How Not to End Your Novel by Laurel Osterkamp

How Not to End Your Novel by Laurel OsterkampLet’s welcome back Laurel Osterkamp as she shares with us “How Not to End Your Novel.” Enjoy!


Some writers believe that the hardest part of writing their novel is the opening paragraph.

Others get tripped up on the last paragraph.

Both can be perplexing–opening and closing words hold an inflated significance.

Personally, I find myself revising and agonizing over my first paragraph multiple times.

But the end? I’ve almost never revised the original final words for any of my novels.

Here’s why: Usually, I start to cry as I write the last sentence of my book, and that’s how I know I’ve gotten it right.

It’s when the tears don’t come that I wind up going back and changing the ending until the emotion is there and everything feels solid.

But that’s a very obscure guidepost.

What about a more concrete method of how to end your novel?

It can be helpful to look at it from a reader’s perspective, rather than a writer’s.

I did some research, and combed my own memories of novels I’ve read with disappointing or even infuriating endings, and categorized them into six 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..

1. 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: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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.

2. 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!

3. 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: The Stand by Stephen King

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.

4. 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: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott 

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.

5. 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: When The Lights Go Out by Mary Kubica

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.

Perhaps next month we can take a deep dive into some of the best novel endings ever.

Until then, happy writing!


About the Author 

Laurel OsterkampLaurel Osterkamp is from Minneapolis, where she teaches and writes like it’s going out of style. Her short fiction has been featured in Tangled Locks Literary Journal, Bright Flash Literary Journal, and Metawoker Lit, among other places. Her latest novel Favorite Daughters was recently released by Black Rose Writing (click here to see the novel on Amazon) and her new novel, Beautiful Little Furies, will be released in December.


Social Media:

Website –
Facebook –
BookBub –

You may also like...

  • Beth Barany says:

    Thanks for your article, Laurel! I am wrangling with my ending right now and haven’t found the right one, yet!

  • >