Five Ways You Should Never End Your Story

The Birds: Sorry, by "ending" I thought you meant you wanted a "middle."

A lot of storytellers struggle to find the perfect ending. If you’re one of them, rest assured that even if the world ends, you can satisfy your audience. Just don’t use any of the endings listed here.

Spoiler warnings: Revolutionary Girl Utena (movie), Knowing, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Cube, Soon I Will Be Invincible

1. Lab Explosion Creates Literal yet Metaphorical Paradigm Shift

Utena turns into a car. It's metaphorical, it means... ? Revolutionary Girl Utena: She turns into a car. It’s metaphorical, it means… ???

Sometimes the audience watches the ending unfold – but has no idea what is going on. Or the audience thinks they know the storyteller’s intention, but it doesn’t make any sense. As a result, they never feel the story is resolved.

Avoid complex explanations at the end of your story. Everything should click into place with the revelation of a few, simple facts. To make sure it steers clear of confusion, get help from a beta reader. This person should be an outsider with no previous knowledge of your story or world.

2. Hero Sleeps In, Misses Final Battle

Knowing: Nicolas Cage knows when everyone is going to die, but it doesn't matter, because there isn't any way to prevent it. Luckily aliens came to save his kids, of their own accord. Knowing: Nicolas Cage knows when everyone is going to die, but it doesn’t matter — there isn’t any way to prevent it. Luckily, aliens come to save his kids of their own accord, because he’s pretty useless.

There are few things so unsatisfying as a main character watching helplessly as the ending unfolds. Your unremarkable NPC shouldn’t deal the final blow to the villain, and your protagonist shouldn’t just hold a powerful weapon that does all the smiting itself.

Whatever your ending is, your protagonists need to be instrumental in creating it. The audience needs to see them struggle with the problem, and then solve it themselves. If the apocalypse is avoided, it should be because of their actions. If it isn’t, it should be because of their mistakes. If your main characters perish, make it their choice. You can do this with an intentional sacrifice, or simply by presenting the option to turn back.

3. Swords Clash, Unknown Alien Race Appears and Hands Over Laser Gun

In AI, David seeks to reunite with his mother. He fails. Then two thousand years pass and robot/aliens visit to reunite them. A.I. Artificial Intelligence: David seeks to reunite with his mother. He fails. Then two thousand years pass and robot-aliens find him and reunite them.

While tough challenges are great for stories, occasionally writers create problems so big they can’t think of a legitimate way to solve them. That’s when Deus ex Machina steps in, making everything better with a hand wave. The protagonist is revealed to have an amazing skill or incredible technology, without any previous hint it existed. Other times, the story and the world it’s in take a strange turn into unknown territory right as the ending appears.

You have everything before the ending to establish your world, the bounds of the problem, and the capabilities of your characters. If your protagonist can’t do anything but bend a clothes hanger, and the big bad in your world is a malicious ghost, then there better be a way to defeat that ghost with a bent clothes hanger. The sooner you hint at that weakness, the better. Similarly, if the world isn’t what it seems, your audience should feel something’s off before you make your reveal.

4. Hero Says Final Words: “Promise You’ll…”, Credits Roll

People die, credits roll. What happens to the Cube? Why was it created in the first place? No idea. Cube: People die, credits roll. What happens to the Cube? Why was it created in the first place? No idea.

Your story doesn’t end with the death blow. It ends after you’ve shown your audience the consequences of that last strike. How does the world change? What happens to all the characters? If rocks fall and everyone dies prematurely, all the questions that were brought up during the story are left unanswered.

Every character that wanders off on a mysterious mission needs to appear for the resolution, even if just in spirit. Every book of symbols needs to be decoded, and the father of every child must be revealed. This isn’t necessary at the end of every session, TV season, or book, but it must happen before the overarching story is finished.

Cliff hangers aren’t endings, they are an intermission in the story. That is, unless the sequel never materializes. Then the heroes struggle for eternity, caught between life and death.

5. Hero Wakes Up, Can’t Remember Dream

Soon I Will Be Invincible: Great ending everybody! Now back to your starting positions. Soon I Will Be Invincible: Great ending everybody! Now back to your starting positions.

Nothing says “that entire conflict was a waste of time” more than an ending that shows nothing has changed. If the world is exactly the same and the characters haven’t evolved, a similar conflict will break out soon.

The audience gets emotionally invested in watching the characters or their situation make progress. By the end, your main character should be different enough that if you put her in the starting scene, the story would have played out differently. Then even if the world is no different because of her struggle, she is forever changed by it. On the flip side, if the hero has all his painful memories erased, he should unknowingly live a different life than he would have had he played no role in previous events.

Do I Really Mean NEVER End a Story That Way?

Okay, it’s possible to make a strong ending that looks like one of these. But it shouldn’t be undertaken lightly. First, it’s critical to show you are breaking the rule intentionally. Be bold, not wishy-washy. Second, breaking it has to provide a payoff to the audience that outweighs their disappointment. In the famous story “The Lady, or the Tiger?” by Frank R. Stockton, the ending is left unresolved. Stockton spends the whole story setting up an emotional decision, and then outright asks his reader to make it. It is thought-provoking enough to make up for the frustration it causes.

