Cliches to Avoid: 4 Story Endings Your Readers Will Hate

Cliches to Avoid: 4 Story Endings Your Readers Will Hate

Writing a book is difficult, but crafting an ending that is both impactful and wraps the plot up beautifully is even more so.

You worked hard to create a beginning that grabbed your readers, so make sure to write an ending that lives up to the rest of your story. Relying on clichés will only leave your readers feeling disappointed and dissatisfied.

Stay away from these four cliché endings:

1. The happily ever after

What it is: All of the characters in your book live happily ever, with no hardships to bear. The hero defeats his foes and all of the plot twists are nicely tied up – perhaps a little unrealistically.

Why to avoid it: Life doesn’t necessarily end happily ever after, which makes this type of ending feel disingenuous. You want your readers to feel enthralled with your book so that they’ll want to share it with friends, read more of your work or even re-read your story. Real life isn’t perfect, so make sure that your book stays in the realm of realism.

2. The drawn-out dream

What it is: The drawn-out dream ending involves the main character waking up safe and sound in their bed, realizing that the entire plot has just been a dream.

Why to avoid it: This type of ending typically annoys readers, who feel that the author has copped out. A book should be emotional to everyone involved, and an author who uses this ending seems to betray readers’ trust and cheapen the emotions they’ve felt throughout the book.

3. The guilty hero’s monologue

What it is: When the hero finally defeats the bad guy or force, the reader is privy to her internal thoughts of regret or remorse. The monologue is supposed to show the character’s guilt at what she’s had to do and how it’s eating away at her. Even though the ending is happy, our hero must now live with the blood on her hands.

Why to avoid it: In general, writers should strive to show, not tell, readers what is happening in the book. By strongarming readers into feeling specific, manufactured emotions, you are taking away their freedom to experience the story in a way that is reflective of their background and experiences. Readers may feel they are being led to specific conclusions, and few enjoy the feeling of an author holding their hand throughout a book — especially the ending.

4. The lover’s life

What it is: This is a special twist on the happily ever after ending, in which the main character falls in love, sometimes for an unexplained or random reason. It shows that true love makes the world go ‘round and that all that happened in the course of the story was worth it.

Why to avoid it: Unrealistic endings tend to annoy readers. If a love interest is too sudden, it isn’t all that real. If it is unexplained, it leaves your characters lacking depth. The truth is that not everyone falls in love and lives happily ever after. The best endings are unique, somewhat realistic, and really make your readers think.

Set the text aside, brainstorm some unique possibilities, and pick up your manuscript again when you have a more interesting picture of what could be.

What other cliché endings did we miss? What frustrates you at the end of a great story?    

Filed Under: Craft


  • hmc says:

    Honestly I like endings that end happy but have a kind of what now ending because it leaves it up to your imagination to continue the story if you so desire even after the book/novel has ended bu that’s just my opinion.

  • Jay says:

    Personally I don’t have a favourite. I will say that I completely hate endings which leave you hanging, with your mind to imagine. I also hate endings which are unrealistic and too fast. Example:If a person is seen to be weakened (possibly dieting) by something (power?), the person will not look well after a few hours (Unless a cliche of healing him/her). And may be so strained they may potentially die.
    Not fully recovered and living a life of happiness. There is so many people who has been in war who have come back damaged (Physically and mentally), they are no longer the same.
    As long as the ending is wrapped up nicely and is reasonable, I don’t mind the endings.

  • Mass-Reader & Working Author says:

    I have a saying about cliches that I often say to people who criticise them.

    “It’s ok to write a cliché as long as it’s written well.”

    Oftentimes, authors tend to use clichés simply to produce an easy out instead of as the simple tools they are to further the development of the story. clichés occur so often because they do, in fact, occur very often. One need look no further than the success story posted in the news or the tragic events that are unfolding or the divorce that’s breaking up a celebrity couple or…well, you get the point.

    I have seen cases where #’s 1 & 2 are written exceptionally well, as well as cases where they completely failed at any level of decent writing. I have also seen not-so-happy endings and completely out-of-dream plotlines that totally tanked, to coin a phrase. Harry Potter vs. any book that left you going “Wait, that’s it? That one tiny thing was the whole solution? Well, that was pointless…” Diane Duane’s Wizards series (had great dream-sequence-like writing, one of which was written to the end of the book) to Inception (decent premise, not-so-great direction) vs. any book that used a dream sequence as a cop-out for an ending. Most good books thread the conflict (and solution to the conflict) throughout the book/series, instead of introducing it at the end. The inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini is a prime example of not making it a happily-ever-after and pretty much ruining the story. (It was threaded throughout, I’ll give him that much, but there was a certain lack of personal resolution concerning a few things. Was it more realistic? Yes. But it was also unsatisfying.) Many of us can attest to the fact that some writing, no matter how much someone tries to follow the advice they can find from good, reliable sources, just stinks. Reeks of bad writing like the Black Death reeked of rotting flesh.

