Stick the Landing, Pt. 3: Common Mistakes in Story Endings

By Daniel Hope

In Part 1 of this series, we talked about the importance of a great ending. In Part 2, we covered the major kinds of story endings. In this final installment of the series, we look at some of the common problems that ruin endings.

It’s always important to talk about the path you should tread, the straightest road to success. But it’s also important to know things you should avoid along the way. There are plenty of traps that will ensnare you or distractions that will divert you from your goal. So now that we’ve talked about what should be in an ending, let’s talk about the things you should leave out.

Below you’ll find a few of the biggest mistakes writers make when wrapping up a story (of any length), all of which show up regularly in our submissions folder. As with the examples in Part 2, these are general and may even overlap a little.

The “Bet You Didn’t See That Coming” Ending

Imagine you’re at the headquarters of the 42nd precinct Literary Police. You’ve seen plenty of rough characters in your day; the Grammar Goof who left a trail of prepositions straight to his hideout; the Spelling Sinner who has a pathological need to steal vowels and swap consonants; even the Flat Man who sneaks in and removes all the interesting bits about characters. But then a bad-ending crime is reported, and the comma cops bring in a lineup of possible offenders for identification. That’s when you see him: The Twist, the most insidious and inhuman of them all. This is the ugly fellow, webbed in scars, with a maniacal laugh and a twinkle in its eye that says, “Yeah, I killed the endings. All of them. What are you going to do about it?”

The Twist doesn’t care about you, and he certainly doesn’t care about your story. He’ll convince you that you’re clever, then slit your story’s throat without a moment’s hesitation.

While The Twist can be coerced into working for the good guys, it happens so seldomly with endings that you should really think twice about using it, especially if you’re a new author. There’s a reason M. Night Shyamalan movies usually get groans instead of gasps. The Twist will stab you in the back nine times out of ten.

Here’s the problem with twist endings: No one wants to feel foolish. Most twist endings are just a bait and switch. Writers think people want to be fooled. What readers really want is to be wowed. They don’t want to get to the end and read the equivalent of “… and then everything I’ve been telling you for the last 5,000 words turned out to be a lie. The characters you loved were really ghosts/dreams/serial killers, and nothing that happened really mattered.”

Most writers fall in love with the idea of the twist, and then try to construct a flimsy excuse of a story to precede it. No one wants to read this. A good twist needs to reinforce what the reader has already learned by shedding new light on something, not rip the rug out from underneath them. You’re better off putting the twist in the first half of the story and spending the rest of your words letting the characters deal with it.

Please, keep The Twist off our streets. Do it for the kids.

The “She Did What?!” Ending

One of the most confusing things for readers is when someone in a book acts out of character or changes without reason in order to facilitate an ending. The formerly implacable villain suddenly finds a soft spot for his orphan victims, or the staunchly pacifistic protagonist kills all the bad guys in a hail of bullets.

The problem isn’t necessarily the change; it’s the abruptness of the change. Both of the scenarios I just mentioned are plausible if you give enough motivation over the course of the story. But if you throw this change in without establishing the foundation, it feels wrong to the reader, and it makes the whole story feel false.

The “Deus Ex Machina” Ending

You’ve heard of this one because it’s pretty common, and it’s ridiculously frustrating. The phrase means “God from the machine,” but it refers to magical, unexpected, or otherwise incongruent circumstances that wrap up the conflict. It’s the ending where someone says, “Oh hey, wait, we have this gun on the table. Here, I’ll just shoot the bad guy who has been chasing us through this very house for 300 pages. *Bang* Now, what were you saying about wishing we could make it out of this alive so we could explore these sudden romantic feelings growing between us?”

While this problem can seem formidable, it’s often an easy fix: Go back and edit the story so the thing or person that resolves the conflict is established as existing earlier in the story. Or you can come up with a different solution that feels realistic within the confines of the setting, circumstances, and characters you’ve already created.

The “Already Said Everything I Wanted to Say” Ending

Some writers either get bored with a story, or they don’t know how to wrap it up. Stories with this problem stop without a proper denouement or speed through it too quickly. Usually, this is because the author had a great idea for a conflict or climax, and didn’t think about how it would actually play out. They got to the part they liked, and then just quit.

This kind of ending leaves the reader wondering what the real purpose of the story is. Pay attention to the characters and the themes. Create interactions where these themes play out naturally, and then let the story end itself. Give the reader a look at the consequences of the conflict and how it affects the characters.