If you’re new to storytelling, or you want to avoid a spectacular flop, it isn’t time to experiment. Shun endings that leave people with a bad aftertaste.

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  1. Oren Ashkenazi

    “and your protagonist shouldn’t just hold a powerful weapon that does all the smiting itself.”

    This is one of the reasons I absolutely hated the Tim Burton Alice. Just lay back and let the sword do the work!

  2. Whitney McGruder

    Great post! I think it’s true that an ending–as well as the rest of the story–shouldn’t be forced events, and while there can be a twist to the story, it shouldn’t frustrate the reader. Can you write a post about some good ideas to end a story? I’d like to hear your opinions.

  3. Firenze

    I just spent like three hours reading I-lost-count-how-many articles in your blog and I love them.
    Now, this article is particularly good to me as I’m coming near the end of this fanfiction I’m writing and I’m facing this conflict. I still don’t know how deus ex machina my ending is. Because basically, yes, God comes down to save the day. I tried to tone it down by a) adding a character that becomes God’s vessel, basically, foreshadowing, and b) God doesn’t fix everything, only certain stuff.
    To make things a bit easier, if you have seen Supernatural, the fic consists of how things would have ended in The End verse after the season 8 finale. And in my fic, final confrontation. Lucifer is using one of the main characters (Sam), has killed another one (Cas) and our last main character stands hopeless facing Lucifer (Dean). God does stop Lucifer and revives Cas (it isn’t as cheap as it sounds because the show has done it several times already, really). And gives Dean an option to either let her brother Sam die and rest or Heaven or let Sam live with all the burden that had been Lucifer’s vessel involve. And your article has make me realize I’m taking Sam’s agency, and I’m now thinking of ways to resolve that. God also gives Cas the choice to stay human or to become an angel agaon and be at God’s side. This give both Dean and Cas their final test of their character arcs. I still intend for a bittersweet ending wherr even though they make the right choices is too late and the damage is still there (mainly zombie like people) and God refuses to intervene further (plus the character who is now forever stuck as God’s vessel).
    Yet, despite everything I’ve done, it still feels like deus ex machina. And this post I think it’s pointing me where it is. The antagonist is not defeated by the hero’s choice. And I should make my hero make a choice before God’s appearance.
    This fic is the first time I make a novel length writing (and actually carry it to the end). And it’s meant to be an exercise before I go in for real (as well as a way to get rid of plot bunnies that wouldn’t leave me alone). Anyway, I really love this blog and sorry for writing such a long text of something you may probably not be interested in.

    • Chris Winkle

      Don’t be sorry, what blogger doesn’t love hearing that people like her work?

      It sounds like you are on the right track to fix your Dues Ex problem. You can have God save the day and still avoid that issue, God just needs to intervene because of something one of your heroes does. Foreshadowing the solution is also important. I don’t know much about the Supernatural universe (I watched the first episode, and all the women could have been replaced with lamps, and that kinda turned me off), but if it wouldn’t be clear to your readers, establish early that God can intervene, but only would do so in X Y Z situation. Maybe to the pure of heart or something. Then it’s up to the heroes to create the right situation, make themselves worthy of God’s intervention, etc. If you make Dean grow as a person in order to earn God’s attention, you should get a pretty satisfying ending.

      As for Sam, considering letting him put up a fight against Lucifer at the very end. Have him change something that is small (because Lucifer is so much more powerful than he is) but nonetheless is meaningful.

      Good luck with your project!

  4. Kerri

    I loved The Cube and thought the ending was perfect.

    • Nite

      It sure is an unfair entry, since the ending depicts a tragic conclusion to the characters’ flaws and masks.

      By the way, the Birds are themselves a deus ex machina to resolve the social dynamics of the movie (family and love). The birds’ arc represent an easy resolution to a relatively small conflict that leaves dire lasting consequences behind to the major picture (the whole city? the whole state? the whole world? who knows?)

  5. Beca

    I ended my story with my antagonist’s wedding.

    But the chapt before that I was able to wrap things up well, and my protagonist dealt the final blows.

  6. Skylark

    Agree with the points, but disagree with the example used for the last one. I always read Soon I Will Be Invincible as a bit of a love letter to superhero works, lampshading or deconstructing the tropes. (Spoiler) Having the villain ready to escape at the end plays into the genre where a hero has an arch nemesis or rogue’s gallery of recurring villains.

    • Chris Winkle

      Soon I Will Be Invincible is indeed a deconstruction of the genre. The ending could have been commentary, but I don’t think it’s bold enough to be interpreted as intentional. In the case of each character, there’s an effort to give them a closing, but it’s weak. It reads like failed attempts at character arcs. Compare this to The Lady, or the Tiger? – in that story, the unresolved ending is unmistakably on purpose.

