From Good to Great: How to Write Endings That Readers Will Never Forget

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

After all, tomorrow is another day.

I probably don’t need to tell you which movies these iconic lines come from (but just in case, it’s Casablanca and Gone With the Wind). These lines have become enshrined in our collective memory, even for those who might not be fans of the movies.

The final line. The closing scene. That moment that lingers long after the book is shut or the credits roll. Endings are the culmination of your story, the last impression you leave on your audience. A powerful ending can elevate your entire work, while a weak one can leave readers feeling cheated or confused.

So, how do you craft an ending that stays with your readers?

Here Are 7 Ways to Write Unforgettable Endings.

#1 – Tie-Up Loose Ends, But Not Too Tightly.

Readers need a sense of closure but avoid lengthy epilogues that tie up every single detail. Resolve major character arcs and plot threads, but leave room for the imagination to run a little.

Tying up loose ends, but not too tightly, is a crucial balancing act between Closure and Openness. 

A Closure Ending: Readers invest time and emotional energy in your characters and plot. A well-written ending provides a sense of resolution for major plot threads and character arcs. They want to know what happens to the characters they care about and how the main conflict is addressed. However, Tying up every single detail can feel overly neat and predictable. It can leave readers feeling like there’s nothing left to the imagination. Long, drawn-out epilogues that explain everything can be tedious and anti-climactic.

An Openness Ending: Leaving some things unresolved can be equally powerful. It allows readers to use their imagination and ponder the characters’ futures or the story’s deeper meaning. This can be particularly effective for character-driven stories or works that explore complex themes. On the other hand, leaving everything completely ambiguous can be frustrating for readers. They may feel cheated or confused if major plot points are left without explanation.

In The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, the epic quest ends with Frodo leaving Middle-earth. The epilogue gives a glimpse into the future but focuses on the characters who are sailing to the Undying Lands, leaving the reader to ponder the fate of those who remain.

#2 – Leave Them Wanting More.

A great ending can spark curiosity about the future or the characters’ lives beyond the story’s scope. This technique can be great for series or sequels, but even standalone works can benefit from a touch of lingering intrigue.

Important Considerations:

Don’t Be Cruel: While leaving readers wanting more is good, avoid cliffhangers that feel like a cheap trick. The ending should feel organic and flow naturally from the story.

Set the Stage: If you’re planning a sequel, ensure the ending provides enough closure for the current story while also hinting at the potential for further adventures.

The ending of Inception by Christopher Nolan leaves the audience questioning whether Cobb is truly back in reality. The spinning top continues to wobble, prompting viewers to debate the film’s true meaning.

#3 – Deliver a Powerful Emotional Punch.

Great stories connect with readers on an emotional level. A powerful ending can evoke a range of emotions, from joy and satisfaction to heartbreak and despair.

By tapping into these emotions, you can leave a lasting impression on your reader and make your story truly memorable.

Types of Emotional Punches:

Catharsis: A cathartic ending allows readers to release built-up emotions. This can be particularly powerful for stories dealing with grief, loss, or adversity.

Hope and Inspiration: Sometimes, the most potent emotional punch comes from a message of hope and inspiration. It can be incredibly impactful to leave readers feeling optimistic about the future or the human spirit.

Bittersweet Endings: Life is rarely all sunshine and rainbows. A bittersweet ending can be incredibly moving, capturing the complexity of human emotions and the fact that joy and sorrow often coexist.

Crafting an Emotional Punch:

Character Development: The emotional impact of your ending hinges on your characters. Make sure your characters are well-developed and that readers care about their fates. The deeper the connection, the stronger the emotional payoff will be.

Stakes and Conflict: The ending should be the culmination of the story’s central conflict. High stakes and a well-developed conflict will naturally raise the emotional tension and make the ending more impactful.

The Right Words (or Image): Your story’s final line, scene, or image should be carefully chosen to deliver the desired emotional impact. The ending should leave a lasting impression, whether it’s a tear-jerking goodbye or a moment of triumphant victory.

Now think of the examples at the top and see how those lines encompass all those points, whether it is when it is Rick in Casablanca or Scarlett O’Hara in  Gone With the Wind (and please spare me the debate about the book/movie)

#4 – Subvert Expectations (But Not for the Sake of It).