The “I Can’t Stop” Ending

This is the opposite problem. The author loves the character or the plot too much to stop. Eventually, they peter out into a bland, uneventful ending as they flounder around for a proper place to exit the story. Some say J.R.R. Tolkien had this problem with the Lord of the Rings series, but that is probably a discussion for another day. Regardless, it doesn’t mean you should do it, too.

The solution to this is nearly the same. Focus on the themes and characters, give the reader enough resolution to feel like they understand the consequences, and then get out. You don’t need a flowery soliloquy. Let the characters understand the consequences, and then hit the eject button.

The “What Characters?” Ending

This is a symptom of a bigger problem, namely that the author didn’t care about the characters from the beginning. It’s common among writers who love world-building. This type of story ends with something like this: “And thus Darltyn plunged the Dagger of Winterhell into the sorcerer’s neck. Immediately, the frosty fingers of death came rolling down the mountain and licked at the blades of grass tainted by the Blasted Summer…” and then continues on into a long dissertation of how weather affects the economics and politics of Ylandriaton, never mentioning the protagonist again.

What happened to Darltyn, the guy we spent so much time following? What about his minstrel-thief companion and their lovable golem assistant? A good ending gives us a taste of consequences, big or small, but the focus mustn’t be displaced. Even if Darltyn’s sole and all-consuming goal is to release the frosty fingers of Winterhell, we need to see how this affects him and his companions. Tell us how this ending affects people, not just plots.

The “Do You Get It?” Ending

This ending is common among writers that are too clever for their own good. You know the ones; they took a bunch of lit theory and philosophy classes and make allusions to Camus and Derrida while picking quinoa at the supermarket. There’s nothing wrong with that, unless they try to write a story with a cryptic ending that’s supposed to be profound.

That’s not to say you should hold the reader’s hand and explain every last detail. Just give the reader enough to connect the dots.

The “One More Thing” Ending

This is the most literal and least elegant kind of ending. The author wants to make sure he covers his bases, so he gives us everything in short bursts, and the result sounds like a to-do list. “Taylor died. Ruth felt terrible about it. The vampire decided to take a break, and signed up for a knitting class. Everyone else got over the shock and went back to their lives. But Gary never forgave Theresa. Never.”

This kind of ending makes the whole preceding story sound insignificant. Give the characters and conflict their due. Try to identify the most important character moments and themes. Then follow those until the reader understands what happens.

The “Look Who’s In Charge Now” Ending

This is a tricky one because some of the greatest stories feature a well-executed role reversal to great effect. But a role reversal isn’t something you can just throw in without justification and character development. We’ve seen enough serial killers turned into victims, and victims turned into torturers.

We understand that it can be cathartic, and even a form of retaliation, but the concept itself is rarely enough to justify the story, no matter how cool it sounds. You must justify everything based on the actions and events that preceded it, or it turns into a hollow revenge fantasy.

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There are plenty more ways to flub the resolution of a story, but these are the main categories to look out for. This list will be especially useful during the revision process when your beta readers report a problem but can’t quite articulate what it is.

Most of all, don’t get discouraged if you see your ending on this list. Once you identify the weakness, you can fix it.

Which bad ending do you despise the most? Let us know in the comments. And don’t forget to refer back to Part 1 and Part 2 of this series for more help crafting a great story ending.

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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.

3 replies
  1. Tony McFadden (@Tony_McFadden)
    Tony McFadden (@Tony_McFadden) says:

    Great stuff. The worst ending I read was a from an established author who ended what was for all intents and purposes a thrilling murder mystery with a “he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” The book is probably still in orbit.

    And I had to re-write the ending of my first book so the hero actually did the heroic stuff. Nothing worse than a hero doing all the derring-do for chapters 1 – 35, only to have someone else rescue him in the final chapter.

    Reply
  2. Agria19
    Agria19 says:

    Thanks for the list, it was usefull and fun to read 🙂 I personally dislike the endings that I don’t completely understand , which is probably the “do you get it?” from your list. Vague ending can be cool unless it’s too vague and then you just feel like you wasted your time reading it.
    But I guess regular readers don’t get to read too many stories with bad endings because editors filter them out 🙂

    Reply
  3. Catherine Evleshin
    Catherine Evleshin says:

    Dan, you are a funny guy. Love reading whatever you write.My husband and beta reader calls you the sf Dave Barry.
    your grateful author, Catherine Evleshin

    Reply

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