Here’s the crazy thing about writing. Despite having a finite number of words and letters available, literally an infinite number of combinations exist to create a book out of. But within that infinity of possibilities, certain patterns emerge that work best when crafting our stories.
This applies to endings, as well. Although nobody will come to your door and take you away for writing a bizarre ending that confuses or annoys readers, you have a better chance of success by sticking with the most tried-and-true ways to wrap up a story. To help you choose yours, here are the seven most common and popular used in english-language storytelling since time immemorial.
1. Ambiguous Ending
An ambiguous ending closes with a lot of reader speculation. Although the story has come to an end, there’s a lot of related questions left unanswered. In some cases, these are new questions brought up by the ending itself.
Consider Good Will Hunting. The story in Boston gets concluded when Will leaves for California to rejoin Skylar. However, we’re left wondering how all of that is going to work out. Will she be happy to see them? Will he get a job that’s up to his intelligence? Will they live happily ever after? None of this is necessary to complete the story told in the movie, but imply a further story viewers can think about.
The advantage of an ambiguous ending is depth and immersion. By creating a larger context for your characters, you imply a larger world. Everything feels more substantive and alive. The disadvantage is potentially leaving readers unsatisfied.
2. Resolved Ending
A resolved ending is what most of us think of when we think about ending a story. It answers all the major questions asked during the tale, and wraps up all the plot points. The story is over because there’s nothing left to tell.
The advantage of a resolved ending is clarity. In Lord of the Rings, for example, you know what happened to all of the main characters, and even what happens with the world of Middle Earth. Although it’s a vast world with lots going on, you aren’t left wishing for more information.
The disadvantage of a resolved ending is that it leaves little room for sequels or follow-ups. Tolkien couldn’t have come back a year later with Lord of the Rings 2: Revenge of Sauron because Sauron had been conclusively dealt with. (He did end up writing lots of other things, but most brought up new questions and answered them in their own resolved endings).
3. Unresolved Ending
An unresolved ending closes with lots of questions and few answers. When done well, it leaves the reader hungry for another installment…whether or not you intend to provide one. In a series, it sets up the questions of the next installment. With a standalone novel, the unresolved questions are part of experiencing the story.
For a series example of an unresolved ending, think about The Empire Strikes Back. The story of that movie is resolved, Luke reunited with (most of) his friends, and the immediate peril over. However, there are pressing questions about Han, Luke’s family, the future of the Rebellion, and why they let Lando on the ship.
For a standalone example, consider Stephen King’s novella The Mist. The protagonist and his small band escape the immediate danger of a post apocalyptic world filled with monsters, closing the main action of the story. However, it closes with the narrator telling us he heard a human voice on the radio…leaving us to wonder what happens next.
The advantage of a series unresolved ending is that it whets the appetite for your next book in the series. The advantage with a standalone unresolved ending is the reader experience. They get to invent resolutions, which means they interact with your story long after they’ve finished reading it. The disadvantage of both is taking the risk of frustrating readers, who might have preferred knowing what happens.
4. Tied Ending
Also known as cyclical endings, a tied ending stops the story with a strong connection to the story’s beginning.
Sometimes this is obvious and literal, such as in Steven King’s Gunslinger series, where the end of the final book is the beginning of the first. In others, it’s more thematic. At the end of The Terminator, Sarah Connor is impregnated by the man who came back in time to save her, and carries the child who will eventually send that man back in time. For more examples, watch a random episode of The Twilight Zone. This is one of their favorite ways to finish a story.
The advantage of a tied ending is all about showing off. It takes art, skill, and gusto to do this sort of thing. The disadvantage is that it’s tricky to do. It’s not appropriate for many (probably most) stories, and easy to do in a ham-fisted manner that leaves readers unsatisfied.
5. Unexpected Ending
This is your classic twist ending, where you pull some writerly judo at the last moment and give the reader something very different from what they expect. I mentioned The Twilight Zone earlier, and Rod Serling is a master of this sort of thing.
In the episode Time Enough at Last, bookworm Henry Bemis is picked on by friends, family, and co-workers alike for how much he likes to read. When he survives a nuclear holocaust, he gets to the library to indulge in his reading habit. But at the last instant, his glasses break!
See also many favorites of page and screen: “The Gift of the Magi”, The Usual Suspects, Gone Girl, and Fight Club, just to name a few.
The advantage of the unexpected ending is it gives your reader an emotional hit just as they’re expecting things to be resolved comfortably. This supercharges their last moments with your story, leaving them as excited as they were at the beginning and the climax. The disadvantage is that you need to work this correctly. If you don’t foreshadow the twist, it can fall flat, but if you leave too many hints your reader will see it coming.
6. Expanded Ending
An expanded ending could be called an ending after an ending. Often structured as an epilogue, it describes what happens to the world, or the story’s characters, or both, in the time after the story itself.
The TV series Babylon 5 was not the best television to ever go on the air, but the end of Season 4 remains my favorite example of an expanded ending. The second-to-last episode closed the storylines in a resolved ending for plot and characters alike. For the final episode, we watched a series of vignettes that showed the ongoing impact of the story 10 years, 100 years, 500 years, 1000 years, and 1 million years after the story ended.
As another example, you could call the movie El Camino an expanded ending to Breaking Bad, reassuring viewers that Jesse turned out okay.
The advantage of an expanded ending is it gives more satisfaction to the reader by closing more narrative loops. The disadvantage is that, most of the time, you want to close your story early rather than late. Every page after the climax risks losing reader interest and leaving them feeling bored with your story instead of excited.
7. Roundup Ending
You know this ending. In a movie, you often see it as text on the screen with music in the background. In a book, it’s a series of paragraphs. In either case, it gives you a short blurb telling the ultimate fate of each major character in the story.
For example, in Guardians of the Galaxy 3, they do this by showing what came next for each member of the crew after they parted ways. We got to see how each went on to live their best lives, even though in some cases those lives no longer included being part of the Guardians.
The advantages and disadvantages of the roundup ending are the same as the expanded ending. You give more information and satisfaction at the risk of letting the part drag on for too long.
A Word of Warning
A lot of writers start by pushing back against advice like this. They feel, it seems, that adhering to best practices in storytelling strips them of their creativity. I disagree.
These best practices, these structures for endings, they weren’t decided on by some corporate council and shoved down our throats. They evolved naturally through millennia of storytelling, and the endings which resonated best with humans stayed.
Besides, within each of the reliable endings you still have infinite variety in infinite combinations to use the basic structure to end the story you want to tell.