I've had a few different ideas for an ending that I've narrowed down to two. They both fit the tone and they both fit the story. But they are also completely different. How do I pick?

For example, one of the endings leaves a lot open but is more exciting. The other is more closed but deals with a lot more of the technical stuff that's not necessarily as fun and involves a lot more time jumps. One solves the problem better but the other gives an easier opportunity to reveal a crucial secret.

That was just to give you an idea of my struggle, but in general, after you've trimmed down your options, how do you pick from the ones that are left?

7 Answers 7


I assume this is a SFF novel and not part of a series (yet.)

If this assumption is correct, and you are hoping to publish and be read, you need an ending that fills the contract with the reader - as you have set it up in the beginning. And, the ending should be satisfying to the reader.

A few thoughts:

The story should stand alone, and there should be no loose ends (although there can be 'unfinished details' that can be built from.)

The final solution should include the skills that the characters have mastered, and this is true for the villain as well the heroes. The final solution should not be a 'deus ex machina'. (It should not rely on a stupid thing outside the story, like a piano falls on the villain.) The heroes should earn their victory (assuming they prevail.)

It's impossible to tell you which ending to 'choose' but I'd suggest playing with them both, so that you weave the best of both into an ending. I suggest writing out both. Developing both. Seeing what can be woven in earlier in the book to make the entirety of the book deeper and richer.

As a quick example, I have a very minor character who is referred to as ruthless and is hand waved as a miserable example of humanity. She's so minimal in the story that I've never worked out her exact treachery, only that she is in fact treacherous. I am working out her treachery today, her 17 - year plan to take over the world. She's a minor character. She'll never take over the world. But, writing this plan for her definitely impacts the main characters because they know her - and her plan. It impacts the ending.

So write out both endings. Play and evolve them along. See what you can develop elsewhere in the story that touches on the ending. You will find the right ending through this set of exercises, I would bet a hundred bucks.

  • 1
    This was almost like a law set into stone for 19th or early 20th century novels, but now it's not that strictly necessary, depending on the genre and the focus of the novel. For example, Stanisław Lem was among the most famous sci-fi authors, and almost none of his novels have a clear and unambiguous ending. His novels have the setting in focus, not the story. His goal is to show you a world, not to tell a story, so the story only serves this purpose, and can end (often abruptly without any resolution for the characters) when it achieved that goal.
    – vsz
    Feb 19, 2018 at 13:02
  • @Angew Probably a mistake on my part.
    – SFWriter
    Feb 19, 2018 at 14:29
  • @vsz: nitpicking. As you said, the focus is on the world where the story happens, so the contract is not to provide resolution for a specific plot, but to fully explore the world. (I didn't read anything by Stanislaw Lem, so I am extrapoling from your answer). It is still interesting to know that example to see more unorthodox stories :)
    – DrakaSAN
    Feb 19, 2018 at 17:44
  • @vsz In theory I love the idea and I'm on board. I think the human mind can understand story in many ways, and I think breakthrough stories often find the 'hole' in whatever trend may be underway. But along with those thoughts, I also think the human experience is one of learning about ourselves, towards mastery, and learning (anything, in life) is one manifestation of a hero's arc. So, following that arc is an approach likely to find resonance with many readers.
    – SFWriter
    Feb 19, 2018 at 17:49

You really should not have much choice of endings. Of course, you have all kinds of choices in the specific details of the ending. But in a larger sense the function of the ending of a story is to prove through action that the protagonist has made the choice that they are shown to have made at the climax.

The denouement follows from the climax with a high degree of inevitability. As a result of what is changed or what is discovered at the climax the lives of the characters are changed (or not) in specific ways. Those ways are a direct reflection and proof of the change or discovery that occurred in the climax. Only a certain ending, therefore, is true to the climax.

If the boy and the girl manage to overcome their pride and their prejudice at the climax of the story, they marry in the denouement because it is only by marrying that they can prove that they have overcome their pride and their prejudice. If they give in to pride or prejudice at the climax, it follows equally that they cannot marry in the denouement.

This might happen in real life, of course, but it can't happen in story. (Which is not to say you cannot have a story in which people marry who shouldn't, but that the that is a different story with a different crisis which will demand a different denouement.)

So, if you have a successful beginning and a successful middle, you should have very little choice about the overall shape of the end. If you feel that things are so open that they can go one way or the other, I would look back and see if you really have brought your characters to a climax. A good climax contains within it the seeds of the denouement, and if the denouement is not obvious, the fault may lie in the climax.