Surprise endings can be powerful but shouldn’t feel like a cop-out. If you’re going to subvert expectations, make sure it’s a twist that feels logical and earned within the context of your story.

Crafting a Satisfying Twist:

Clues and Foreshadowing: Plant the seeds of the twist early on. Subtle hints and foreshadowing should be present throughout the story, allowing observant readers to pick up on them while still being surprised by the final reveal.

Character Consistency: Even with a twist, the characters should still act in ways consistent with their established personalities and motivations. A twist that contradicts a character’s identity can be jarring and unsatisfying.

Thematic Connection: The twist should resonate with the story’s central themes. It should deepen the reader’s understanding of the message you’re trying to convey.

The Sixth Sense famously delivered a shocking twist ending that redefined the entire film. However, the clues throughout the movie made the reveal both surprising and satisfying.

#5 – Return to the Beginning (with a Twist).

Circling back to elements from the story’s beginning can create a sense of closure and highlight the character’s growth.

Crafting a Meaningful Twist:

Don’t Just Repeat: Simply returning to the beginning scene isn’t enough. The ending scene should be a new iteration of the original, reflecting the character’s growth and the story’s events.

Highlight Change: The twist lies in how the characters interact with the familiar elements at the end. Do they see things differently? Have they gained new perspectives or skills?

Emotional Resonance: The ending should evoke an emotional response in the reader. This could be a sense of satisfaction for the character’s growth, a touch of melancholy for the journey’s end, or even a sense of hope for the future.

The historical drama Atonement by Ian McEwan explores the devastating consequences of a childhood lie. The ending beautifully utilises the “return to the beginning” technique with a twist.

The Beginning: The novel opens with 13-year-old Briony Tallis witnessing a pivotal scene that she misinterprets.

The Ending: The final scene revisits the same scene from Briony’s perspective as an adult writer. However, this time, she acknowledges the limitations of her memory and the fallibility of her childhood perspective.

The Twist: The ending doesn’t rewrite the past, but it shows Briony’s attempt to atone for her mistake through her writing.

#6 – End with a Bang (or a Whimper).

The style of your ending should match the tone of your story. A lighthearted comedy might benefit from a witty final line, while a dramatic story might culminate in a more sombre reflection.

Matching Tone and Theme:

Genre Expectations: Different genres often have different expectations for endings. A high-octane thriller might call for a climactic showdown (bang), while a character-driven drama might benefit from a more introspective and contemplative conclusion (whimper).

Thematic Resonance: The ending should resonate with the story’s central themes. A dark and cynical story might culminate in a bleak or ambiguous ending (whimper), while a hopeful and optimistic story might end triumphantly (bang).

Choosing the Right Ending:

Consider the following when deciding between a bang or a whimper:

  • Genre: What kind of conclusion does your genre typically call for?
  • Tone: What is the overall mood and atmosphere of your story?
  • Themes: How can the ending best resonate with your story’s central themes?
  • Reader Satisfaction: Will your chosen ending leave readers feeling satisfied and engaged, or will it feel anticlimactic or confusing?

The cynical ending of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, where Arthur Dent finds himself stranded with no real way home, perfectly captures the novel’s absurdist humour.

#7 – Focus on Character Growth.

The best endings don’t just tie up loose ends; they showcase the transformative journey of your characters.

By focusing on character growth, you create a satisfying conclusion that resonates with readers long after they finish the last page. Remember, endings are about the characters. 

Crafting an Ending that Focuses on Growth:

Show, Don’t Tell: Don’t simply state how a character has changed. Let the reader see it through their actions, thoughts, and interactions with others. This allows the reader to experience the growth firsthand.

Final Challenges: The ending can present a final test that allows the character to demonstrate their newfound skills or resolve. Overcoming this challenge showcases the lasting impact of their growth.

A New Beginning: The ending doesn’t have to be a happily-ever-after, but it should leave the reader with a sense of hope for the character’s future. Even if they face new challenges, their growth suggests they can handle them.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button challenges the traditional notion of growth. By showcasing development through ageing backwards, the story emphasises the importance of appreciating life’s experiences at every stage. The ending, though unconventional, highlights Benjamin’s acceptance and growth despite a life lived in reverse.

