Happily N/Ever After: A Roundup of Unboxed Advice on “The End”

PhotobucketWriter Denise Scotti McCurdy recently sent me this note:

I was browsing through Writer Unboxed… but I had a question. Do you have any articles or suggestions about how to END a story? I’ve been muddling around with a story I would like to write, but I keep stopping because I have no idea how it will end! I know if I just buckle down and go through all the motions, it might come to me, but I think I’d feel more comfortable if I had a little support from someone who has struggled with these same issues.

We can do support. I asked some colleagues from the WU Facebook Community and the Fiction Writers Co-Op how they tackle endings. Here are a few outtakes from those conversations and link shares.

The way I think about it is I’m splaying out all these lines – fishing lines, spools of thread – throughout the story. And in the last third, I’m gathering them up again. When they’ve all been gathered I’m at the end. – Catherine McKenzie

I like the very general advice that the story ends when the main story question (the one you started the book with) is answered. Will she capture the bad guy? Will he find that thing he’s been looking for? – Natalie Hart

I’ve often heard that the ending of a story should compel the reader to pick up your next book. For me, the ending has to complete all of the plot layers introduced, for better or worse, and make the reader feel as if her time was well spent with the story. A perfect ending isn’t always happy, but it should always embody the themes that inspired the writer, and illuminate some truth of life or human nature. – Erika Shephard Robuck

Is there enough of a story to make it into a series? In that case, you’d want to wrap enough of the story up for the first book to feel complete, but still have a thread or two of unfinished business to build the second book. – Jessica Pettengill Messinger

Adds Lester D. Crawford, who writes serial fiction:

[T]hroughout each volume are foreshadowings and setups for events in future volumes. Each book ends on a happy, successful note but with an ominous overtone hinting that something more is yet to come.

Some stories–and writers–are more character-driven from the start…and at the end as well. This isn’t to say that your story has to be one or the other. I believe that a story’s ending is likely hidden in the arc of the protagonist, that whatever is happening on a character’s insides can be applied to the external plot as well.

I make sure each character has a goal and reasons to want to reach that goal, and then the ending falls into place. I just nudge my characters along their arc and trust that they’ll tie it all together in the end. To be perfectly honest, things usually come together in one serendipitous “a-ha” moment that I couldn’t have planned if I tried. – Jessica Turza Brockmole

Vaughn Roycroft, WU’s Facebook Community Editor and a columnist for the WU Newsletter–you ARE signed up for the newsletter, aren’t you?–agrees that sometimes endings can’t be planned.

I thought I knew what my ending would be, but when I got to that moment, I just knew in my heart it wasn’t the end. It took me two more longish manuscripts to get to what I knew was the correct ending. It had to do with the satisfying completion of character arcs. I think you know it in your gut when you finally reach that level of closure.

And while it might be less than comfortable not knowing how the story is going to end before you write it, not knowing is a-okay, too.

I always have Doctorow’s dictum in mind when I start out. That writing a novel is like driving in the dark: you can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole journey that way. I rarely know my ending at the beginning — and the few times I have, it’s changed en route. I write scenes and do research with only the dimmest knowledge of what I’m doing and yes, some of it is redundant, but then comes the moment when it all comes together with a click. ‘Of course,’ I find myself saying. ‘That’s it. How could it ever have been anything else?’ It’s such an exciting, pleasurable moment in the writing process and once it’s happened, the work is easier, lighter and very much faster. But I don’t find the ending, the ending finds me. – Orna Ross

“Happy ever after” doesn’t have to be your story’s destination, either, unless you write in a genre that demands it, like romance. “Unhappily ever after” is an acceptable choice–as long as that choice doesn’t go against the pact you’ve forged with your reader, something Ann Aguirre wrote about here in March.

I have always loved the rightness and often surprise with solid story endings. Fiction gives us a unique satisfaction that life makes sense, that people grow, that chance can be good or at least instructive to a character’s future. Or fiction can break our hearts open (following) the loss of a heroic or sympathetic character, leaving us a bit haunted. – Deborah Taylor-French

When writing my first novel I had a vague idea that perhaps the main character would live happily ever after. At least I fell in love with her so much I wanted her to. However, as the story began to unfold my main character took over the emotional reins and her choices left that happily ever after literally hanging in the air. I think that perhaps even when one has a solid ending, a character can change that with their actions, so I wouldn’t fret too much about not having a clear ending. I would simply travel to the world I’m writing about and let things go from there. – Bernadette Phipps Lincke

So what about that? Can your end your story with a question mark instead of un/happily ever after? Of course.

One of my mentors put it this way, you want to get to a place where the story could open up in a new way. Helps the writer to avoid the trap of tying everything up with a bow. – Diane Sherlock

In her blog post on story endings, author Juliette Fay suggests that we ask ourselves several questions, including:

  • How much do I want the reader to actually know about how it ended? Should the reader be left with things to guess about? Which things?
  • How neatly do I want it all tied up? Which aspects of the story should reach a full conclusion and which should be left as an ongoing issue?
  • Where will each of the characters end up geographically? Emotionally? Professionally? Who will be happy and who will be unfulfilled?

