Writing endings has never been my strong suit. When a friend finished reading my first novel, the first thing she said was, “I hate the ending.” To me, the ending was perfect. It wrapped up the protagonist’s story while setting up the next book. So I asked her why she felt that way. She said, “It’s not satisfying.”
I’d run into the biggest obstacle to writing endings and conclusions. That obstacle is a two-word question: “So what?” That’s what someone says when they feel like everything they just read didn’t have an impact on them.
This problem doesn’t only happen with novels. Whether you’re writing a blog post, a college paper, or any kind of content, you must do battle with “so what?” If you want your reader to feel like your piece was worth the time they spent reading it, you need to learn how to write a satisfying conclusion.
Here’s how it’s done, in three simple steps.
No matter what you’re writing, your introduction should have a thesis. That’s a statement representing the point you’re trying to make. Writing a sociology paper about the problems of the penal system? Your thesis might be something like: “Foucault’s panopticon can help us rehabilitate inmates while punishing them less.”
However, if you’re writing a blog post arguing against the use of the Oxford comma, your thesis might be: “The use of the Oxford comma is pretentious and clutters up sentences.” It’s wrong, of course, but it is a working thesis.
Your conclusion should start with your thesis, enhanced by what you wrote in the piece. This structure does two things. It reminds people why you sent them on this crazy journey in the first place, and it signals the beginning of your conclusion.
Here’s what that looks like, using the two thesis statements above:
The thesis doesn’t change. Rather, it’s enhanced by the rest of your text. It’s like going on a road trip; you’re never quite the same at the end of one. That’s all the modified thesis shows. You’re answering the “so what?” question by telling the reader: “Look at what you’ve learned.”
Once you’ve introduced your conclusion, it’s time for a quick recap. This is where you show the connecting thread throughout your arguments and that they’ve all been building up to something.
Be careful not to just summarize what you’ve written. Synthesize. What’s the difference? A summary is a recap. It’s “last time on Game of Thrones.” A synthesis is more of a breakdown of your arguments, distilling them to their essence. It’s the difference between showing someone what happened and why it happened. If a summary is a recap at the beginning of the episode, the synthesis is the plot breakdown. Done right, it should help your reader understand each point better.
What does synthesis look like in practice? Let’s say I wrote a blog post about writing novels. My thesis is that writing novels is hard but not impossible. Then, the tips I gave were:
A summary would just repeat these tips, almost word for word. Here’s what a synthesis would look like:
Writing novels isn’t easy, but it’s incredibly worthwhile. If you want to write a novel, you have to start by writing every day. It’s the best way to get better. Then, you need to figure out your outline; that will take you from stumbling blindly in the dark to at least knowing where the light is. Finally, forget what you’ve heard about writer’s block. It’s not going to stop you unless you let it.
If I’d spent all that time repeating myself, my conclusion would just drag on since it’s telling the reader something they already know. But when I rephrase my arguments, boiling them down to their most essential component, I’m showing the reader what they’ve learned to counter the “so what?” question.
Use the synthesis part of your conclusion to build momentum. If you’ve ordered your piece well, your strongest point should be at the end. That means your synthesis will end on a strong note. Write boldly and make sure it keeps that impact.
You’ve reworded your thesis and synthesized your arguments. Time to close the word processor and celebrate, right? Not quite. You’ve done a good job of fighting “so what?” but you’re not done quite yet.
The last few sentences of your conclusion are crucial. They’re like the final scene of a movie or the last notes in a guitar solo. When readers are done with your piece, they will remember these words the most.
Your conclusion should show that you’ve broadened your reader’s horizons. One of the worst things your conclusion can do is leave your readers to think they know everything about an issue. Especially if you’re writing a blog post and want them to stay on your site.
Taking my example of the panopticon and prisons, for instance, a less-than-stellar conclusion would end with something like: “And this is how the panopticon can solve the problem of violence in prisons.” It’s a strong point, but it’s closed off, whereas you should be leaving your reader with an open mind and different questions than they had when they started reading. Here’s what that conclusion should finish with instead:
“While the panopticon is a great way to solve prison violence, it invites questions about government surveillance. Indeed, it makes one wonder just how widespread the use of this technique is in the life of average citizens.”
With this conclusion, I’ve not only confirmed my initial thesis, but I’ve also left my reader wanting more. They’re asking themselves plenty of questions, but there’s one they’re not asking: “So what?”
Remember that the conclusion is your last chance to kill that question. The best way to do that is to show that your piece is just a small part of a broader issue, rather than a simple problem or idea. In the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi:
“You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.”
The conclusion is not a throwaway paragraph. When you put effort into them, these final words are what your readers will take with them when they finish reading. If you don’t, it’ll be “so what?”
Start with your thesis, updated with all the knowledge you’ve gone over in your writing. Then, synthesize your arguments. Don’t just summarize them; bring out the beating heart of each one. Finally, leave your readers on a note that broadens their horizons.
Who knows, that perfect conclusion might be what gets them to come back and keep reading.
Nick wrote his first story at the age of nine when living in New York. It had a troll, a cave, and a magical voice, but not much else. There’s more to his stories now, but he can’t quite stay away from the monsters and dark places of the world. He does his best writing on a powder-blue typewriter—which he snagged for $25—despite the protests of those around him. Some of his best writing (and the occasional gushing post about the Marvel Cinematic Universe) can be found at whiskeyandstardust.com.