    • Cay Reet

      I agree with the point about Soon I Will Be Invincible. The reset to the situation at the end (Invincible planning to escape again) fits with the story. There have been changes, things have come to light, but everything will continue, because there really is no other way.

  7. Morris

    Great read!

    I think A.I.’s ending works as a tragedy. The aliens don’t really save the day. Rather they place our protagonist in a pitiful delusion. The audience is left with feelings of dreams unfulfilled [which is another type of frustration on its own]. The protagonist may not know better but we do and it’s sad.

  8. Devlin Blake

    I agree. Nothing ruins a story like a bad ending.

    A.I. was one of the worst. Also on my worst list: Powder (it had so much promise.) And Super 8. (what? Did the writers get sick of writing?)

    As for one of the most confusing endings, that goes to Evangelion. I’ve seen all the versions of the endings and none of them make any sense. (though the Death of Evangelion came closest.) If I missed a version, I’d like to know. (because I love that show and I want a good ending. It doesn’t have to be happy. Just good.)

    • Nite

      A.I.’s problem is that the ending should’ve been a third act and that this movie should’ve been structured like “Bicentennial man”, starring Robin Williams.

  9. Johannes Sievers

    Regarding #4 I personally prefer endings like that compared to uninteresting solutions to brilliant setups. In my experience as a reader the later is much more often the case than the former.

  10. Kayla

    Spoilers: Lukyanenko’s Night Watch

    This is one of the best examples of #2 done well. The main character sits out the climax, but does so as a deliberate choice – a choice that works as the satisfying, logical conclusion to the story.

    (Also, since I’m already commenting anyway, I recently discovered this blog and have been devouring the content. It’s wonderful, and hugely useful! I’m currently editing a novel and the resources here have been tremendously helpful!)

  11. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    Would #2 (and maybe #3) be applicable to Return of the Jedi? Luke does fight Vader, but then Vader kills the Emperor in the end. #2 (Luke doesn’t kill the main bad guy) and #3 (Vader suddenly saves the day) seem present here. What do you think?

    • Chris Winkle

      I think the climax/ending of the Return of the Jedi is a pretty strong one (if we pretend that Luke giving in to anger will somehow make him want to serve the emperor, which never made any sense).

      While Luke doesn’t fight the emperor himself, he is still instrumental in causing the emperor’s death. He does by keeping faith in Vader’s goodness, ultimately convincing Vader to turn on the emperor himself. If Luke was taken out of the picture, the outcome would have been very different.

      Since there was foreshadowing that Vader might switch sides, with Luke saying he could feel good in Vader, I wouldn’t put it under #3 either. Without any foreshadowing, it could have qualified.

      • Sophie the Jedi Knight

        Thank you! I always loved the end of ROTJ, but looking at this article made me think a bit. I loved it! The article, that is.

      • Greg

        It occurs to me that Luke indirectly defeating the Emperor is rather pointless in the larger scheme of things, since the Emperor would have died anyway minutes later when the Deathstar gets blown to smithereens.

        But I guess we can still give him credit for redeeming Vader.

        • Cay Reet

          Luke actually doesn’t plan on defeating the Emperor. He delivers himself to the empire’s forces for two reasons: because he fears he might draw Vader or the Emperor to the others, since both can sense his presence, and because he wants to try and bring Vader back from the Dark Side (which he does).

          Essentially, both his plans work out well – with him away from the others, they are not easier to spot than any other living or sentient entity on Endor, and he manages to bring Vader back as well.

  12. Drew Russell

    I agree these sections really help me understand that the most cliche things are kind of boring when done right and completely cringy if done wrong.

  13. Kahasai

    The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, unfortunately, ended with all the main characters forgetting what had happened in the previous four books. It was otherwise a great series (at least, it was when I first read it), but I despised that ending.

    D.J. MacHale’s Pendragon series (not about Arthur Pendragon) had ten books in the series, all of them roughly four-hundred pages, if not more. It was a great series, but it ended with too many loose ends. It ended with time being twisted, so that the memory of the protagonist was altered and none of the events of the past ten books occurred. It then skips ahead to when the protagonist is old and dying, when a manuscript of the past ten books comes to him (a manuscript he had written). How reacts to his own manuscript is left a mystery. Perhaps had the author continued with a sequel series, a series that dealt with the consequences of the previous series, the ending would’ve been better.

    Anyways, just some thoughts. I’ve been loving these articles. I may disagree with some of the examples on some occasions, but you guys always make great points.

  14. Cookie Doe

    #5: Stargate Origins

    • Lynn

      Didn’t we all collectively agree to pretend SG Origins never existed?

  15. Vadim

    The ‘aliens’ from the ending of A.I. are actually next gen Mechas. No DeusEx Machina here.

    • SunlessNick

      They’re still a deus ex machina ending.

    • Cay Reet

      Unless it’s foreshadowed in the story, it doesn’t matter what they are, they’re still a Deus Ex Machina ending – an ending which is in no way supported by the story so far.

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