramatic shift in a reader’s experience.
Mysteries often include a twist, and fans of the genre love them, but few readers enjoy twists that show up out of nowhere. Details have to lead the reader in one direction, while at the same time, the writer must lay the groundwork so that the conclusion, while unexpected, still makes logical sense and brings the story to a satisfying end.
If a Surprise Ending is well-executed, the author won’t need a character to wrap up the book by explaining the clues, twists, and plot to the other characters. Instead, the action, character, and twist will speak for themselves.
That wraps up the Part II of our exploration of endings with four common ways to end a book. Next time (in January), we’ll tackle the other four types of endings before we head into the elements that make up a satisfying ending.
Which of these endings do you prefer to write or read? If you think back to some of our favorite books, did they fit any of these common types?