All good things must come to an end—including your future bestselling novel.
But while so much has been written about the fine and noble art of beginning a story, advice on finishing one is scandalously scant.
On the surface, this makes sense—your opening pages are what sell your story…not only to literary agents and acquisitions editors, but to potential readers as well.
The opening hides your hook. It introduces your characters, establishes genre and tone, and sets the stage for the plot to come…all important stuff for securing the undivided attention of a potential reader.
But while your book’s beginning can convince somebody to read your first book, it’s your ending that’ll bring them back for more the next time you publish a story.
I’ll say it again for the folks in the back row: your continued career as a writer depends on your ability to write a compelling ending to your book.
Why Your Novel’s End Matters
Chalk this up to the shrinking human attention span.
Assuming, of course, that a reader finishes your book, the next time they see your name on a bookstore shelf somewhere, it won’t be the beginning of that first novel that they remember. Their minds will instead cast back to your thrilling climax, the devilishly clever way you tidied up your plot’s loose ends—and above all, that slam-bang closing line that floored them with its poignancy and wit.
That’s not necessarily because your ending was better than your beginning; rather, the final pages of the book are fresh in their minds simply because they’re the last thing they read!
And if a great opening chapter proves your mettle as a writer, a great final chapter proves your ability as a storyteller. By setting up compelling characters, a unique world, and plot beats to come, your first chapter makes a pact with your readers, a promise that you’ll take those same elements and craft them into an interesting and engaging story.
Your final chapter fulfills that promise—or totally bails.
Succeed, and your readers will be more than thrilled to line up when your next big bestseller drops. You promised a great story, and now they know you’re good for it—that you can be trusted to take them to the finish line.
But fail, and your readers will feel cheated out of a satisfying experience—and they might not buy a book from you again.
What’s more, a great ending can sell a book by word of mouth better than anything else. Spoiler-worthy endings create a cult of intrigue around your book, making your novel the talk of every water cooler gathering for weeks to come.
How to End a Book in 5 Steps
But ending your book isn’t as easy as writing “The End” at the bottom of a Word file.
The road ahead’s dangerous, friends, but we at TCK Publishing are here to be your loyal guides through the scrub and mud. Follow our comprehensive 5-step guide, and we’ll arm you with everything you need to write the crackerjack ending your future bestseller deserves.
The beginning of the end… is now.
1. Don’t Cheat
In other words: earn your ending.
A truly great ending grows from seeds planted in the opening act of your story. A villain’s defeat, a reunion of lovers, a completion of a nigh-impossible task…all must follow logically from how your story began, from the groundwork you laid in Chapter One—and yet must come as a complete surprise to your readers.
I know that sounds difficult (and, yes, it can be) but there’s one hard-and-fast rule you can follow to avoid accidentally cheating your readers out of a satisfying ending:
Don’t rely on coincidence.
Your villain shouldn’t slip on a banana peel, giving your hero the perfect opportunity to finish him off. Your lovers-at-odds can’t be reunited by a random rainstorm. Your brooding artsy protagonist wouldn’t land her big commission by arbitrary decision or simply by being in the right place at the right time.
Stories with improbable endings are frustrating because they don’t ring true, because they come from blind luck rather than your characters’ abilities and ingenuity. All that character growth you’ve cunningly plotted out over 200-plus pages will be for nothing if your ending is determined by a coin toss.
Instead, try to write an ending that was impossible when the book began, but is made more likely by the growth of your characters. Maybe a dastardly villain seemed invulnerable at first, but your hero studies and trains and betters herself to be his match. Maybe your star-crossed lovers each must overcome some character flaw to be together. Or your starving artist must relinquish some of her integrity to survive in the real world of commercial art.
In other words, your characters have to earn their happy ending—and so do you.
2. Look to Your Writing
You’ve probably seen this cliché in movies: just before the action-packed climax, one character repeats a line of dialogue from earlier in the flick to another character, and in the context of the scene, the line gains new meaning or significance.
Here’s a hard truth: this trope doesn’t show up over and over again because it’s boring…it’s a trope because it works!
There’s an art to the callback, and when used effectively, it can make the experience of reading your novel all the richer. Read back through your novel and mine your earlier writing for important phrases, passages, or snatches of dialogue you can recontextualize in your ending.
Have you made use of any motifs in your story? If eyes have been a recurring image throughout, conclude your novel by describing the experience of seeing the unseeable—or having one’s eyes betray them. If your narrator is unreliable, let her lie to your readers even at the last, desperately trying to deceive them into accepting her view of things.
Do your utmost to tie your closing bars to your opening lines in some fashion. This will make your ending seem purposeful, final—and inevitable.
3. Look to Your Themes
We spoke of this technique before when we talked about how to name your novel, but incorporating the thematic elements of your story is perhaps even more important here.
The final words of your novel do double duty, putting a bow not only on your story but on your themes as well. If your book has a point to make, an axe to grind, or a debate to settle, your ending is your closing argument, your chance to sum up like a lawyer at the end of a long trial.