Much can be left for the reader to consider, but know that some readers–and editors–prefer an ending with closure.

In The Day the Falls Stood Still, I left the ending quite open, though there are hints at what comes next. I liked that the reader would have to decide quite a bit for herself. In my next, The Painted Girls, I did the same, and interestingly when I had the opportunity to speak to the editors interested in buying the book, five of the six thought the ending was too open. They wanted a “more satisfying” ending. This was a surprise, especially given that The Painted Girls is more literary/complex than my first. There is now an epilogue and more resolution, more than I need personally as a reader. But who am I to argue with five well-regarded editors? – Cathy Buchanan

Some endings are inspired.

I agonized over how I would end The Oak Lovers. It is based on a true story, so an obvious choice presented itself. However, the protagonist is an ancestor, and one I have deep love for. I wasn’t sure I had the fortitude to write such a thing. On the day I decided I must write an ending, any ending, I felt a strong urge to look at a particular painting by my great-grandfather and I saw the answer there. The lesson in this: Let the character tell you how the story ends. – Kim Downes Bullock

I’ve discovered that I have two ways of finding the end. The first is through what I call a moment of grace. This is when my subconscious self unexpectedly inspires me to write down a complete story (usually, very short). In this state of inspiration, I have a felt sense of how the story is going to end, even though I can’t “see” it as I’m writing down the first line. But there’s an unconditional trust that I’m going to be given the perfect ending for the story, simply by following the inner voice giving me the words or clusters of sentences to write down. The second way is how I work 99 percent of the time. Here, I’m constantly throwing away previous ideas as I become familiar with the characters. With my present work in progress, it’s clear to me that, until I know my characters much better than I do, right now, they’re not going to reveal the true ending to their story to me. – Shelley Souza

Editor Dave King agreed that endings should “arise out of your characters,” and offered one of his favorite last lines, showing that a dab of wordplay can help to close a story circle.

I’d like to mention my favorite last sentence, from Richard Adams’ Watership Down. The first sentence of the book was “The primroses were over,” which is a great opener because it establishes how the rabbit protagonists measure the passage of time by what is in bloom. It also set up the last sentence, which was “The primroses had just begun.”

So, Denise Scotti McCurdy, though we all have different thoughts on how to wrap things up, I think we agree on this much: Listen to your story, to your characters, to your gut. Be okay with *not* being comfortable knowing how everything will be on that last page. And remember that if you write it, and it doesn’t ring true, you can always try another option.

I’ll close with something Robin Black wrote in a post at Beyond the Margins, because I sort of love it:

What if instead of calling endings “endings,” for just a while we called them “givings?” (I hesitate to write this because it sounds both sappy and a bit loopy, a little cringe-worthy, but bear with me here.) After all, the point at which the words on the page stop and the blank page takes over, is the point at which an author gives the story to the reader. Here, I am finished. It belongs to you now. Do with it what you will.

How do you know you’ve reached the end of your story? Please share your thoughts in comments.

Write on!

Photo courtesy Flickr’s damaradeaella


About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.


  1. Jeanne Kisacky says

    When it comes to open endings vs. tying all things up with a bow, I think the ending has to be consistent with the story.
    If an author has spent three hundred pages in complete control, with no loose ends, no unanswered questions, then I expect the ending to be just as tidy. If the story has lots of unanswered questions, roads seen but not traveled, then the open ending makes more sense.
    I got really mad at Charlotte Bronte once for the ending to Villette, (tightly controlled story, hint at open ending) but I did eventually forgive her.

  2. says

    Love this post! One of the reasons my novel in progress is still “in progress” is because I have changed the ending so many times. I think I’m finally happy with the ending I now have. It strikes me as being more like a “giving” – thanks for that thought, Robin Black. Now I’m back at the beginning.

  3. says

    Of my 17 stories thus far, only two are mysteries and both led me to different perpetrators than I set out to reveal. Yes, inhabitating your characters brings the possibility/liklihood of pleasant surprise. Is writing fun or what?

    • says

      That’s so interesting, Alex! You’d think with a mystery that you’d almost have to know the ending when you begin. I’m glad to hear that your inner pantser can still play in that genre.

  4. says

    I love Doctorow’s way of seeing in the dark, with headlights! I had never heard that before. I spoke with another writer, who insists that you should already know your ending before you start… but I can’t ever figure mine out until I’m near the end. I wondered if there were something wrong with me. I feel better now. ; )

  5. says

    I love reading all of these various takes! I’m particularly heartened to read how many lean toward being pantsers when it comes to endings. Love Deborah Taylor-French’s line about achieving ‘unique satisfaction’ even if it is in a haunting loss. Also love Robin Black’s notion of “giving.”

    I still fret about all of my endings, so for me this is a very special post, T! Does my heart a lot of good. Thanks to you for putting it together so wonderfully and to Denise for prompting the post!

  6. J Thibodeau says

    This post came at the perfect time for me—though I’m still muddling through my novel. Although I am an affirmed pantser, I’ve been a bit afraid of the ending, and I think I’d made it into a bigger deal than it is! So thank you to everyone who put their thoughts out there!

  7. says

    What a wonderful, comprehensive round up of writers and their ideas on story endings.

