#92: How to End a Story

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Dear Story Nurse,

I’ve been working on a lot of short stories lately and I’ve had the same problem with each of them. I can’t end the dang things! I write beginnings and middles I like, but when I get to the end, the writing becomes more forced as I wrap things up. I have a hard time writing a sentence that signals to the reader “this is the end” but feels natural and isn’t obvious that’s what the story is doing. How can I make my endings read more smoothly?

Yours,

Never Ending (she/her)

Dear Never Ending,

Your deceptively simple question requires a slightly complicated answer. In order to understand how to end stories, we have to get into what an ending is and what it’s for, and what makes it different from a story just stopping.

Good endings usually elevate or relieve tension. Endings that people think of as unsatisfying generally don’t either wind you up or wind you down; they cut the story off without telling the reader how to feel about it. Endings do need to bring at least the major story threads to a resting point, but they’re primarily emotional experiences. Since there are many different kinds of emotions that an ending can evoke, it follows that there are many different kinds of endings.

What follows is a rudimentary taxonomy with a lot of generalizations, primarily intended for use as a starting point in figuring out what kind of ending you want a given story to have. There are many possibilities besides the ones noted here. It may also help to come up with your own list of the types of endings you personally find most satisfying to read and write.

If your story follows a typical thriller, episodic, or heroic journey arc, you will notice that the emotional climax is not the ending. The ending of the story needs to take care of the reader, who’s just been through some very big climactic feelings. It reorients them, reassures them, refocuses their attention on the characters rather than on their own feelings about the story, shows the changes that have been wrought by the protagonist’s journey, and asserts that the story’s moral underpinnings are still there. The climax is where answers to the story’s big questions happen; the ending puts those answers in the context of the story and sets the stage for consequences and reactions.

Even if you’re not planning a sequel, it can help to set your ending up as though you are, making it feel like the sort of resting place from which, after a break, a character might set out on a new journey. A classic example is Samwise Gamgee’s “Well, I’m back” at the end of The Lord of the Rings; if your protagonist has similarly gone on a challenging adventure full of triumph and loss, that’s the type of emotional resolution you’ll most likely want to aim for, with some bittersweetness (we’re very aware of everyone who didn’t make it back, of how much the Shire has changed and how much Sam has changed) but a generally positive feel. Let’s call this the aftercare ending.

If you’ve set up a mystery of some kind, you may want to solve it in a climactic scene that’s followed by an aftercare ending as described above. You can also solve it with a dramatic reveal in the last page or paragraph or sentence, the sort of ending that feels like it should have a dramatic chord playing on the soundtrack. It depends on whether you want the reader’s emotions to center around empathizing with your protagonists (which requires the ramp-down from the reader’s peak emotions at the climactic moment) or the reader’s own feelings of shock or surprise or dismay or satisfaction at the mystery’s resolution.

A cliffhanger cuts off the story when there are lots of questions and promises implicitly that a future installment will provide the answers. Some readers love this; some hate it. Regardless, there does need to be some sort of cathartic resolution in a future story or your readers will be mad at you. Two good setups for a cliffhanger: something that looked like a cathartic climax turns out not to be, or a new piece of information is introduced or connection is made that puts all the preceding events in a new light and requires the characters to radically change their plans.

Shocks and twists likewise work for some readers and not others. They hit the emotions particularly hard, because, like the dramatic reveal, they leave the reader focused on their own experience of understanding and grappling with the story. A shock or twist that’s only intellectual will fall flat. The reader needs to be really invested in the story ending a certain way, and then have that expectation or hope upended.

Tragic endings don’t get much play these days, but I’m actually very fond of them when they’re done well. They combine the catharsis of the aftercare ending with the intensity of the dramatic reveal. For a tragedy to work, the reader must on some level agree that the story should be tragic—they must come to terms with the protagonist failing, suffering, or dying, and agree that it’s correct or at least inevitable for that to happen.

Moral tragedies have fallen out of favor; it’s still common to believe that certain categories of people deserve to die, but we now tend to make those characters into villains or side characters rather than protagonists. That leaves us with stories where the protagonist’s actions bring tragedy about. In one of my favorite tragic arcs, an ethical person has every option and every scrap of power gradually stripped away from them until their only way to do good is through a final act of self-sacrifice. Another option is for a flawed but sympathetic character to make a series of choices that lead inexorably to a doom that the character sees coming but can’t find a way to avoid.

