The Six Types of Ending
Endings can be both wonderful and terrifying for a writer. They are wonderful because reaching your story's end is an accomplishment. You've just written a full story. How many people can boast that accomplishment? How many people dream up stories they end up never putting to paper?
What's terrifying, however, is that the ending is arguably the most crucial part of your story. It's the moment the reader has been heading towards that has cost them time, effort, and, usually, money. They are invested; they want a payoff, something that feels satisfying. And it's your job to deliver. So how do you do that?
Well, there is no singular answer, but we can take a look at the six most common types of ending. That should help you craft yours.
Starting with the emotion category, we have the classic happy ending. The hero won, the couple got together, or the team got first place in the tournament. Everything turned out ok, and now the protagonists get to go live happily ever after.
Don't let snarky intellectuals fool you. The truth is, most readers are fine with a good ending. There are, however, three situations where a good ending can backfire.
1 - The ending doesn't fit.
It's either too cheesy, or it doesn't go with the plot that had been build up so far. Breaking Bad and Dexter have both been accused of having endings that were too good for their protagonist, for example.
2 - It's not really a happy ending.
It's the classic "it's only good if you don't think about it." Kill Bill Volume 2, for example, ends (spoiler alert) with Beatrix Kiddo having killed Bill and recovered her daughter. This seems happy until you realize she has actually kidnapped a child she knows nothing about, right after killing said child's father. What about her school? What is she going to say happened to daddy? How do you explain any of this to child services? Will the two just live under false identities for the rest of their lives? What about the hordes of enemies Kiddo made during her revenge spree, and who will now be gunning for her and her innocent child? At least Bill had an assassin squad to keep his family safe.
But most endings can be ruined if you overanalyze them, and most of the audience didn't think about all that and left the movie theater satisfied. So you have to make sure that whatever loose ends aren't tied by your good ending don't distract the reader from the happy moment. Getting feedback from beta readers comes in handy for this.
3 - The story wasn't good.
Readers may not all be writers, but many of them have read stories for years. They're story experts in their own way, and they can always tell when a story isn't working. But they can't always tell exactly why. In situations like this, they may default to saying that the overly happy ending was the problem. When in fact, the problems started much sooner, and the happy ending only felt bland as an indirect consequence.
"The opposite of the happy ending is not actually the sad ending–the sad ending is sometimes the happy ending. The opposite of the happy ending is actually the unsatisfying ending."— Orson Scott Card
The Sad Ending
This one needs little introduction. For one reason or another, your ending is just sad. The hero died, or the hero failed, or both; or maybe the whole world was destroyed. Maybe half the universe's population vanished. One way or another, the sad ending is a punch in the gut. There's no victory and very little satisfaction.
Sad endings are less common, for reasons that should be obvious. Most people don't want to pay and waste time to make their mood worse; they want to finish your story feeling good about it.
Some genres do lend themselves to sad endings, however. Horror movies, for example. Others use a sad ending to leave the audience in a special type of thoughtful mood, like the endings of Chinatown, or No Country for Old Men.
However, the case, do bear in mind that sad endings aren't a cardinal sin, but they should be handled with care and intent. When done right, they can be special precisely because they are so daring.
The ratio between positive and negative emotion in a bittersweet ending can vary. But overall, this is a good way to make an ending more realistic while keeping it satisfying. It can also make clear just how hard the hero's journey was, or how much they have changed.
There are two main types of bittersweet ending. The first is where the hero gets what they wanted, but at a heavy price. In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup saves the day, but he loses a leg in the process. Bittersweet, yes, but pretty high in the sweetness scale.
The second type is where the protagonist outright fails or loses, but they end up happy anyway. Because even though they didn't get what they wanted, they got what they needed. This may come as the result of a sacrifice, of the hero outright letting go of their goal for the sake of something or someone else.
In Up, Carl gets his house to the perfect spot, finally realizing Ellie's dream, only to realize that's not true happiness. He eventually gets a better ending by saving Russell and becoming a father figure for the kid, but it's bittersweet for both. Carl had to let go of his dear house and all the memories within, while Russell's family problems remain unsolved.
Moving on to the classification of endings based on their level of closure, we have the ever-annoying open ending. Here the story has concluded, with no clear indication of sequels or further explanation, but it still leaves a lot, if not all, up for the reader's imagination.
Open endings, like sad endings, can be very powerful if done carefully and with intent. They can also spark debates and drive home the movie's message. In the ending of Inceptionis one such example. It led to plenty of discussions over whether it was all just a dream, and whether or not the answer to that even mattered.
"Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending."— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Happy, sad, or bittersweet, a closed ending is definitive. You can only go wrong here if you act as if the ending is closed while the reader still has plenty of unanswered questions. If done right, however, a closed ending should raise few eyebrows. It's the most basic way to close a story, by tying the treads and solving the conflicts.
Beware of writing sequels to stories with tightly closed endings, however. The reception is sure to be mixed, if not worse.
Also known as the "my readers are coming at me with pitchforks" ending. The good old sequel bait. Suffice it to say, people aren't generally fond of cliffhangers. The cheapest cliffhangers don't even deliver a complete story; they only build the story up to the end of act 2, and then leave it there.
Cliffhangers, however, can work wonders in serialized stories, where the reader or watcher is expected to tune in again every week for more. On top of that, you can work in cliffhangers at the end of chapters within your novels, to keep the reader engaged and turning the pages.
George RR Martin is famous for doing that in his A Song of Ice and Fireseries. He shoots for ending every single chapter on a hook or a cliffhanger.
Do try to deliver a complete story before the cliffhanger, however. That means going through the stages of the three-act structure. Or, if you're less structurally inclined, ending with something that "feels" like an ending.
And this is it. That's all six of them. It's not an exhaustive list by any chance, but it should be able to get you started. Remember, if you aren't sure how to end your story, then stick with the obvious option. Since a horrible ending is one of the few things that can tank a good story in seconds, it's best to play safe.