This example demonstrates that character growth can be portrayed in various ways. Even in a story where the protagonist ages backwards, the ending can showcase a profound understanding of life’s journey and a deep appreciation for its different phases.

In Conclusion – By considering these techniques and studying how successful authors have crafted unforgettable endings, you can ensure that your own final lines leave a lasting impression.

Remember, the ending is your chance to make a statement, to deliver a final emotional blow, and to leave your readers thinking long after they’ve finished your work.

Now it’s YOUR turn – What’s your favorite ending of all time? Why did it resonate with you?

Would love to get your input in the comment box below.

9 thoughts on “From Good to Great: How to Write Endings That Readers Will Never Forget”

    1. Thanks for your input. Some writers say they start with the last line in their script or novel in order to determine their story arc!!!

  1. Simon Riordan

    Whenever I hear a discussion on endings, I always think of Christopher Nolan. But not, as is most commonly referred to, for inception but for another of his films. Well, two actually, and I think those endings fit in with a lot of the points in your blog; thematic resolution, character arc completion, offering hope and inspiration, setting the stage for things to come whilst also letting the audience run with their imagination – all of those and so much more I always feel these endings have and don’t think they get the recognition they deserve.

    Perhaps Inceptions ‘dangling twist’ takes focus towards that film in Nolan’s catalogue, even Interstellar and especially the excellent Prestige have endings that crop up in discussions of great endings/twists, but I always feel those two were more ‘ta-dah’ showpiece type endings as a curveball to the audience, which is fine but I don’t think complete the points you mention in your blog.

    No, the films I think have his best endings are ones that, in a way, might even be considered ‘beginnings’ – especially for one of them. I’m referring, of course, to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

    Two fantastically written, performed and (in especially TDKs case) edited endings, where character resolutions for each film are provided, stages are set for future events to occur without leaving an audience short changed (I’m sure I read somewhere that Chris and Jonathan Nolan never intended to do a sequel but had that joker tease in at the end anyway) as well as offering an idea of hope an inspiration that ties into the themes of each film.
    It’s almost as if the whole of BB actually is the opening crawl to future installments as that ending scene, with Gordon on the roof talking about how there will be consequences and “escalations” to what has gone before and that is actually that that point where “Batman Begins”.

    And TDK. Wow. Gordon’s words to his describing why Batmans actions are needed; whilst overplaying against character arcs for supporting characters being resolved, tying in to both Batman and their journeys (Alfred deciding not to tell the truth about Rachel, Lucius having his faith in his work restored by the destruction of the phone monitoring software) – and Hans Zimmers score. Triumphant, yet defiant. Like Batman himself has become.

    And once again leading up to to the ‘title card’ which is the point where he has become Gothams ‘Dark Knight’
    For me, those endings stick with me for a long time whenever I watch those films and I always think how I would approach endings to my own writings and hope it can achieve the same level of encompassment of ideas as those two films do for me.

  2. Kent DuFault

    That’s a hard question to answer as there are many. The first one that came to mind was the film, “Argo.” My wife and I watched it in a theater in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In the final scene as they clear into international airspace and everyone in the audience realizes that the characters are safe- there was like a vacuum that sucked all of the oxygen out of the theater… and then the theater erupted. Cheering. I had never witnessed such an emotional outpouring to a movie. It was fantastic

  3. Pamela Perry

    Shutter Island. I don’t know when I figured it out, but when Leonardo DiCaprio was escaping from the Lighthouse, I still didn’t know. Dennis LeHane is one of my favorite writers.

  4. I guess “I see dead people” which you mention in the article. After that? Wizard of Oz? Psycho? Big Fish?
    All completely different, but all emotionally satisfying.

    Speaking of completely different, in one of my screenplays, “Discovering Caroline,” I wrote an ending that — in my humble opinion, haha — could rub up against some of those endings on the same subway train. You should read it sometime. When I was reading your article, I saw more than one of those elements in my ending.

    1. Thank for your contribution Jon. I’m not sure about Wizard of Oz, but “I see dead people” is certainly one of the top ones.

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