There’s honestly not a lot to say about endings except they should be a satisfying conclusion of everything that’s come before—but, of course, that can be harder than it sounds. An exceptionally good ending can elevate a story to greatness (The Usual Suspects, The Shawshank Redemption), or ruin it (Season 8 of Game of Thrones, The Rise of Skywalker for some current examples). To clarify, when I say good ending I mean satisfying, which isn’t necessarily a happy ending.
So endings are important, but you don’t need a big twist or shocking reveal or a bunch of deaths to do it right. All that’s really required is that the ending be the logical conclusion of the story.
On a technical level, all you really need to do is wrap up whether your main character gets what they want and need. If you’ve done your homework, you should know this before you even start writing. The real question becomes how your protagonist gets to their end-state.
Here are the four key attributes of a good ending. A good ending should:
- Make sense
In a coherent story, one thing should lead to another, that leads to another, that leads to another, etc., ideally based on choices the characters make and not happenstance (with the exception of the inciting incident). The ending should be the last tile in this line of dominos.
This is why the Game of Thrones series finale didn’t work (spoilers follow, if you’re one of the five people on the planet who don’t know what happened). Yes, the audience received hints throughout the series that Daenerys was capable of evil. However, there were still a lot of dominos missing between hints she was capable of evil to her actually committing genocide. Foreshadowing is NOT character development, and her sudden pivot from aspiring world leader who sometimes does bad things to bad people for the greater good to mass murderer of the innocent made no sense. It was certainly shocking, but big twists for the sake of shock value alone aren’t good twists.
The exceptions to this rule—where out-of-left-field endings are acceptable—are comedies (specifically farces, ala Life of Brian), and satires, ala Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans.
- Feel earned
Per the definition of a story, the protagonist should have gone through something. They should have been challenged and grown as a result (in a happy ending), or been crushed under the weight (in an unhappy ending). Either way, the ending the hero gets should be due to their own actions and choices—this is what we mean when we say an ending is earned.
Again to use the Game of Thrones example (man, that show crashed HARD), Arya killing the Night King was exhilarating at first, but when people realized that really was the end of the entire 8-season spanning apocalypse storyline—I honestly thought there would be more to it, like another Night King would rise…but nope—the majority of viewers felt rightly unsatisfied. Arya literally appeared out of nowhere, scored a lucky shot to the Night King’s suspiciously flimsy armor, thereby killing the entire undead army, including the undead dragon which Jon was fighting by, uh, yelling at it. …And somehow no other major characters died during this massive zombie attack because…??? Plot armor I guess. The Night King, knowing he was his army’s critical weakness, could have waited outside Winterfell until his unlimited forces eventually overran the humans, but instead he did the incredibly stupid thing for no obvious reason and went into Winterfell himself. I could go on and on about how dumb all this was, but there are plenty of think pieces floating around the internet on Game of Thrones’ awful ending. I won’t waste time piling on here.
The point it, there were no big decisions that weren’t solely to move the plot along; the ending came about through sheer luck and serendipity. The ending to this storyline wasn’t earned.
- Be consistent with established themes
Themes are what give a story its meat. They present a question about the world that your story answers throughout its telling, with your ending being the final verdict. For instance, if a major theme of your story is the healing power of love, then the ending to your story should confirm that theme with someone being healed through love. The Godfather’s major theme is the corrupting power of unquestioning loyalty, and its ending is consistent with that theme as Michael is completely corrupted in his quest to stay loyal to his family.
A bad example is a domestic thriller I read recently (I’ll throw the author a bone and won’t call them out here). We spend the entire book learning about all the ways the main female character was a victim of domestic abuse, and how she faked her own death in order to get away from her horrible husband. The theme: domestic abuse is terrible and should be taken more seriously! Only in the last three pages of the story, we learn it was all a lie—he never abused her. She ran away because she stole a bunch of money from him. …WTF?? So…I guess we’re not supposed to be sympathetic to abuse victims after all, because they could be lying thieves? Talk about a whiplash of an ending, and not in a good way.
- Make clear if the protagonist gets what they want and/or need…unless left intentionally ambiguous
When the question of whether the protagonist gets what they want and/or need is answered, the story is over. It’s as simple as that. The question of the want and the need are usually answered either at the same time, or very near each other. In The Godfather, we see Michael get what he wants—to stop being pulled between his crime family and the “legit” life—while closing the door (literally) on what he needs—to break free of his family’s corrupting control. Then the movie immediately ends (well there’s a part 2, but that’s a different story).
A word on ambiguous endings: an ambiguous ending happens when it’s unclear whether the protagonist gets what they want at the end of the story, ex: Inception. I love a good ambiguous ending! However, the key to pulling off a satisfying ambiguous ending is that it can’t be a cop-out because the author doesn’t know how to end the story (ex: Lost). An ambiguous ending still needs to make sense, feel earned, be consistent with established themes, and make clear if the protagonist got what they needed.
Take, for example, the movie Inception and it’s famous “Is he still in the dream?” ending. It works because we know the protagonist got what he needed—to be rid of the guilt around his wife’s death—after an arduous journey to get there. Also, one of the story’s main themes is the questioning of reality, so an ending where the audience questions reality is consistent with that. The only unanswered question was whether he got what he wanted—to be with his children again—but since the want is only relevant to the need, we can live without knowing.