    It all comes down to whether or not one can write well. My advice for any authors current or prospective is to read. Read as much as you possibly can. Read everything that interests you, and see for yourself what good writing and attempted writing read like. I assure you that the answers cannot be ignored and will not elude you. It takes a little bit of analysis, but not necessarily a scientific or academic tearing down of the story/plotline/themes/symbolism/characters/author’s POV stuff. At least, not every last detail of those. 😉 Mostly keep track of how characters develop and where in the story that happens, how much of the conflict is shown or elaborated on and where, and how they described the action.

    One more thing, and then I’ll leave this be. Many may have heard the phrase, “No story written after 1000 AD is original; they’re all the same stories sold in different packaging.” I truly, honestly believe that phrase. Completely. What makes the story you’re writing different from anyone else’s is how…you…write it. It’s that simple. Write it in such an interesting way that any clichés you may have, and aspects of stories you’ve read show though, the reader won’t think of it until after they’re finished reading because they’re so enthralled by your work.

    That is another reason why I advise authors to read as much as possible. Being well-read gives your subconscious all kinds of things to work with, all kinds of ideas to twist and shape and morph into something unique–or at least, unique-seeming. I look at my work up to this point (a large series in progress) and, although my ideas seem completely unique from anything else I’ve ever read, I can take it apart and see where I got this idea and that conflict and that kind of character or seen that sort of creature. Everything in my work is unoriginal. It’s all just so completely made out of a million different aspects of the thousands of books I’ve read throughout my life that no one can tell the difference unless they really put their minds to it.

    Now, it probably won’t be published for at least another decade; it’s really like my masterpiece. I’m going to make sure it’s perfect before I send it off: all of the books. (My editing skills are some of the best I have ever come across. People come to me for critiques and corrections all of the time, for their own stories, college papers, and even recommendations.) That’s really why it’s going to take a decade, and probably why I’ll end up self-publishing, unless I can find a publisher that is willing to take my edited book and not change it. The time I’m taking to make sure that everything is in place is enormous, but that’s because I feel that every idea I have made adds something essential to the story; nothing can be left out, or the whole thing feels horribly incomplete, a Pandora’s box (if you will) without the Hope left at the bottom. I’ve always written many stories, but never published a single one, so saying that this is my masterpiece may come off as arrogant, conceited, or unrealistic. I have been known to be blunt and often to say things that no one believes, although they’re true. I’ve predicted trend-setters and popular books before they achieved that status all because I’m well-read. (While others continue to deny that I knew and say that I was simply guessing. All the time.) And I’m here to tell you that if you can pick out those traits in others writing, you can implement them into your own. Read much, and you will know much. Write clichés well enough, and no one will praise them enough. Embrace the spirit of storytelling, and you will become a writer.

  • Emily Ramsey says:

    I’ve heard about so many different endings to avoid, and I totally agree, but what would be a good ending? The characters can’t just go back to normal, or the story was pointless, if the main character dies, it’s just annoying and depressing, the evil 4 mentioned above are all extremely annoying, and nobody has really seemed to have mentioned what a good ending would be.

    Why is it that there is no ending that can satisfy? It’s because there are so many books, and it is almost impossible to come up with an idea that doesn’t seem like a rip-off, or have a cliche/annoying ending. I would just like to bring this to people’s attention. I personally love my self a sad love story, but others don’t, it all really depends on the story plot, characters, setting, and the readers, of course.

    If anyone here has a suggestion of what a good ending for a story would be, please, do tell.

  • I totally agree with number three and number four. Show don’t tell is key and sudden romances can feel false. However, number one cancels out a lot of classics that people continue to love and reread. Fiction is allowed to be an escape from reality, a satisfying ending doesn’t need to include petty fights over who’s doing the dishes, it can end at the “honeymoon”, the “happily ever after” if the rest of the ending is satisfying.
    As for number two, I was going to argue since Alice in Wonderland ends that way. But then I realized that I hated the ending of Alice in Wonderland. I agree, it feels like a cop out ending. I’m sure it could be well done – there was an episode of Bones like that that didn’t feel like a cop out. But in general I agree, it should be avoided.

