Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sense of an Ending

At the conclusion of your exciting tale, most readers are rooting for a happily ever after ending. They want the bad guy punished, the good guy rewarded, and the lovers to be in love.

Sometimes that tidy ending just isn’t where the story should go. Should you change it to conform or end it the way you feel deep in your gut it should end? 

Some genres have specific expectations. A Romance should end happily. A Mystery should be solved. Beyond that, the resolution of your story can be a little more creative.

Every story has a central question. Will the protagonist succeed in his overall story goal?

There are multiple answers.

1) Yes. 

Dick succeeds and there is no gray area. The plot is tied up in a neat little bow and there are no unanswered questions. Dick feels good about it. This is an up ending. Readers love up endings.

2) No. 

Dick fails and feels bad about it. He fought tirelessly, but in the end couldn’t win. This is a down ending. Readers usually hate down endings.

3) Yes, but.

Dick succeeds at one thing but fails at another.

He succeeds but there are ramifications of his success that carry on into the future.

He succeeds but at a terrible cost he didn’t calculate. This is a form of up-down ending.

4) No, and further more. 

Dick not only fails, but he is further punished or must try again in a sequel.

Dick may have been going for the wrong goal and not only does he realize he is wrong, he must take on a new challenge to make it right.

Dick fails at his goal and we realize he was the bad guy all along.

5) Yes and No.

Dick thinks he has succeeded or failed in his goal but there is a twist ending and he finds the opposite is true. He can kill monster A only to find out the real monster is B. 

Dick may win the battle but cause a major war. 

Dick may succeed but hurt everyone affected.

Dick succeeds at his goal but during the final credit roll, he gets nailed by an oncoming bus. 

This is another type of up-down ending.

6) Maybe Yes/Maybe No.

The ending is left ambiguous. It is never made clear what really happened or how the story ends. The reader is left hanging. They may want to hang you. It is a risky artistic choice.

Whichever ending you choose, your story architecture must support it. The ending must grow organically from the actions and decisions leading up to it. You don’t have to make everyone happy. You just have to leave everyone satisfied.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Authors who break genre conventions are setting themselves up for--let's say--heated discussions. I think they go into it knowing they're outside their reader expectations, but if they're well established, they can get away with it. (Anyone read The Highway, by C.J. Box--no spoilers, but that was a risk-taking book). Since I write genres with strong reader expectation, I'm not brave enough to go against the grain, although I did 'break the rules' with Hidden Fire because I didn't know you weren't supposed to bring the same hero and heroine (H/H) back in a romance as the protagonists in a sequel. (Unless you're J.D. Robb, in which case you can do anything.)
    Terry's Place

  2. Oh dear, I guess I am weird. I love ambiguous endings and most of my own books have them. They satisfy me because they feel true -- it seems to me that ambiguity and paradox are the Rulers of the Universe. However, this is probably the same reason why most people are happier with endings that answer the questions raised.

    1. Kim, I think more literary works often end with some sense of ambiguity, especially those books marketed as book club fiction. If the end is tied tidily, what on earth is there to talk about? Might as well skip directly to the food and drink. ;)

  3. Ah, Diana, isn't it nice that we have choices? But we really? You say, "The ending must grow organically from the actions and decisions leading up to it." Exactly. It must be an outgrowth of the story. So that determination has been made before the writer reaches that point. Any other conclusion simply doesn't work.

    Great post!

  4. That's why many writers start with the last scene. :)

    1. I see the logic in this approach, Diana, but my characters might well sabotage it were I to take that route. They totally undermined and then "rewrote" the end of my first book. :-)

  5. And, whatever you do, don't plan to write a trilogy, leave the reader hanging at the end of Book 2, and then never write the final installment. This will result in the antithesis of 'fan' mail and this mail will continue to arrive for years... and years... Trust me on this. Great post - thanks!

  6. Great post, Diana. Sending the link to a friend since we were talking about endings just yesterday when this post aired!


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