What are the five worst ways to end your novel? Don’t worry, I’m going to tell you, and I’ll give you some examples!
Of course, it’s all a matter of opinion.
But I did some research, and combed my own memories of novels I’ve read with disappointing or even infuriating endings, and categorized them into five types of endings to stay away from.
*Note–there are spoilers ahead of well known, popular novels. Also, a lot of these books are considered classics and/or were best-sellers, so obviously their endings were found acceptable by many readers. Just not me.
That said, here we go..
- An Unresolved, Meandering Ending
An unresolved, meandering ending is one where readers don’t get answers to major plot points, character arcs are left incomplete, or where we are left scratching our heads, wondering, “Huh?”
Example: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.
I fell in love with Tartt’s writing when I read The Secret History, and that’s still one of my favorite novels of all time. I couldn’t wait to read The Goldfinch when it came out, and it did not disappoint until around page 750. Then, it’s like Tartt just gives up, and rather than letting us know if Theo will live a hedonistic life like his dad, or live with purpose like his mother had, there’s a diatribe about the importance of the arts.
- An Abrupt and Unexpected Ending
An abrupt or unexpected ending can be a powerful tool for authors if used correctly, however, if it is done wrong it can often leave readers feeling confused and alienated. An abrupt ending is one that comes out of nowhere, sort of like the author is cheating. This type of ending can leave readers feeling as if they have been ripped out of the world they had been so invested in, leaving them feeling disappointed and disconnected from the story.
Example: My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult.
The whole story is about whether the younger sister will donate her kidney to help keep her older, leukemia-ridden sister alive. But she and her parents never have to make a choice, because at the end, the younger sister dies in a car accident. I thought that was a total cop-out, and I was so pissed!
- A Deus Ex Machina
With a literal meaning of “God from the Machine”, a deus ex machinas ending was popularized by the ancient Greeks, when some God-like force would swoop in and fix whatever central conflict was in the protagonist’s way. This type of ending can be way too convenient, and might make it feel like the characters’ accomplishments throughout the story were meaningless, undercutting the entire story arc.
Example: Stephen King’s The Stand.
Now, I loved this book. Still do. But the ending feels like cheating when the literal hand of God intercedes in a fight between good and evil. It was like Stephen King couldn’t come up with a realistic way to let the good guys win on their own. Excuse the pun, but that ending was very heavy handed.
- A Cheesy and Unoriginal Ending
A cheesy and unoriginal ending is one that lacks creativity and imagination. This type of ending often relies on tropes and stereotypes that have been used time and time again in other books, making it seem contrived and unoriginal. An ending that does not provide any new or interesting insights into the characters or the story can really fall flat.
Example: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
First, Laurie marries Amy instead of Jo. That would be fine, if Alcott had been ahead of her time, and bravely let Jo wind up alone and focus on her career. Instead, she marries the grumpy professor and I guess we’re supposed to believe that everyone lives happily ever after. But many readers just don’t buy it.
- A Dream Sequence Ending
A dream sequence ending is one where the entire novel turns out to be a character’s dream, and all of the events and characters are revealed to be imaginary. This type of ending can leave readers feeling confused and let down, like the whole story was pointless.
Example: Mary Kubica’s When The Lights Go Out
I am actually a big fan of Kubica’s other novels, but this one nearly made me stop reading her books. The protagonist is in the hospital, trying to help her ailing mother, and then there’s this whole series of flashbacks and alternating points of view. The main character can’t sleep, and it’s this slow, tedious burn, as it becomes unbelievable that anyone could stay awake that long. About two thirds of the way through I thought, this better not all be a dream.
When my fear was confirmed, I was angry for investing in a story that turned out wasn’t even happening. It felt like a cheap device, and the whole novel felt pointless.
But eventually I returned to reading Kubica’s other novels. The rest have all been really good!
So there you go: five ways NOT to end your novel. But what makes an ending truly spectacular? Unfortunately, that’s a lot harder to figure out. Check out my post on Writer’s Fun Zone for five tips on a strong ending.