  • #1 and #4 are profoundly bad advice. I’ve written 15 novels, millions in print, and by far the happy endings, where things are wrapped up, are favorites among readers. By contrast, for those that have an open ending, or hint at ongoing hardships or tragedy, I get constant negative feedback.

    I think that this article succumbs a bit to what I call, “Indy Rock DJ syndrome”, where a person is exposed to something often enough that they feel it’s tedious or cliched, so they strive for something more obscure, not really reacting to the actual audience, but to his or her own experience, which often involves looking for something different. When the request lines are open, people are still going to ask for Stairway to Heaven, always, no matter how tired you are of hearing it.

    I find it annoying at times, that readers want the same thing over and over again, but they do. That’s not necessarily always interesting to us, as writers, who want to challenge ourselves, but the truth is, and believe me, I don’t like hearing it either, McDonald’s doesn’t sell billions of hamburgers because of the snowflake uniqueness of each burger. You have to find a unique way of telling each story, but if your ending wraps up nicely, don’t change it just for the sake of being different. Critics and other people who read too much may take you down for a happy ending, but your audience won’t.

    • Devi says:

      I really love that Indy Rock DJ example because there is some truth to what you’re saying. I’ve found that when I’m exposed to something over and over again, it begins to feel routine and boring. At the same time, trying something new feels fresh and exciting even though it may have been around for awhile.

      How many books is the average person reading per year? Probably not as many as we writers would like, but to those readers, the ending tropes are still desirable. So, at the end of the day, you have to write for the readers not the critics.

    • Great point that it’s not about what you want to write, but what readers want to read. Thanks for sharing your experience with your own novels, Christopher! (I loved Lamb!)

      TWL Assistant Editor

  • atothewr says:

    I write the happy ending because I feel like I put my character’s through hell so they deserve it. However, it might also be my age. I just prefer to wrap it up in a nice and neat happy tied together bow. Nice post.

  • PJ Braley says:

    Orson Welles is quoted as saying, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”

    The ending of Gone with the Wind is perfect, but it never felt finished to me…but perhaps that was Margaret Mitchell’s point. So much was edited out of the published manuscript that if it had not been for her untimely death, who knows what else was in store for Scarlett and Rhett? That is a question that has gone unanswered (despite several unsatisfactory attempts) for almost seventy-five years.

    Knowing the best ending to a story does not come easy, after all, the genius of art (in any form) is knowing when to stop.

    Thank you for a very informative article.

  • Joann says:

    I have just four words to say about endings … Gone With The Wind!

    Of course you need to be a storytelling genius to pull that off, but isn’t that what we’re all striving for?

  • Sarah says:

    I disagree with these:

    1. The happily ever after

    What it is: All of the characters in your book live happily ever, with no hardships to bear. The hero defeats his foes and all of the plot twists are nicely tied up – perhaps a little unrealistically.

    THIS IS WHY I LIKE IT! Real life is hard. Sometimes I want something to work out for everyone, and that is why I read a book or watch a movie.

    2. The drawn-out dream

    What it is: The drawn-out dream ending involves the main character waking up safe and sound in their bed, realizing that the entire plot has just been a dream.

    There is nothing wrong with this ending. They should have wrote it this way for the latest “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”. The movie was a cop-out. It was not true to the story of Walter Mitty. In the short story Walter basically surrendered his hope to the emptiness of his life. As I stated above, I love happy endings, but I also loved this story for different reasons. The movie didn’t do the short story justice by making everything work out for Mitty. SOME stories with a more realistic ending are good sometimes, and this was one of my favorites… and they ruined it. lol
    anyway, I’m ranting….

    3. The guilty hero’s monologue

    What it is: When the hero finally defeats the bad guy or force, the reader is privy to her internal thoughts of regret or remorse. The monologue is supposed to show the character’s guilt at what she’s had to do and how it’s eating away at her. Even though the ending is happy, our hero must now live with the blood on her hands.

    I would actually EXPECT a ‘good guy’ character to feel some guilt or regret if they had to kill their adversary, or I wouldn’t be able to accept them as a good guy/girl.

    4. The lover’s life

    What it is: This is a special twist on the happily ever after ending, in which the main character falls in love, sometimes for an unexplained or random reason. It shows that true love makes the world go ‘round and that all that happened in the course of the story was worth it.

