The Art of Satisfying Endings
A guide for (erotic) writers
Endings are so difficult to get right that I deliberately write them before I flesh out the details of a story.
If I can’t think of a satisfactory way to end a story, I know it’s still not well-formed enough in my mind. So I’ll often park the draft of that story, leaving it to marinate in my imagination, until I can come up with an ending that will do it justice.
Ideas for stories are commonplace, I have notebooks full of them. Yet, surprisingly few of those ideas grow into fully realised stories. That’s because without a great ending, I know any energy I invest in writing the body of the story risks being wasted effort.
Endings give a story a reason for existing in the first place. When a writer knows the destination of the story in advance, the whole work benefits. Subtle hints and foreshadowing can be sprinkled into the story, making it more fulfilling to read (and re-read later, even when readers know the outcome). But if the writer doesn’t know how the story will end, any finale risks seeming tacked on, and the whole work appears half-baked.
Storytelling is indeed a lot like cooking. It’s the process of compiling a recipe for your readers’ imaginations, and then delivering on it. Like any good cook, a writer should source some exceptional quality ingredients, characters, locations, events, dramas, conflicts, philosophical dilemmas, surprises and twists. These ingredients populate the outline of your story, its recipe, which can be composed one bullet point at a time.
Once the tale is in summary form, the outline can be refined with locations, descriptions, interactions, dialogue — and that all important quality of soul — and expanded until your story has the depth that finally feels satisfying. But it’s important to ensure you have sketched out the ending too, before you get too carried away with the juicy details of the story.
A writer needs to have an idea of how the story will end. As Tolkien once said, stories do grow in their telling, so it’s fine if you haven’t quite settled on all the details, but you should at least know the purpose of the story. If you don’t, you risk having to contrive an unsatisfying ending, just to wrap things up.
In this post I’ll explain six different types of ending, and why you might use them in your own stories, they are:
- The Resolved Ending
- The Full Circle Ending
- The Epilogue Ending
- The Ambiguous Ending
- The Cliffhanger Ending
- The Twist Ending
The first three I’ll discuss are ‘closure’ endings, and the last three are more ‘open’ endings. To illustrate the different ways of ending, I’ll provide some examples in this post, some from famous films and some from my own stories (without spoilers). Let’s begin.
1 The Resolved Ending
Also known as the “happy ever after”, this is an ending familiar to anyone who has ever read a fable or fairytale. These endings attempt to bring closure to their readers’ curiosity, resolving all loose ends to their contentment, with everything put in its right place. Good triumphs over evil. Villains are defeated. Heroes are acclaimed. And finally free of obstacles, the protagonists can fall in love.
In these endings, what is being resolved is the story’s ongoing drama. Conflict doesn’t need to be a physical battle, it can be an emotional struggle, or a tussle against prevailing social conventions. Regardless of its nature, when conflict ends, the characters will find themselves in a more peaceful, settled state. And the reader will vicariously feel that relief too.
The road goes ever on and on, of course, and a resolved ending doesn’t mean the end of history. New generations will subsequently be born, and new threats may arise. It just means for now the story has reached a natural stopping place, and the reader can depart satisfied.
Good examples of this kind of ending in film are Stars Wars (A New Hope), and the subsequent Return of the Jedi. In both, decisive battles are won, evil is vanquished, and the protagonists celebrate their freedom. This kind of happy ending is found in many Pixar films too, like the psychological acceptance at the conclusion of Inside Out.
My story Sandalwood and Ginger concludes with a resolved ending, the protagonist having overcome her insecurities, and found what she’s always wanted.
2 The Full Circle Ending
This kind of finale — somewhat counter-intuitively — puts the ending at the beginning. So, by the finale, the reader is brought back to where the story began. It might seem like nothing much has changed, but during the course of the story the reader will have learned why things are the way they are, and become wiser for their journey. As they’ve already seen the conclusion, the interest in the story is now not what happens — but why did it happen?
In a circular story time might unfold conventionally, for example, it could begin with a child who grows up during the story, eventually becoming a parent, so the story ends with their own child, in a similar situation to the opening, or one that contrasts with it. This kind of ending is often used to demonstrate the cycles of life, and the hope in new beginnings. An interesting example is the conclusion of Toy Story 3, where the inevitability of growing up becomes the first page of new adventures.
Another way of telling this kind of story is to start with an establishing scene, and then skip backwards in time to fill in the backstory. A classic example is Citizen Kane, where a journalist investigates the life and times of the titular character, who is pictured dying in its opening moments.
Another intriguing example is the pandemic thriller 12 Monkeys, which skips forwards in time to show what will come to pass, before the narrative returns to the present. Whilst the film Memento has an even more dizzying depiction of past and present events.
I deliberately chose the circular ending in Coming of Age because the theme of the story is personal growth, and the narrator’s own journey. What happens is much less important than why it became possible.
3 The Epilogue Ending
Epilogues jump forward in time to describe the story’s consequences, or to present the story we’ve read from an entirely different perspective. Like the resolved ending, the intention is also to tie up loose ends, and perhaps contextualise the earlier events of the story. What distinguishes epilogues are their use of time passing, or the introduction of a completely new viewpoint. Both provide an opportunity to assess the consequences of what we’ve just seen or read about.
A very conventional epilogue occurs at the end of the final Harry Potter film, showing the main characters a generation later, now with children of their own. Here it’s used to show how evil has indeed been vanquished, and domestic tranquillity has returned.