Consider the example of the last two paragraphs in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus, The Great Gatsby, which I’ve paraphrased here:
“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. […] He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city…
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms further… And one fine morning—
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
This conclusion, in which narrator Nick Carraway ponders the lessons he’s learned over the course of the story, is both thematically resonant and remarkably compact. Fitzgerald’s novel is deeply rooted in the inescapable power of nostalgia, and this passage shows Nick realizing how inescapable our pasts truly are—how humans almost instinctively idolize antiquity, preventing ourselves from building towards a future that nostalgia won’t let us imagine.
The key is to present some grand finality to the arguments you’ve spent hundreds of pages making. Your novel’s themes ask questions of your reader—use your closing lines to answer them.
But at the same time…don’t be afraid to be coy, either. Don’t answer every question with a black-and-white answer. Keep your readers guessing—and thinking. An ambiguous ending can make for great water-cooler talk, too, and leave reviewers, culture analysts, and book lovers theorizing for the foreseeable future.
4. Wrap Up Loose Ends
It’s bad manners to leave your readers hanging.
You’ve created a detailed, textured narrative full of compelling characters and subplots that weave like fine thread through the fabric of your grander story—and your readers have become invested in each and every one.
If you leave a character’s arc unfinished, your audience will get frustrated and leave unsatisfied.
That’s why it’s so important to keep a “fact sheet” for your writing, not only to keep the details of your fictional reality straight, but to help you remember whose stories have been resolved and whose haven’t.
However: If you’re writing a series of book featuring largely the same cast, it’s perfectly acceptable to leave a few songs unsung—just so long as you make sure your readers know that the story isn’t quite over yet.
Always leave yourself an “out,” too. I’ve been in situations where I thought I was writing a standalone novel, but many of my readers wanted to see the story continued somehow. I made the mistake of writing a very “final”-sounding ending, leaving myself with few options of how to pick the story back up.
Learn from my failures, friends! Write an ending that satisfies on an emotional level, but doesn’t guarantee a “happily ever after,” either.
5. Don’t Overstay Your Welcome
Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
You’re watching, oh, let’s say a superhero movie, and the city-leveling superpowered brawl starts to drag a bit. Or you’re reading a thriller where the detectives catch the depraved killer and send him off to the chair—and somehow the book still has sixty pages left.
Each ending just goes on and on and on, refusing to just wrap itself up in a bow and be done, until at last there’s nothing left to do but leap to your feet and scream:
“JUST END ALREADY!”
While the closing strains of your soon-to-be bestseller are a great place to finish exploring your novel’s themes and ideas, the primary function of an ending is just that: to end.
Think of your final chapter like a highly efficient diamond heist: get in, get out, and don’t spend a lot of time being showy, for heaven’s sake.
Resist the temptation to sermonize—now’s not the time to get on your author pulpit and deliver protracted speeches. Once your story reaches a satisfying conclusion, your readers will quickly lose interest, especially if this sort of lecture isn’t coming from the mouths of your characters.
Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead suffers from this—towards the end of the book, the climax of the book stops in its tracks to allow protagonist Howard Roark to explain the central tenets of Objectivism to a captive audience. And while the sermon does ultimately allow Rand’s Übermensch to win some measure of a moral victory, Roark’s speech goes on for pages and pages, draining any tension that the otherwise thrilling trial might have packed.
Resist as well the siren call of multiple endings. If your story has lots of dangling plot threads to tie up, it can be tempting to craft separate endings for each one, but this can drag your conclusion out just as much as a long sermon.
The Return of the King suffers from a bit of this. The Peter Jackson-directed film is particularly famous for having multiple, drawn-out endings: one where the characters parade past Frodo’s bed, one where the hobbits return to the Shire, and one where the titular king actually makes his grand return. These moments do help to resolve many of the trilogy’s dangling plot threads, but the protracted triple ending does distract from the dramatic heft of the story’s climax—the destruction of the One Ring.
Simplify, simplify. If your narrative has too many loose ends to tie them up in a timely and orderly fashion, your book might be bloated or overly complex. Consider eliminating minor plotlines, or find ways to resolve them earlier in the text than the final chapter.
Always remember the basic function of a novel’s ending: to be unique, to be memorable, to stick in the minds of readers like a parasite, forcing them to relive those final, glorious moments over and over again. Your ending doesn’t have to be perfect, or even neat—but it does have to be satisfying.
I could say more, but instead I choose to follow my own advice and be succinct in my final words to you. So I will simply say:
If you’re looking for more advice regarding the structure of your next novel, we’ve got the good stuff right here:
- How to Write Fiction from Multiple Viewpoints and How a Head-Hopping Point of View Hurts Your Book
- Exploring the Monomyth: 6 Lessons from Joseph Campbell’s Theory of “The Hero’s Journey”
- Writing Quiz: Are You a Plotter or a Pantser?
Jacob Mohr relishes the opportunity to work closely as an editor with the authors of tomorrow, creating new stories and exciting possibilities—and making the world a little more awesome, one book at a time.
When he’s not editing someone else’s writing, Jacob can usually be found reading Stephen King, riding rollercoasters, or crafting his own stories.