    Sudden perfect relationships are annoying…but falling in love over some time and living happily ever after stories are fine, in moderation 🙂

    If they are too realistic, I might as well go live life, instead of reading/watching the story.

    Sorry, but this was a bad list. imo.

    • Sarah, this is valuable feedback — thank you. Do you have any pet peeves regarding book endings?

      • Sarah says:

        Thanks, for your kind feedback to my super long, opinionated post 🙂

        I can only think of one pet peeve (at the moment anyway) on a books ending that annoys me.

        I don’t like when it leaves too many things up to the reader to assume or imagine. I don’t mind some open-ended subplots but even if the writer wanted to make a sequel, they need to come to some kind of well rounded conclusion and give the reader a sense of closure.

        For example, the main character can’t search the whole book for Mr. Right, making the reader tag along on each bad date, or scary blind date to finally meet Mr. Right on the last page! A lot of stories are written this way; I never liked Cinderella for this reason hehe. She got pushed around by her step-family.. treated like garbage most of her life… then when she met a prince, and would finally get treated nice, the story was over. I feel like I need to see her get treated fairly to bring my emotions to a nice balanced ending I guess.

        I may have more but I can’t think of any at this moment.

  • Joanne says:

    *** Harry Potter Spoiler Alert ***
    Gotta say – I think Harry Potter, the very last book was #4. There was no chemistry between Harry and Ginny but I heard that JK Rowling had a plan in mind at the beginning of her writing the story and did see that her characters developed a little differently then she first expected. So when we saw Harry and Ginny married, we all went “WHAT?!?”

  • This has saved me from a ‘bad’ ending to my current WIP – thank you!
    I will re-blog on my Wednesday reblog feature in the coming weeks. This advice needs to be shared.

  • Dona General says:

    I like realistic stories and endings. Fairy tales are for children and I respect my characters too much to have them ‘settle’ for a super hero ending. Super heroes are all alike, boring. By the same token, I am tired of dope addicts and cartels, cops, CIA and FBI, spies, terrorists Characters may change, or not, but the plots don’t — we MUST save the world and everybody in it. Same thing with vampires, zombies, werewolves, immortals — heck, you get the idea. It’s all fantasy no matter which cross genre comes to mind.

    Real people have real problems, problems most of us face as some point in our lifetime. It’s a Wonderful Life comes to mind with enough ‘fantasy’ in it to give us hope but enough realism to give us empathy and the power to carry on.

    But, that’s just me.

    • Thanks for your comment, Dona! Reading similar stories repeatedly in different books is tiresome, and it’s great to discover new and interesting ways that authors challenge themselves and their characters to break the molds.

      TWL Assistant Editor

  • Devi says:

    I’m not sure about #1. I think this one is really genre dependent. A person reading a romance or fairy tale is going to expect the main characters to live happily ever after, while that type of ending would look out of place in a horror book or detective novel. So I think the main takeaway here is to make sure the ending is appropriate for the story being told.

    • Great point, Devi; making your ending fit your story is the crucial task. The “happily ever after” ending is so common in romance novels, it would almost be strange for one to end any other way! (Though that might be a fun experiment…)

      TWL Assistant Editor

  • I have a THING about endings. I am still angry with the author of “Bastard Out of Carolina” for that ending, and it has been years since I read that book. Anyway, one thing I like in an ending (especially in a series) is when the Bad Guy gets his comeuppance. I hate the idea of anybody getting away with anything (see “Bastard” above).

    • Good point, Angela — though you bring up the question about different endings resonating better with different audiences.

      For example, while you might want the Bad Guy to get his comeuppance in the end, some readers might feel that ending is a little too “happily ever after” for their tastes. Devi makes this point well, that making the ending fit the story is the most important aspect.

      TWL Assistant Editor

  • Jean says:

    I’ve read so many books that disappoint in the end. Here are two that were brilliant: the Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh and Sight Reading by Daphne Kalotay. Whether you call them happy is up to you. To me, they were satisfying, absolutely fitting to the book and its characters. As a fiction writer, I hope my readers will say the same about my books.

    • Jean — I think that “satisfying” is such a great word to describe the perfect ending to a book. Thanks for the reading recommendations.


      • Rebecca says:

        Jean, I love that–“satisfying and fitting.” I don’t mind a sad ending when it makes sense, and I don’t even mind if I can see the ending from a mile away, as long as the writing keeps me engaged and I’m invested for some reason other than a bizarre plot twist.