  • Say the MC purpose is to save her neighborhood from a murderous drug dealer, that killed someone she loved. She sets out to do this without violence; though threatened with it. She doesn't believe in vigilantism, she refuses to become the murderer she hates. She wants vengeance by justice. She has failures but makes progress, and thinks she has won. So does he: he breaks in to her house to kill the one witness: her. In a struggle she kills him in self defense. No charges. She achieved her goals: Not a vigilant, villain is gone. Choice A: Fight. Choice B: Predictable Trial. Is one invalid?
    – Amadeus
    Feb 18, 2018 at 22:23
  • @Amadeus That is actually a perfect illustration, because both are invalid. Why? Because there is only a series of events. There is no crisis. There is no "mirror moment" in which the protagonist must decide what sort of person they are. Because a story is not about achieving a goal. It is about the fundamental moral choice that is faced in pursuit of that goal. The job of the ending is to illustrate that the choice has been made and without the choice, all endings are invalid.
    – user16226
    Feb 18, 2018 at 23:47
  • Alright. I disagree completely, she had a goal, she was threatened, she chose who she wanted to be and continued to pursue justice despite the risk to herself. But the story cannot end there, justice must be resolved. It can be resolved in two ways. One is boring. Having a violent killer try to violently kill her is not out of character for him, and is a more dramatic ending. I'll leave it there, she DID make a fundamental moral choice in pursuit of her goal; it is just not where you wanted it to be. (BTW, not a real story, made up for this illustration.)
    – Amadeus
    Feb 19, 2018 at 0:51

I look for resonance, with the rest of the story, and I do my best to see what the reader will expect, and deliver that.

I have mentioned in other answers I am a discovery writer, but I keep my endings in mind. Anytime my characters take me in some new direction that means my current ending won't work, or is boring, if I feel I must keep the changed direction, I stop and write a new "sketch of an ending". The new sketch I just wrote, probably the last since I am 90% done, is about 400 words long.

It has no "prose" or dialogue, nor is it an outline; it is what in film would be called a "treatment", exposition of how something unfolds. Like a treatment it can be used (like an outline) to write the ending, which could be 20 times longer than the treatment; it is just a guide to writing the ending.

The reason I choose this ending is because I can include some resonance with two previous events in my story, including the inciting event; meaning the ending bears a strong similarity to the early (massive) defeat of my protagonist, but now she has many years of training and, though she risks her life, she can be victorious.

That was unintended, after re-reading my story so far as an edit to cut waste, I realized I could have an ending that echoed these earlier incidences, and I like that kind of ending.

The second factor is what your readers should expect. If your MC is supposed to be the paragon of some skill (battle, magic, seduction, confidence games, corporate finance, card shark, pool shark, sharpshooting, running, detective work like Sherlock Holmes, super lawyer, whatever), then even if they have sworn off using that skill, the reader expects them to USE that skill in some way to finally triumph. Perhaps not in the on-the-nose way: A world class poker player may not be playing cards in the finale, but he might bluff his way to victory, or know his opponent is bluffing, because he thinks he has spotted a tell.

The reader expects your hero to be a unique person in your story. Not necessarily "unique" in the sense of inventing a new super-power, just unique relative to the other characters. They also expect you gave your MC these unique attributes for a reason. Perhaps that is what gets her in trouble in the first place! But it helps the ending to be satisfying if her unique traits figure in to the ending, help to bring it about, even if they were what got her into trouble. (e.g. she is a math wizard and card counter that used her skill to cheat at cards in casinos, and got in trouble with gangsters, but the same skills help her escape and bring them down.)

A satisfying ending doesn't just wrap up loose ends and reveal the mysteries of this novel (or episode), it connects to important events in the rest of the story.

Once you HAVE your ending, you may want to go back over your story, and see if there is anything you can tweak to create such resonances, or make them stronger.


When you're struggling between two endings, how you handle it depends on some factors you've not gone into.

For example, is it possible to create an ambiguous ending readers will interpret as one or the other of the two endings you've been considering? I realise that might not be possible in your case, but if it is it would be very effective.

A related approach is to make some unreliable-narration or framing-device edits earlier in the manuscript that allows you to present each ending but leave it unclear which one is "right".


Choose the ending that gives the reader the emotional experience you want them to have.

I realize this requires choosing which experience you want readers to have. Sorry about that. But when I'm stuck between choices, focusing on the reader's experience often helps me find a way forward.


Of the present possibilities, it's the one that you prefer the most (not just a random choice from among them). That preferred ending is most likely to be the one that best fits - resonates pleasingly - with the cloth of your story lines. Your contract with your readership only needs that. The readers will have a variation in their acceptance of your ending - that is to be expected - many will want the story to go on and that feeling is what you are really after (as is your future looking publisher and agent) you certainly don't want widespread disappointment.


The purpose of the ending is to provide closure to the reader. In other words: The primary questions need to be answered, the fate of the main characters clear (or intentionally open, but not simply unanswered) and all the major threads tied up.

If you have two endings, check which one provides a better closing to the story, answers more questions, concludes more storylines.

If they are equal in that, my answer was to go with the one with the stronger emotional impact. I am in the final edit of my first book and I also had two endings. A happy end and a tragic end. They both tie up the story nicely and answer all open questions. However, one of them is good while the other still has a massive emotional impact on me no matter how many times I read it. Obviously, I went with that one.

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