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Writing the Ending for a Short Story

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September 2011
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By Dave Hood

How do you write an ending for your short story? There is no single method of ending a story. Many writers don’t know how their story will end as they write the story. And so the ending emerges as the story is revealed on the page. Other writers know how the story will end before they begin, and so they can focus on the resolution as they write. There is no right or wrong approach.

In this article, I briefly explain the meaning of an ending, how to end your short story, and explain what the ending must do for the reader. I also provide some tips on how to write an ending for a short story or novel.

The Meaning of an Ending

All stories must end with resolution. There must be some answer to the central conflict.  When you write the ending, your story must be complete. All unanswered questions posed in the story must be answered. All loose ends must be tied up.

Writer Flannery O’Connor the end is when the story is complete, “when nothing more than relating to the mystery of that character’s personality can be show through that particular dramatization.” (On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey)

An ending can be framed in terms of denouncement, realization, or epiphany. Each has a different shade of meaning.

Denouncement.

The story can end with a closed ending or open ending. In an closed ending, nothing more can happen. For instance, the villain might be killed. In an open ending, the writer leaves questions about what will happen next. For instance, the gunslinger who has just killed the bad guy, rides off into the sunset. The reader is left to imagine what the central character will do next with his life.

Realization

It is less powerful than an epiphany. The central character gains some insight or is enlightened, and then makes some change in his/her life. For instance, the short story Lust by writer Susan Minot ends with a realization: Their blank look tells you the girl their fucking is not there anymore. You seemed to have disappeared. (On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey)

Epiphany

James Joyce introduced the technique of epiphany. It is not simply a realization, but a “magical moment, “felt moment”, that results in permanent change by the character. James Joyce writes includes an epiphany in the short story Eveline. The threat of repeating her mother’s life spurs Eveline’s epiphany that she must leave with Frank and embark on a new phase in her life, but this realization is short-lived. As the story ends, she has a second epiphany, which concludes the story.

Ways to End a Short Story

Short stories or novels can end in many ways. Here are a few common ways in which writers conclude their fictional stories:

Twist Ending

Sometimes the writer concludes the story with a twist ending. Readers are lead to believe that a story will end in a particular way, and then it ends in a different way. So the ending is unexpected. For instance, the story can end with a tragic ending, one in which the protagonist dies. The story might end with an ironic ending, which reveals the darker side of human nature, the shadow of man. Kate Chopin’s “A Story of an Hour” is concluded with a twist ending.

Resolving Action

Sometimes the story ends with some final action that brings an end to the conflict, complete finality. In Jack London’s To Build a Fire”, the story ends with the central character freezes to death while on journey to the work camp.

End of the story ending

Sometimes a story ends after it has been told. This is how Tom Franklin’s short story “Alaska” ends. The narrator tells the fantastical story, the dream trip, and then ends with…”we would stop playing as if on cue and look at each other, suddenly happy, remembering Alaska, waiting for us.”So does William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”

Ambiguous ending

Essentially, the writer crafts an ending in which the story ends, but the reader is left wondering what will happen next. So, there is no permanent resolution to the ending. Another story can be written, which brings total closure to the story. You see this sort of ending in sequels.

What the Ending Must Do

Your ending must tie up loose ends and answer any unanswered questions in the story.

Writing the ending is also as important as your opening. So, you need to write an ending that resonates in the mind of the reader.

The ending must also be a logical outcome of the story. In other words, it must be based on cause and effect.

The ending should also answer the central conflict of the story.

Sometimes the ending ends the story but doesn’t mean the end. The reader is left to answer the questions implied by the ending of the story.

If the ending is disappointing, many writers won’t recommend that other’s read your short story or novel. And it probably won’t get published.

Only through finding a meaning to your story will the best ending become possible. That is why theme is so important.

Tips for Writing an Ending

Your ending should provide closure to the story. In the issue of A Writer’s Guide to Fiction (Published by Writer Mag), writer Sharon Warner provides five tips for ending a story, which you can use to help create a story with closure. These include:

  1. Avoid the to-neat ending.  In other words, don’t wrap it up and seal it up tight.  This approach trivializes your story. Instead, the write the ending until there is almost a new story that will unfold at the end.
  2. Look to your beginning to find your ending. In other words, your opening will often suggest how the story should end.
  3. Write provisional endings as your story progresses. As you write the draft, think about how it might end. Then write a provisional ending. A short story has a beginning, middle, and end. So, if you are going to write a story, you should be prepared to write a complete story, a story that has an ending. Once the story is written, you can revise the content, including the ending.Let the story speak for itself. Sometimes the best endings focus a step or two away from the central
  4.  A good story ends loosely. It doesn’t tie up all the possibilities that the story presents.
  5. Avoid the tendency to summarize. Don’t be preachy or didactic. In other words, don’t tell the reader what to think about the story. Let the reader discover it through subtext it, make his/her own decisions.

Final Thoughts

Many short stories end with an epiphany. The character experiences a significant revelation or realization. This was a technique introduced by writer James Joyce.

Your ending must resolve the story. That is why we refer to the ending as a resolution.  There must be some answer to the conflict—but not necessarily the right answer.

The ending should also lead to some meaning of the story. What does the story, especially the ending, have to say about human nature or the human condition.

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7 Comments

  1. vijay rudra says:

    the tips given above are very useful.

    thank you..

  2. sarah says:

    Respectfully, your article includes several contradictions that don’t work. They aren’t contradictions that can be reconciled. For instance, you say

    >>What the Ending Must Do | Your ending must tie up loose ends and answer any unanswered questions in the story.<>sometimes the ending ends the story but doesn’t mean the end. The reader is left to answer the questions implied by the ending of the story.<>Avoid the to-neat ending…don’t wrap it up and seal it up tight…trivializes your story….write the ending until there is almost a new story that will unfold at the end.<> A good story ends loosely. It doesn’t tie up all the possibilities that the story presents.<>Your ending must resolve the story. That is why we refer to the ending as a resolution. There must be some answer to the conflict—but not necessarily the right answer.<<

    Your article is not confusing in that I don't understand the concept of ambiguous or open, or unresolved conflict. It's your use of the word "must" when clearly you don't mean that.

    You should edit this. =)

  3. sarah says:

    My paragraphing didn’t post as I typed it. Sorry ’bout that.

  4. Pondrin says:

    I’m 15 and I’ve been writing short stories for more than 1 year. I find writing stories’ endings are difficult for me. Thanks for the great tips 🙂

  5. Reblogged this on Switzy Thoughts and commented:
    A really wonderful post to read. I found it while looking for some other writers’ thoughts on short story endings.

  6. Nancy Purcell says:

    Your information re: Ending a short story proved helpful to me. I’ve wrestled through two endings and I come away satisfied with what the story has to say about the human condition, ie: not everyone has an epiphany and turns over a new leaf, etc. Some people just stay the way they are, traveling the same road forever. The sentence “What does the story, especially the ending, have to say about the human condition.” brought clarity to my chosen ending. Thank you.

  7. […] “Writing the Ending for a Short Story” by Dave Hood […]

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