Writing Satisfying Conclusions

I love conclusions. I remember a friend saying that she dreaded coming to the final chapters of a novel because she couldn’t bear the story to end. I’m the opposite: I love the moment the story draws to a close; the conflict over; the exhausting seeking ended; the relationship resolved; the tears drying; the murderer found…

Even in expository or other non-fiction writing I enjoy coming to the end more than I enjoy savoring each sentence and mulling over concepts. Most of the time, I’d rather the imagery and ideas be summarized. This is partly because I’m a fast, impatient reader. I tend to grasp concepts quickly, and think I understand more than I actually do. I try to slow down by reading stories and books that intrigue me – usually history or philosophy. Still, the conclusion is where I land most happily.

I think the purpose of a good conclusion is to give every reader with a fulfilled sense of satisfaction.

A conclusion is the writer’s bridge to the reader’s own life. If you haven’t in some way grabbed the reader by the lapels and connected with them, either through ideas, emotional content, character, or intriguing thought, then you’ve missed an opportunity. The conclusion needs to remind readers that they and you are connected, even if it’s by briefly taking them back over the story or the essay they just read.

Your conclusion can be more creative than you realize. Don’t just repeat the thesis statement or end with the classic fairy-tale line of “They lived happily ever after.” For example, after a couple of years of romantic, political, and social intrigue, the lovable Phineas Finn in Anthony Trollope’s eponymous novel is forced to return home to Ireland and his abandoned fiancĂ©e. She has no clue of the depth of passion and ambition Phineas has experienced, but the reader has, and really doesn’t know how he will tolerate the peace, poverty, and boredom of going back home to a pretty, witless young girl. But at the very end of the novel, because of the friends he made while in high places, he gets offered a fairly good job with a decent salary, and he realizes nothing can prevent his marriage any longer:
“But I have been making up my mind to wait ever so long,” said Mary.
“Then your mind must be unmade,” said Phineas.
What was the nature of the reply to Lord Cantrip the reader may imagine, and thus we will leave our hero an Inspector of the Poor Houses in the County of Cork.

Although you can’t introduce a new topic, or characters, or concepts in the conclusion, you can push your way into a broader view of an issue, or point out why the purport of your story or essay matters. Here’s the end of The Proud Tower, a history by one of the greatest writers of history of all time, Barbara Tuchman: The proud tower built up through the great age of European civilization was an edifice of grandeur and passion, of riches and beauty, and dark reliance, more confidence, more hope; greater magnificence, extravagance and elegance; more careless ease, more gaiety, more pleasure in each other’s company and conversation, more injustice and hypocrisy, more misery and want, more sentiment including false sentiment, less sufferance of mediocrity, more dignity in work, more delight in nature, more zest. The Old World had much that has since been lost, whatever may have been gained. Looking back on it from 1915, Emile Verhaeren, the Belgian Socialist poet, dedicated his pages, “With emotion, to the man I used to be.”

You almost don’t have to read the book to know what it was all about!

Here’s another one that takes my breath away with its incisive conclusion of one of most profound explorations of the essence of poetry and meaning: Poetic Diction by Owen Barfield: Yet all conclusions of this nature could be no more than subjective shadows of the forces themselves, of the two living realities, which can actually be known, once our intellect has brought us to the point of looking out for them; being themselves neither subjective nor objective, but as concrete and self-sustaining in every way as the Sun and the Moon – which may well be their proper names.

Did you read Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome? What a hilarious adventure down the Thames that was, that ends thus:
“Well,” said Harris, reaching his hand out for his glass, “we have had a pleasant trip, and my hearty thanks for it to old Father Thames – but I think we did well to chuck it when we did. Here’s to Three Men well out of a Boat!”
And Montmorency, standing on his hind legs before the window, peering out into the night, gave a short bark of decided concurrence with the toast.

As I said earlier, your conclusion should leave your reader feeling satisfied and glad that they read all the way to the end. So that’s the concept behind conclusions – now for the ‘how-to’. Here are some suggestions for writing an appealing conclusion:

  • Refer to the introductory paragraph or to the basic theme of your story.
  • End with a provocative insight or intriguing quotation.
  • Inspire a course of action, a solution to an issue, or a suggestion.
  • Point out possible consequences, or even end with a moral or a warning.
  • Evoke vivid imagery.
  • Futurize – describe how the events made a difference.

Try NOT to:

  • End with the same thesis statement you started out with, without using what you built on in the essay to expand on it. Worse: don’t state your thesis for the first time in the conclusion.
  • Introduce a new idea or subtopic; and do not introduce a new storyline or character in the final paragraph.
  • Don’t apologize: “I’m not an expert, but…” or “Others may disagree with me, but…”
  • In fact, needless to say J, avoid all unnecessary fluff like: “in conclusion” or “in summary.”
  • Attempt to make up for a thin storyline or an incomplete essay by cramming in too much information at the end.
  • Make emotional appeals that have not been established earlier.
  • Include information that should be in the story or paper.


Writing practice:

Write a one-paragraph conclusion to a story that you haven’t written. You’ll need to resolve the story you’ve imagined. Without reiterating the tale, or summarizing, you need to make the gist of the tale clear. If you would rather play around with non-fiction, write the conclusion to an expository essay that you have NOT written. For example, you could write a concluding paragraph for a mythical essay on “Why Using Tact is Important in Relationships.” Here’s an example of a simple conclusion:

“If Sophie had spoken gently to her cousin, they might still be friends, and Thanksgiving would not have been awkward. The importance of using tact even when speaking the truth cannot be underestimated.”

As always, try doing this exercise daily for a week – concluding a different story or essay each day. You’ll be amazed how much easier it gets as you loosen up your conclusion-writing muscles and start to enjoy the freedom of concluding a story without worrying how you got there. It can be a lot of fun.

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