Writing successful story endings are at least as important as writing well and writing a great story. I’ve read great books that have lousy endings that make you wish you had never spent time reading the damn thing. I used to think only short stories required solid, life changing endings. Not true! Great endings are required no matter what!
If you tell your reader the end long before it happens, they aren’t surprised. Quite frankly, if you tell them exactly how the story will end in the beginning, your reader might not get past the first few pages.
You need to have foreshadowing, but overly done foreshadowing can work against you. You want to point the reader down a potentially correct path, not rub their nose in it. Red Herrings are also a great way of keeping the reader from figuring your ending out too quickly.
Like any good rule, there are exceptions. If your story calls for first person narration and the narrator has already told the reader what will transpire: either through reverse chronology or other techniques. Think “Time’s Arrow” and “Aeneid”. In such cases, you have to be so drawn into the story that you still need to know what happens next, or how they came to their current position.
2. Don’t disappoint your reader: aka Last Sentence is more important than first sentence
If there’s one thing you should never ever EVER do, it’s disappoint your reader. This is true of plot consistency, character development, grammar and spelling issues (especially if you self-publish), and bad endings.
Whenever possible, give the reader a finale. But leave SOMETHING unaddressed. You want the major conflict resolved but leave something lingering. Think Hunger Games. Katniss manages to win the Hunger Games (the main conflict), but there is a sense that she has a whole new can of worms to fry.
You could write the best novel on the planet, but if that last sentence sucks, you’ve just wasted all that time for nothing. Last sentences are far more important than first sentences!
3. Appropriate endings
If you write a romance, your main character better end up with the best outcome. I was always angry that Andie never hooked up with Duckie in Pretty in Pink. And don’t you dare kill the main character in a romance!
Mysteries better have a finale that includes someone who they’ve known all along.
Stories like Harry Potter never end very well for the main character…and they shouldn’t. The point is that Harry is the one that gets crapped on all the time. If he gets the girl in Book 2 and everyone loves him, you’ve lost your reader.
4. Ambiguous endings
By ambiguous I don’t mean that the reader has no clue what happened. Instead, you want to leave the finale open just enough to let the reader fill in the gaps and have the ending they want. In K-PAX, there’s a question of which of two endings was reality. We know how the story concludes! That’s not at issue. What’s at issue is: is it the disappointing conclusion, or the more heartfelt happy conclusion…the reader gets to believe what they want to believe.
In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, my wife and I always argue about the ending. Not because we hated it or because the story didn’t end. I read it as a very dark ending. My wife says something more pleasant happened.
The ambiguous ending is a tough one to master. But think of it this way: You already ask the reader to do some of the work. You don’t give the reader every single detail about the story, do you? NO! Only the relevant and important details. The rest is created by the reader. Same should go for the ending.
5. Twist ending
As with any good ending, I’ve saved the best, and my personal favorite, for the end. The Twist!
The unexpected plot twist that jolts the reader. A good twist ending is equivalent to a fireworks finale. Well executed can leave the reader speechless. Love it or hate it, they will love you FOR it. Few authors do this well. Richard Matheson is a master of the twist ending. He turns nearly ever story he writes on its head.
Asimov’s Foundation (the first book in the well-known series) has a brilliant ending that even I didn’t see coming. That last comment by one of the characters just makes you GASP!
Then the credits appear.