How often have you read a wonderful piece of student writing, only to be bitterly disappointed at the end? 'It was all a dream!', 'Everyone died!', 'They lived happily ever after!' A poor ending can make or break the entire story.
Students are so keen to start writing that an effective ending is often overlooked during the planning phase. They want to leap in and worry about the ending when they get there.
And when they do reach the point of finishing, all too often they fall into the familiar endings of fairy tales or disaster films. Either everyone’s happy, or they all die!
So how can you teach your students the value of an effective story ending?
The Importance of Endings
Why do we read a novel? To get to the ending, to find out what happened. How the book finishes is as important as the main hook of the story.
You’ve probably experienced the disappointment that a poor ending brings. A great piece is ruined by a thoughtless or rushed finish. A poor ending disappoints, a good one leaves you wanting more.
An ideal ending, has a purpose, is planned, and links back to the beginning of the story. The protagonist is changed in some fundamental way in their journey through the narrative.
7 Types of Story Ending
No one agrees on how many types of story ending there are, and there’s always exceptions to the rule. Many writers have attempted to organize them into archetypal groups. Your students could draw up their own list.
Most stories can be grouped according to what happens to the main character:
- They get what they want and feel happy or disappointed
- They don’t get what they want and end up happy or disappointed
- They realize they didn’t want what they thought they wanted in the first place
Here are six common story endings that can be found in countless novels and short stories. Your students can suggest examples of books they’ve enjoyed that fit into each one.
1: A Resolved Ending
‘They lived happily ever after,’ remains the archetype of this story ending. Every problem overcome; no questions left unanswered. Most familiar fairy stories and traditional tales have a resolved ending.
Crime thrillers and detective fiction finish in a similar way. They locate the murderer, solve the crime, and bring the perpetrator to justice. It creates a satisfying conclusion for readers trying to work out a mystery. Think of a denouement by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot as the perfect example of a resolved ending.
But don’t think that the finish has to be happy or satisfying. Tragedies such as William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet have a resolved ending that leaves nobody happy at the end. The protagonist may end up better or worse off at the conclusion.
2: An Unresolved Ending
Leaving a mystery at the end of a novel is commonly used before writing a sequel. Series of books such as J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter use cliff-hangers to get readers buying the next copy. Whilst smaller plotlines are explained, a larger mystery is left open.
Stand-alone novels also use unresolved endings to leave the reader guessing about the conclusion. Characters such as Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind dream of a happy ending, but the reader is left wondering if could ever be possible.
3: An Implied Ending
A clever author can use an implied ending to allow different readings of the story. Does the character die? Will they make it home? Do they stay with their lover?
Open-ended conclusions offer a range of logical possibilities with no definite answer. Life of Pi by Yann Martel is a great example of this.
4: A Twist in the Plot
A shocking twist can leave a reader wondering about everything they thought they knew. Novels like Atonement by Ian McEwan surprise you with an unexpected ending. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie includes a plot twist just when you think you know who the murderer is.
5: A Tie-back (Frame Story)
Some stories start with the ending. Each part then explains how the characters got there. A famous example is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, which begins with finding Victor Frankenstein floating on ice and near to death. A series of letters reveal his tragic story.
6: Looking Forward
Future stories skip forward in time to reveal what happens next. Examples of this include The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling. Both finish with an epilogue set in the future.
Simple Ways to Generate Story Endings
The easiest way to get your students writing better endings is to focus on them in lessons. Make time to look at endings before they plan their own. Create a bank of ideas for them to use.
If you’re struggling to get your class writing endings, here are ideas to help:
- Sort famous stories by their endings to spot commonalities
- Re-write the ending of a famous tale
- Look at examples of poor endings
- Match endings to genre types
- Generate banks of ideas for endings
- Ask ‘what if?’ questions to create alternative ideas
Students won’t know what a good ending is unless they encounter lots of them. This highlights the importance of whole class reading. Remember it’s not just younger children who benefit from hearing stories read aloud.
Reading short fiction with your class is a simple way to help them see the ending and how it links to rest of the story. Because it's short, it doesn’t take too long to get there. Focus on the protagonist. What has changed for them? How have they developed? What problem have they overcome or embraced?
Consider flipping the traditional order of teaching narrative writing. There’s no rule saying you must start at the beginning.
Try these alternatives:
- Start with writing the ending and work backwards
- Give them most of a story and make them write the ending
- Write the beginning and end paragraphs first and then plan how they will get there
- Give them the ending and let them write the rest
Working in pairs or small groups can take the fear away from generating ideas. Let your class share their first suggestions, then encourage them to be creative and push their ideas further.
We’re all guilty of running out of time and having to abandon the last few lessons in a unit. Good endings are reliant on enough time to plan and write them. You may need to change how you structure your narrative units.
Students can become tired of their work by the end. Try interleaving two units of work to keep their enthusiasm going and increase how much they remember.
A good story ending is a pleasure to read, like dessert after a great dinner. If your students are continually writing the same poor endings, now is a great time to make them your writing focus.