    Vaughn–I identify with that gut feeling. The end wants you to find it. You know when you get it right, down to your bones.

    Thanks so much for including me!

  8. says

    When I just know I can’t go any further. When it’s done. When the character has come to that point where taking them any further along will only cheapen the story and the character. When I breathe out a sigh of “yes, this is it. done.” Etc!

  9. says

    I am (or was!) planning a post for later this Spring called “Bad Endngs”. This covers the subject pretty well, though. Love the advice.

  10. Bernadette Phipps Lincke says

    Love Doctorow’s “seeing by headlights”. I think that works for both pantsers, and those of us who outline stuff. I realize now that my outline points are my headlights. And love, love, love, Robin Black’s take – an ending as “giving” to the reader.

    Thank you for this post, and for the WU Facebook forum where we all get to discuss everything under the sun (and the moon) about write-craft, to learn from each other on a daily basis.

  11. says

    I think something to think about is not letting “not having an ending” mean you don’t finish your book. Write an ending that you know won’t stick. Go back to revise and see what pops into your head. What used to be the end of my book is now the middle. The actual end used to be the middle. The original middle? It’s gone. So just write out an ending so that you can continue, so that you don’t get caught in that quicksand of not knowing what’s next. Just keep going.

  12. says

    Wow, this post is just jam-packed with great stuff. Thanks for making Writer Unboxed such a terrific resource.

    When reading and writing, I always just ask myself if the ending addressed the premise of the book and answered its central question. If so, then the story was a success, and the emotional content is almost ancillary.

  13. says

    Thanks for providing so many resources on endings. There is no single method or process for ending a story. Writers must figure out what works for them. As a reader I don’t like endings that are too neat. I do agree on the need to tie up loose ends. This is a great topic and a useful post. Thanks again.

  14. says

    Oh, I love the chemistry of the ending. It’s the whole point—once the reader gets there, they should be able to look back over the entire novel and realize, ‘Whoa! Everything else was just leading up to this extraordinary moment in the life of this character.’

    That is the moment when the writer flings the reader off the end of the story into the reader’s own epiphany.

    I just caution writers to beware writing toward the Resolution. That infuses the story with your unconscious urge to ‘tidy up,’ which is the opposite of tension. Write toward the Climax, that moment when the protagonist must make an impossible choice between the needs that fuel the story. That infuses the story with your unconscious urge to explore those needs—which is tension.

    Thanks, as always, to Don Maass for the eternal writer’s motto: “Tension on every page.”

    • says

      Wise words, Victoria! And I adore this:

      (The ending) is the moment when the writer flings the reader off the end of the story into the reader’s own epiphany.

  15. says

    I’m a pretty thorough outliner, so I usually have a pretty good idea of the ending before I actually start a draft, but I agree that a good ending has to arise naturally out of the characters, which means that sometimes my idea for the ending changes a good deal before I actually reach it. That’s OK. The best endings, I think, provide a sense of closure and wrap up the major loose ends while still leaving readers with a sense of wonder that will make them want more (which is even better if the book is part of a series). This can be done through a hint for a sequel, a large macro-question that hasn’t been completely answered yet, or some other method that leaves a little bit of tension and the question of what happens next without leaving the reader too in the dark.

  16. Ronda Roaring says

    I get disgusted when I’ve spent hours reading a book only to come to a lousy ending–one that doesn’t tie up loose ends, is inconsistent with the rest of the story or is happy just because the author wants a happy ending. I feel cheated. I have little respect for an author who can’t write a decent ending.

    Agents and publishers are always saying that it’s the beginning that’s so important. You have to grab the reader. But, in my opinion, if you don’t have a good ending, you don’t have a finished book.

  17. says

    What a post and comments full of awesomeness!! :)

    I have just sat myself down recently with a book about plotting and said, “Come on, now, child. Take some medicine. It won’t last forever. Go back and learn the lessons over again, so then you can discard them.” I took a deep breath and cracked it open and was prepared to be bored and dismayed. And was and am, a little. Yawn.

    But then I have never even got halfway with any novel I’ve attempted to write up to this point, so I am willing to look at whatever I need to to get over that hurdle. So I am going over to the dark side to see what may be there for me to bring back from the underworld ;P

    So reading this post was especially delicious for me at the moment :) It’s helping to balance the ship a little.

    • says

      Even published novelists have to go back to the craft books now and then. The right ones illuminate like trusty flashlights — especially when you’re stuck in the pitch-black middle of a work-in-progress.

  18. says

    PS: Does anyone here write short stories as well as novels? I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the differences in approach in terms of knowing your ending, as compared to a novel.

  19. Denise Scotti McCurdy says


    What an overwhelming and thorough trove of information here! This is a brilliant group of people, and I can’t wait to see what other gems will be shared.

    One of the points that resonated, and seems to be shared by many is the knowledge that as a writer there will come a point where you just know how to end the story you are telling. As a novice writer part of that self-trust is missing, and I think that is why I was stuck.

  20. says

    I really like Erika Shephard Robuck’s quote about writing an ending that compels the reader to pick up the next book. When I find I story I love I don’t want to let go of it.