How to Write a Powerful Ending

drafting plotting
How to write a powerful ending

Everyone knows it’s important to start a story with a hook that engages readers, but it’s equally important how you end your story. You want readers to walk away feeling satisfied, emotional, and hungry for more, especially if you’re writing a series.

How do you write a final scene, or final line, that will stay with your readers long after they’ve closed the book? There are many paths you can take. You could end with a poetic line, epilogue-ish vignettes, or a heartwarming scene. Your ending could offer closure or a cliffhanger. You could choose to tie up loose ends or leave things messy.

The possibilities are endless, but there are things you can do to make sure your particular book has just the right ending. In this post, we’ll offer five tips that’ll help you craft the kind of sendoff that will sit in readers’ minds for years to come.

Strengthen your third act

In most cases, you want your readers to feel what your characters are feeling at the end of the book, whether they’re happy, bereft, full of anticipation, or something else. However, for this to happen, the emotional status of your characters must be earned, or else your readers will only feel disappointment.

To properly earn the reaction you want your readers to feel, the buildup from the very first line to the final scene needs to be rock solid, especially in the third act. If, for example, your characters’ showdown with the antagonist is quick and anticlimactic, then the final scene of the book, where your protagonist is mourning the loss of a friend, or bragging about their cheap victory, will strike readers as dissatisfying and hollow. They’ll know that you’re trying to get them to feel a certain way without having done the work to earn their tears.

If the action leading up to the final line of your book feels avoidable, random, forced, like a cop-out, or too lucky (such as an unexplained deus ex machina), then it’ll be difficult to write a satisfying final scene that resonates with your readers.

But if you properly build up to your final scene with a solid third act that takes your readers along on an emotional journey, your ending will feel earned and genuine.

Resolve your protagonist’s arc

Once you have a strong build-up for the emotive ending of your story, your next task is to make sure the final scene completes your character’s arc for the book. It should be a reflection of how they’ve changed, and the lessons they’ve learned.

A classic example of a resolved hero's arc is from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: 

“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”

The final scene of the story takes us back to where it began, with Scrooge speaking to his clerk in his office. However, as a result of what he has learned, Scrooge is no longer a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner," but has grown into "as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew." This final scene shows us clearly how much Scrooge has changed by contrasting it directly with his behavior in the opening scene.

Know when to stop

Have you ever read an exhilarating resolution in a book, only to be surprised that there are still quite a few pages left? You probably felt as if the author was dragging the story on, making for a less emotionally impactful and satisfying ending. When writing your own final scene, don’t make the mistake of ruining the memorability of your character’s arc by inflating the ending with extraneous scenes.

Some authors feel as if they can’t stop writing until every thread in their book is perfectly wrapped up, bow and all, when the truth is that leaving the ending messy can often be poignant. Other authors feel the need to emphasize the moral lesson of the story, and end up hitting the final message too hard.

The best finales, however, often strike an emotionally resonant note (whether everything’s tidy or not) and then fade to black, leaving readers to interpret and absorb the story’s message on their own, the way F. Scott Fitzgerald does in The Great Gatsby:

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

If you find yourself feeling as if there are too many side stories or subplots in your book that need separate endings, or that the message of your story needs to be stated more succinctly, this is probably a sign that the rest of your book isn’t written as effectively as it needs to be. Resist the urge to overwrite the ending; instead, tighten the plot and deepen your characters’ growth so that the final words of your story can ring like the last, powerful note of a symphony, rather than sounding like a strange medley of disparate solos.

Try out a few different endings

If you’re struggling to decide how to wrap up your book, try out a few different types of endings and see what works best for your story. Depending on your genre, message, and writing style, there’s a resolution that will give readers the most satisfaction.

Maybe they’ll resonate most with a happily ever after (Pride and Prejudice), or a bittersweet ending (Mockingjay). Perhaps readers will be most delighted by one final twist (Gone Girl). In some cases, a lack of resolution is best, because the message of the story is that life goes on (What if It’s Us). Or perhaps it’s best to end your book with death and devastation (Hamlet).

Whatever you end up choosing, playing around with all your options will help you draft the perfect, most gratifying final scene.

Revise with your chosen ending in mind

Once you decide on the best ending, it’s time to go back and revise the rest of your book accordingly. How can you make your characters’ journey from point A to point B the most thrilling? How is the final scene a reflection of the opening scene? This is your chance to make sure that the build-up to the perfect ending is earned and satisfying, as discussed in the first point. Writing with an eye toward the last scene is what sets great endings apart from disappointing ones.

While working on this, don’t be afraid to re-read the endings of memorable books that had the perfect last line. How did your favorite authors pull off something so well done? What went into such a successful finale? What effect did it have on you? How can you do the same with your book?

It can be hard knowing how to end things in a way that makes readers remember you as a great storyteller, but if you follow the tips above, you’ll be well on your way to leaving readers delighted, and ready to devour whatever you come up with next!

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