But epilogues don’t just have to be happy postcards from the future, they might be depictions of alternative futures, a particularly intriguing example is the film La La Land, showing a future where the protagonists’ hearts overruled their heads. The epilogue of Arrival is even more mind-bending, the final few minutes giving the preceding events of the film a completely new meaning.
I used an epilogue in the story Message in a Bottle to give the reader a very different perspective on what would otherwise have been just a behind-closed-doors encounter between two lovers.
The three endings mentioned so far aim to tie up loose threads and fill in the blanks, and so satisfy the reader’s curiosity. But there are other ways to end stories, where everything is not tidied up so neatly, such as…
4 The Ambiguous Ending
Here questions are left unanswered, or the meaning of what happened is ambiguous and left open to interpretation. These endings are challenging to write properly, it’s not enough to just halt the story, leaving issues unresolved, that just makes the story seem unfinished, and risks leaving readers frustrated. The story-teller needs to both conclude the imaginative journey and make the reader care enough to question what they’ve read.
The most subtle endings don’t just happen in the last few pages, they will have been foreshadowed throughout the story. In this sense, an ambiguous finale is a distributed ending, with hints of explanations encountered as the story is told, rather than all occurring near the end. With the true significance of these clues perhaps not apparent until the story concludes.
Ambiguous endings are well suited to surreal and supernatural stories, which rely on a deep suspension of disbelief. Such dream-like adventures are delicately woven illusions that can be easily shattered with clumsy logical explanations. Sometimes, it’s better to leave some things unsaid, and leave space for the readers’ eager imaginations to supply their own interpretations.
Some of Christopher Nolan’s films have famously ambiguous endings, such as the last few seconds of Inception. Much is also left unexplained in Interstellar, as befits a film about the great unknown.
My own ghost story The Island of Bones ends with deliberate ambiguity. Throughout the story the seeds of several possible interpretations were planted, ranging from the realistic to the fantastical. Rather than attempt to rationalise what happened, I felt it was more immersive to allow the reader to decide their own explanation.
5 The Cliffhanger Ending
This kind of ending doesn’t attempt to resolve the drama of the story, but escalate it. It might halt abruptly, leaving the reader to imagine what might happen next. These endings are often used when the story is intended to continue in a sequel, and in short stories that offer a brief episodic glimpse into a world, before the window closes.
To avoid being annoyingly frustrating, these endings work best when the story has been escalating towards a conclusion up until this point, and a resolution (where everything works out ok, or everyone dies) is unnecessary, and risks undermining the story that’s unfolded so far. In such stories the journey is more important than the destination.
The archetypal movie cliffhanger is the original 1969 version of The Italian Job. Those familiar with the early proposed endings of this film describe them as contrived and unsatisfying, whilst the one finally filmed fits the farcical nature of the movie perfectly.
It’s also possible for a story to end with everything in the balance, not with any imminent danger, but on a more wistful note. The classic example of this is the marvellously melancholy finale of The Empire Strikes Back.
I chose to give my story Rape-punzel an unresolved ending because it left the reader to decide whether the brigand’s ascent of the tower was a good or a bad outcome.
6 The Twist Ending
Plot twists often occur within a story, and can also be used to conclude them too, through an unexpected finale that takes the reader by surprise. The best plot twists had clues or motives lurking in plain sight throughout the story, preserving the integrity of the preceding story, and so don’t appear to have come out of nowhere.
The worst plot twists — so-called deus ex machina endings — abruptly resolve a seemingly unsolvable problem with a far-fetched explanation or occurrence, such as a God suddenly deciding to intervene in mortal affairs and using its supernatural powers to put things right. Twists need to be credible if they’re not to come across as lazy and contrived. If unknowable forces can remake the story world at a whim, there’s little point in the reader getting so emotionally invested imagining it in the first place.
The classic twist ending is the original 1968 film of Planet of the Apes. This was written by Rod Serling, the creator of the classic TV series The Twilight Zone, whose episodes often ended with eerie, thought-provoking twists. The ending he created for this film and was so good it survived several screenplay rewrites, and is even better than the ending of the book on which the film is based. This ending blind-sides the audience, in one shocking iconic moment.
Another excellent (and well-executed) twist ending is in the film Fight Club, which forces the viewer to completely re-evaluate everything they’ve witnessed so far, but in a way that’s believable given what we’ve already learned about the erratic nature of the narrator.
As befits its name, I used a twist ending in my story Birthday Surprise, which provides not only an alternative explanation for events, but a continuation of the story the reader would not have anticipated.
Choose Your Closing Thoughts
So, six different ways to end a journey. They can be roughly categorised into the two groups, one set of endings that seek to resolve the story and satisfy readers’ desire for closure, and one set that leaves issues uncertain or unresolved, leaving readers yearning for more.
As with openings (and see this article if you need help writing those), the best choice for your story depends on your intention as a writer: what was the point of your story? And what closing thoughts or imagery do you want to imprint in the departing reader’s mind?
Whereas visual porn invariably ends orgasmically, good erotic writing reflects and understands that not every sexual encounter needs to end in a climax. Not every reader will be reading with the intention of coming at the end, and the libido is not a light switch, so a good ending should be satisfying emotionally and imaginatively, not just physically.
Try to keep in mind that telling a story is like telling a joke, with every paragraph moving the reader closer towards the punchline, which may be the resolution of some drama or mystery at the heart of the story. A worthwhile destination is essential, if it isn’t worth reaching, the story just won’t be worth reading.
Invest your efforts in imagining an ending that will do your story justice.