        The one that kills me (pun intended) is when the book is written first-person, and then the protagonist dies (I’m thinking of one in specific I read recently). It’s so frustrating, and especially if it’d just a way to give the ending drama/the author a way out.

  • Interesting, but Im betting I could change your mind on at least three of those.

    • Vincent, you may be right. Like some of the other commenters, I am a sucker for happy endings.

      • While I don’t absolutely NEED a happy ending, I do tend to like it when I am left thinking about the conclusion and also about possible continuations even if none are planned.

        Its like the end of Blade Runner (the theatrical version) where Decker finalizes the scene by wondering why Gaf left them alone when his job was to track them down. His ending monologue sums up his feelings quite nicely.

        My latest book utilizes this sort of first person monolog throughout and in summation, but also the “lovers life” ending. Sometimes the point of a story is in fact that love makes the world go round despite its myriad of complications.

        I look at it like this. There is a reason we sometimes root for the bad guy and not the good guy even though he is a horrible, horrible person. Its neat because of the right thing for the right reason theorem even if it tends to be a bit unrealistic at times.

        Just my 2 cents.

  • Frances Laskowksi says:

    When one of the fatal 4 endings are revealed in any story I read, I feel very let down. The whole journey was spent anticipating the end, and it comes on like a big flat tire!

    Thank you for reminding me. to work harder to avoid these in my own writing.

  • Allison,
    I actually finished reading a book last night that made me think about cliché endings, so I found your post to be very timely for me. It happened to be a 4. I do tend to get really annoyed with all these endings when I’ve spent hours reading a book. So many good books have weak endings that ruin it all.

    I think it is important for writers to reread their endings to make sure they weren’t trapped by the ease of solving problems with a cliché, so I’m glad you took the time to post this.

  • Pinar Tarhan says:

    Hi Allison,
    Actually, I don’t hate 1 as a reader. In fact, I expect it under many circumstances. It really depends on the genre and the tone of your story. For the books I read for escapism, and I love a good escapist book/movie, a happy ending is a lot more satisfying than a semi-happy or unhappy one. I’m not saying all characters will have marvelous lives with no struggles. But after pages and pages of conflict, I dare give my characters (at least the main couple) a happy beginning to the rest of their lives.

    The cliché I hate is “hey, my character was dead all along!” I don’t know if the books do this much, but after the third thriller I have seen, I really don’t want it anymore.

    • Pinar: Great point!

      “Hey, my character was dead all along!” can be such a cop-out . . . reminds me of “The Sixth Sense.”

      But you have to admit, it is a pretty powerful plot ploy the first time it is used.


      • Pinar Tarhan says:

        Allison, I like the movie just because of the ending!:) Then The Others was pretty good, too. But then the others following these others…not so much 😀

  • Lydia says:

    Perhaps it’s my age, but I personally like it when all the loose ends are wrapped up nice and neat and I love a happy ending, but I guess that’s because I am a hopeless romantic.

    I think fantasy could be an exception to rule #1 because it’s not supposed to be grounded in reality. A lot of people read fantasy to escape, not be reminded of the real world.

    I totally agree with #2.

    I would also add sad endings. I hate them. Nothing ruins a book more for me. I wanted to throw the last book in the Hunger Games series. I won’t be watching the movie.

    • Lydia, thanks for your comments!

      I totally agree about the last book in the Hunger Games series; however, I don’t know if I can keep myself from watching the movie. So addictive.


    • I HAVE to watch the movie. Mostly because I happen to think that JL is an amazing actress, but also because, isn’t the point of some things to tug at those heart strings until they are at the point of breaking?

      I don’t mind a sad ending. If there were no sad endings, the world would be quite a different place. Think about Brian’s Song or even Love Story. Ali Macgraws character gets more beautiful the sicker she gets. Its sad and beautiful.

    • I agree with you Lydia. Besides – a happily ending story – can be a wedding or something – or when you first feel comfortable in love – and I defy anyone to say your not happy on those days. How you ‘think’ their future is – is up to you. Unless a writer takes them to death it’s really hard to say whether it’s happily ever after or not. I also agree there is nothing so depressing as a sad ending or making me feel terrible all day. There is nothing ‘creative’ about making someone’s life so absolutely horrible (with conflicts, etc.) that they are thinking suicide on a daily basis. So a sad ending to me is every bit as bad to write as a happy ending. Is everyone who lives unhappy? I don’t think so.

    • Kitten says:

      I can read a book with blood and gore, violence, sadness, heartbreak, and All Things Terrible as long as the book has a good ending. I HATE sad and dumb endings.

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