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6 Types of Story Endings
While every story has to end its own way, there are six general types of ending. Which one you go for will depend, of course, on the story you’re telling, and maybe also on the tropes or conventions of the genre you’re working within (if you’re working within a genre at all).
The six types of story endings include:
- Resolved ending
- Unresolved ending
- Expanded ending
- Unexpected ending
- Ambiguous ending
- Tied ending
What Is a Resolved Ending?
A resolved ending leaves the reader with no lingering questions or loose ends A resolved ending is part of most classic fairy tales (“And they all lived happily ever after…”), but also of countless classic novels.
Consider the ending of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a classic of literary fiction and the inspiration for countless romance novels. At the end of the book, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy marry, and we’re led to believe that their marriage will be long and happy. Not only that, but the rest of Mr. Bennet’s marriageable daughters have settled down in matches appropriate to their characters. In other words, there are no lingering questions or tensions.
Remember, a resolved ending isn’t necessarily a happy ending. Think of any of Shakespeare’s tragedies, in which the protagonist and most of the other major characters usually wind up stabbed, poisoned, or executed. What matters most in a resolved ending is that all of the threads of the novel have been clearly and satisfying resolved.
What Is an Unresolved Ending?
Sometimes, the end is not really the end. That’s the case with an unresolved ending. This is the kind of ending that leaves the reader with more questions than answers. Ending on a cliffhanger has the potential to be a frustrating experience, but that frustration can also be satisfying if the story calls for it.
Unresolved endings are popular choices for books in a series, because it leads the reader to the next book. (For example, unresolved endings are a common device used in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series.)
What Is an Expanded Ending?
An expanded ending often takes the form of an epilogue. As the name implies, it expands the world of the story beyond the events of the narrative itself. That usually involves a jump forward in time, and occasionally a change in perspective as well. (Dostoevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment ends on just such a note, as does Tolstoy’s War and Peace.) Like an unexpected ending, an expanded ending may reframe the way the reader has been thinking about the story.
One advantage of an epilogue is that it allows the writer to answer questions that might not be possible to answer in the space of the main narrative (for instance, how things turned out a decade or more after the main events of the story).
What Is an Unexpected Ending?
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An unexpected ending is one the reader likely didn’t see coming. The twist ending can be earth-shattering, or clever and subtle. The trick to pulling off a great surprise is that it should seem inevitable in hindsight. Very few readers are likely to be on board for an ending that seems to truly come from nowhere, but if the ending makes sense they’re more likely to appreciate the subtle machinations and plot twists it took to get there.
A good ending avoids deus ex machina, a Latin expression meaning “god from a machine.” In the context of fiction, a deus ex machina is a heavy-handed device that abruptly and definitively resolves all the story’s problems in a way that doesn’t feel natural to the story. For instance, a previously unknown rich uncle appearing from nowhere to give the poor striving protagonist a vast fortune may certainly be a surprise, but it’s not likely to satisfy your readers. Remember, a good twist is one that the writer has left clues for all along.
What Is an Ambiguous Ending?
An ambiguous ending is one that’s open to interpretation. While an unresolved ending doesn’t give the reader enough information to say what’s going to happen next, and an ambiguous ending might allow two different readers to come to two completely different conclusions. Of all the endings, the ambiguous one demands the most involvement from the reader, since they are actively invited to think about the significance of events for themselves.
Take a quick look at the ending to Charles Dickens’ classic Great Expectations. In the last lines of the novel, the main character Pip takes the hand of the widow Estrella and says he sees “no shadow of another parting from her.” But is Pip’s vision reliable? Do they stay together or is another parting in the future? The novel leaves the reader with both tantalizing possibilities.
What Is a Tied Ending?
A tied ending is on that brings the story full circle—it ends where it begins. This type of ending follows the classic Hero’s Journey, which is common to many myths and folktales from around the world, but it’s also a popular choice for many works of literary fiction trying to capture the cyclical nature of time. James Joyce’s famously beguiling Finnegan’s Wake even ends on a sentence fragment that literally completes the very first sentence of the novel.
As a writer, you’ll need to make sure that the journey to this point felt worthwhile. Ending up right where you started can feel pointless if the journey there and back wasn’t meaningful.
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