Tragic stories are cathartic for the same reason that triumphant stories are cathartic: we see ourselves in these characters, and we feel like the lives they’re living might be ours. The heroic journey is what we hope for; the tragic journey is what we fear or dread or believe we deserve. If you write a tragic story, don’t shy away from making the reader sad. That’s what readers read tragedies for, just as readers read horror in order to be scared. Just remember that most successful tragic stories rely on the protagonist’s agency—and also that you need to be careful not to inadvertently recapitulate flawed paradigms such as “bury your gays” or “the Black guy dies,” in which marginalized characters get tragic arcs with disproportionate frequency.

To be clear, I’m not saying the emotional stakes in every story have to be super high! Quiet vignettes can be lovely. But even in the most low-key story, there need to be emotional stakes of some kind—such as a question that’s answered, a gain or a loss, or a choice with consequences—for the ending to stick the landing.

I’m going through all of this even though you asked about sentence-level matters because I think that understanding what your ending is trying to achieve will significantly influence how you write it. You talk about a single sentence, but a single sentence is almost never an ending, unless you’re writing Twilight Zone–style twist endings for every single one of your stories. (If you are, go find a few of the collections of short stories in honor of The Twilight Zone and study them. Some of the twists will work for you and some won’t; see if you can analyze what makes the difference, and put some of that in your work.) Especially when you’re still in the drafting stage, focus on the emotional work that your ending is doing rather than on crafting the perfect sentence. Your prose can be polished in revisions, once the emotional structure of the story is there. And if the emotional structure of the story is there, your sentence doesn’t need to signal that it’s the end, because the reader will already know.

Don’t worry about being too obvious. Many stories with obvious endings work just fine. That sounds like a hurdle you’ve set up for yourself and are now struggling to clear. Give yourself permission to be obvious, to write a last sentence that’s the same as your first sentence, to write a story that ends with a character returning to where they started and realizing they’ve changed, to end a romance with “I love you” and even tack on a baby epilogue if you want to. You don’t have to be subtle if subtlety doesn’t work for you.

Also think about your own experience of writing the story. Are you having trouble letting go and saying goodbye to your characters or your world? (You can always write more stories with those characters or in that world.) Would you be happier writing longer works? Are you uncertain about how the reader’s emotional journey should go? Do you dislike transitions from one state to another? (Credit to R. Lemberg for identifying this reason that many writers find it difficult to finish stories.) Do you have too many ideas for how to end a story? Are lots of shiny new stories distracting you before you can wrap up the one you’re working on? Do you enjoy telling slice-of-life stories that don’t generate much tension? Does it stress you out to put your characters through real drama and transformation? Are you having a hard time maintaining story momentum? Are you hitting the three-quarters slump in which everything you write feels clunky and terrible even when it’s actually good? Any of these can lead to stories that trail off or endings that (feel to you like they) fall flat.

Once your plot is aligned to point toward your intended emotional takeaway for the reader, I think you’ll find that your endings fall into place more easily. They may still need a lot of work in revision. (I just drafted a story that has three “final” paragraphs, because none of them felt right so I kept trying new ones. I suspect the problem is actually halfway through the story, and once I fix that, the ending will sort itself out.) Good beta readers and editors can help identify snags you might have missed. Keep practicing and building your skills, and over time you’ll get a better feel for how endings go.

Some craft suggestions for you:

  • For each story, outline the reader’s emotional arc. If you’re a visual thinker, it can help to draw it as a line that goes up with optimism and joy and down with anxiety and sadness.
  • Outline the characters’ emotional arcs too, while you’re there, to make sure that they’re having enough feelings to bring the reader along.
  • Outline in general; it’s a great way to check for structural issues. If you’re a pantser, get a draft done and then make an outline based on your draft.
  • Study endings that work for you, especially those in the genres that you write in.
  • Visualize the reader who has just finished your story. Are they teary-eyed, breathless, relieved? Craft your ending specifically to create that reaction.
  • Write some stories where the genre mandates the shape of the ending: a mystery with a resolution, a romance with a happily-ever-after, an episode where the characters come back to where they started. Relax into that structure and let it support you.
  • Make sure most of your story beats are connected with BUT and THEREFORE rather than AND THEN. (The story momentum post linked above has more on this.)
  • Check for inconsistencies in characterization, a major cause of floppy endings. If your character becomes whomever the circumstances ask them to be, there’s no tension.
  • Look for places where you’ve resolved problems too quickly and easily, another common tension-killer that can lead to unsatisfying endings.
  • Forgive yourself for leaving some works unfinished, or not knowing how to finish them. Keep each unfinished draft in case you ever want to come back and try finishing it, and move on to the next project.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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