Stick the Landing, Pt. 2: A Taxonomy of Story Endings

By Daniel Hope

In Part 1 of this series, we talked about the importance of a great ending. In this installment, we cover the major kinds of story endings. In Part 3, we look at some of the common problems that ruin endings.

Ending a story isn’t the hard part. Making the ending satisfying to the reader is the truly difficult task. Sometimes, you don’t need to tie all plot strings into the prettiest of bows at the end. Sometimes the answer is actually a question. But the point is that the reader needs to see that plot bow or run smack into that question and feel fulfilled, like the story was enlightening. They have to feel that it was worth their time.

It’s surprisingly hard to do. And while there are so many different ways to end a story, they usually have common elements, types of resolution that are independent of plot, setting, or genre. So here is a shortlist of important things to include in your conclusion.

Do not, I repeat, DO NOT treat this as a checklist because a conclusion doesn’t need all these parts to feel satisfying. Maybe the status quo stays the same, but the protagonist is changed. Maybe the protagonist stays his fearless, debonair self, but the major plot point is resolved clearly. Regardless, you need to have at least one of these elements. As a general rule, the shorter the story, the fewer elements you need in the ending, but you’ll find that the most satisfying endings weave more than one together.

A Character Is Changed

This is the staple of good fiction, alternatively known as a character arc. The reader wants to know how the character (usually, but not always the protagonist) is changed by events and interactions. This kind of conclusion shows a character acting, speaking, or thinking differently than they did previously (even if the character doesn’t notice the change). It shows the reader that what happened in the story, whether it was low-key or action-packed, had a lasting impact.

A Battle Is Won

Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star. Batman catches the Joker. Good guy saves the day. You get it. While there are many kinds of conflicts in stories, we’re talking about the concrete ones here. In other words, the protagonist must beat the clock, beat the villain, or escape the trap (sometimes all three). This is the classic action movie conclusion. While you can end with a simple shot of the moment of victory, usually the stronger conclusions will show the after-effects of the victory. Is it a celebration? Is it a bittersweet mourning of those who have fallen? Is it a morose realization that the ends don’t justify the means? What does life look like the day after? Give the reader some context so that the conflict and its resolution feel even more impactful.

A Problem Is Solved

While this category overlaps significantly with “A Battle Is Won,” it specifically covers the kind of conflicts where there isn’t a clear villain to cheer against — the woman vs. environment or man vs. himself kind of conflicts. We still need to see the ramifications of solving (or sometimes not solving) the problem, but the conclusion needs to be even more personal, especially if the conflict is primarily emotional.

A Truth Is Revealed

Be very careful with this one because it can mean a twist ending, and twist endings are seldom good (We’ll talk more about this in Part 3). The biggest thing to remember here is to foreshadow very carefully, and don’t run away after the reveal. In other words, give the characters and the reader time to deal with the new information. There are two subcategories here: either a truth is revealed to the characters (dramatic irony), or a truth is revealed to the reader (a pure twist). If the characters uncover a truth, they need to react believably. The writer has to give the reader enough space to see how the characters respond and how this new information changes their worldview. A good resolution will make it apparent why this truth was unknown in the first place (And it needs to be a darn good reason!). If the truth is revealed to the reader, the writer must give the reader time to assimilate the new information and see how it fits back in to what they previously knew about the characters, plot, or setting. The mystery doesn’t end when the protagonist says, “It was the butler!” The author helps the reader understand what the big reveal means in context.

Remember: Throwing a twist at the very end is never satisfying unless you lay the groundwork throughout the entire story, and even then readers don’t necessarily like to have the rug pulled out from underneath them.

A Tragedy Occurs

Endings can be satisfying without being happy. Sometimes nothing turns out right. The heroine gets to the end only to realize she’s too late, or that her lover is already dead, or that all the french fries are gone (my personal nightmare). The key here is to make the reader feel the emotion of the moment, make them feel like the misfortune has impact. Sometimes this means showing the aftermath, but sometimes it just means showing the despair or frustration that the characters are feeling in that moment when everything goes wrong. You’ll notice that this ending is often paired with “A Character Is Changed” endings. That’s the key to having impact. Whatever you do, don’t abandon characters. Let them dictate how the story plays out after the big turn for the worse.

A Cycle Resets or Someone Dies

At first, this sounds like two completely different categories, but they actually have much in common. Sometimes the protagonist or a supporting character dies (frequently a part of the “A Battle Is Won” or “A Tragedy Occurs” conclusions) or we find that despite all the efforts of the characters, things end up back to the way they used to be. Sometimes the hero becomes the villain. Despite the circumstances being bleak, these types of conclusions deal with acceptance and hope. There is much for readers to learn by reading about how characters deal with events beyond their control. When this happens, be careful to navigate the transition carefully, and give the reader something to hold on to. It’s very important that the reader learns something from the conclusion, but you can’t be too didactic. Being flippant here will make the reader think the entire story was a waste of time.

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There are a few more sub-categories and ways to mix and match the types of conclusions, but these are the basic elements that will get you through the end of any story. Take your favorite book and see which of these apply. You’ll probably find more than one.

Once you understand how these work, you’ll be able to see how they fit into your own stories. You’ll also start to see ways that events and character choices can do double-duty with two or more of these resolutions.

Don’t forget to read Part 3 of this series, where we catalog the major mistakes writers often make with story endings. And if you missed Part 1, where we talk about the importance of a good ending, you’ll want to go back and read it, if only for the faceplants. You’ll see what I mean.

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Daniel Hope is the Managing Editor of Fiction Vortex, where he’s also known as the Voice of Reason. He recently published a science fiction novel, called The Inevitable. He can be found on Twitter @Endovert, or at his author site SpeculativeIntent.com.

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