5 Tips for a Killer Ending

Before I begin, I would like to make an announcement.  Starting May 22nd, a group of authors and myself will kick off our new blog entitled Prose and Cons.  As the date gets closer I’ll give you the address so you can tune in.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Most readers want a resolution in the end.  An ending that satisfies their need to see that everything worked out okay.  You can give this to them, of course, but you don’t necessarily have to, either.

Who can forget movies like Psycho, where we thought Mrs. Bates was the killer only to discover it was Norman dressed up as his mother.  His mother’s skeleton propped up in a rocking chair in the window.  Or Seven, one of my all time favorite movies, when Kevin Spacey’s character set up the perfect surprise ending for Brad Pitt’s character– his wife’s head in a box in the desert!


These faces are what you strive for as a thriller author.

Without further ado, here are the top 5 tips for writing a killer ending.  I’m doing the tips in reverse for a “big reveal” just how you would end your novel.

5.  Even when writing a series each book must stand alone.  It is not fair to force the reader to buy the next book in the series to find out what happened after the end of book one.  That being said, wrap up the plot threads in a nice little bow.  Leave no unanswered questions with the clues you’ve set forth in the story.  No plot holes, please.

4.  Don’t end prematurely!  The crime should be solved.  The world saved.  The monster killed or tamed.  And the romance flourished into a relationship, or the couple decided to remain “just friends”.  You cannot stop in the middle of the action or romance, and you can’t just jump to the end out-of-the-blue.  The plot must flow nicely to the end, like water trickling down a rock waterfall and into a lagoon.  Don’t end the story until it reaches the lagoon.  Sometimes we have a fear of where to end so we jump right to it.  Resist that urge.  If you’re a pantser the story will show you where to end.  If you are a plotter some find it easier to write the ending first and work backwards.

Shocking I know.

Shocking I know.

Obviously, after your climax the story should wrap up fairly quickly.  The reader has already experienced catharsis (if you’ve written it properly) and doesn’t want to hang around for too much longer.  Don’t make them.

3.   You characters must overcome their major flaw that you showed at the beginning of the story.  They don’t have to overcome all of their flaws, but a transformation must take place.  The average Joe found the strength to defeat the dragon.  The cat burglar has seen the error of her ways 🙂 , etc…

2.   Not all endings are neat and tidy.  And they don’t have to be.  Even if your ending disappoints some readers, it’s fine, as long as you end the book enforcing your underlying message, or showing where your characters’ lives are at that point in time.  There’s an urge to want to set-up the sequel.  Don’t do this.  You can hint at it.  For instance…

“As she held the remnants of her late husband’s sweater, she knew her life would never be the same again.  For now, though, she must find a way to live without him.  His touch, his smell, the love they once shared.”  Blah, blah, blah. (feel free to use that if you want, I just threw it out there.)  You’ve wrapped up one story, but left the reader wondering what choices she might make or how she might cope with the loss of her husband if there is a sequel.  If there isn’t a sequel you still have a stand-alone novel, one with all the plot threads tied.  You don’t need to show her dancing at a nightclub surrounded by friends.  Be true to the story, wherever it leads.

1.  There must be a balance between giving the reader a satisfactory ending, but making it unique enough so the reader can’t predict every bit of dialogue.  Surprise the reader with your ending.  The best endings, for me, have a twist I never saw coming.  That jaw dropping, Oh-my-God moment.  But also, you want the reader to feel that the book couldn’t end any other way.  That the twist was a natural flow from the story because you set it up perfectly, hidden in the shadows of other clues and prompts.  A lot of times I think about my ending twist before I even start writing.  Doing this helps me drop little hints along the way.  There’s nothing worse than an ending where the author never even gave you chance of figuring out.  The twist should be shocking, in thrillers.  It should be unexpected, but when the reader looks back at the rest of the story they say, “Right!  Damn, I should’ve seen that!”  I think that’s an ideal ending to a suspenseful, tension-filled thriller.

Remember your structure

Remember your structure

Now I know everyone can think of at least one book that went against these rules.  As writers we must first know the rules, and then break them, as Stephen King says.  However, if you are writing a debut novel no one is going to know that you understand the rules unless you show them you do.  Therefore, it’s best to stick with what works.  You can always get more creative with your next novel, once you have a readership.

Anyone have any other tips I haven’t mentioned?  Or comments about the post?  Drop me a line and we can chat about it.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:

5 Elements of Thriller Writing

The Importance of MRUs

Showing Structure:  scene, sequel and MRUs in a novel


4 thoughts on “5 Tips for a Killer Ending

  1. I have a crime novel with a dual storyline. I have thought about the best way to end this. I am working in Scrivener, so I can easily move chapters around if need be. I am only about a quarter of the way through at 15000 words.

    One storyline is more a murder mystery, a cold case to solve. But the other storyline is more action packed with crime organization involved in human trafficking and other things. There are overlapping characters. Regarding the ending, (panster here, but a vague outline already), I can’t decide if I want to end tying up the murder case, or tying up crime org. issues. I could wow with either one. There is a twist at the end of both, but I think the murder case ending would be less dramatic. (However, it is what will lead the reader into the next book in the series..I’m thinking.) The crime org. ending is climatic, and I could see my detective and his sidekick leisurely relaxing, basking in the glory of the murder case being resolved when they have op to finish up the crime org. case. I could also see the dramatic event followed by the twist that solves the murder case, finishing up with the murder case. Which way to go?


    • It’s hard to say without reading it, but if you have two story lines you really need to wrap them both up. However, if you want to leave something for the sequel, you could only touch the surface on the crime organization case and leave the rest for the sequel. I think the police should solve the main plot. If I’m understanding you correctly that would be the cold case, right? But you can’t just leave the other case unsolved since you have a plot thread on it throughout the novel. Use your judgment, deep down you know what to do. You can jazz up the cold case to make it a more climactic, suspenseful arrest or death in the end. Then show part of the criminal organization case being resolved, but enough so the reader feels satisfied. I love your ending with the detectives basking in the glory of the arrest (or death). Your concept sounds awesome! It sounds to me that you have a good grasp on both plots. What I do is… I don’t decide until I get there. With Timber Point I left the ending out (I only knew the twist), went back to the beginning and started editing it (reading as I went along) and the ending revealed itself to me. I may even do it with the sequel if I can’t see the ending by the time I get there, being a die hard pantser. It’s a strange way of doing things, I know, but it worked for me.


      • I’d love to read yours. Going to put it on my TBR list right now. You’ve been most helpful. Thank you for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully. This tells me I definitely need to focus mostly on my murder case, and let the crime org issues die down a bit until closer to the end. In the end, there will definitely be closure on both, but one of my main characters in this story, the murder victim’s husband, is going to develop another issue in the next. It is sort of related through the murderer, but a whole new story. Not like you would have to read the first book to know what’s going on in the second.


        • Excellent. As long as both books can stand alone you’re golden. I’m so glad I could help. Sometimes it just takes asking the question to figure out the answer. When I get stuck I run it by my husband and usually before I finish explaining…BAM– I have the answer! Gook luck. I can’t wait to read it once it’s published!


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