This post originally appeared on Publetariat on 4/15/10, and has received 3905 unique pageviews since then. It’s been one of the most popular posts on Publetariat in 2011.
"This is the end. My only friend, the end. Of our elaborate plans, the end"
– from "The End" by The Doors, 1967
In my humble opinion, that song is one of the truly great rock songs. The mixture of pleasure and pain it describes applies to more than just lost love and killers and death. Sometimes when we writers are working on a story, finishing the story can be bittersweet, or even just plain bitter. And sometimes we get near the end and we have no idea how to finish it, especially with a short story. In this post, I’ve outlined four possible ways to effectively end a short story.
There are more ways to end a story other than these four of course. And there is often overlap between the different ways. But if you are stuck, a look at these may help unstick you. Even if you aren’t stuck, they may give you some ideas. Anyway, here they are:
The Twist Ending
Add something a bit unexpected right near the end. If you have listened to or read Edward G. Talbot, you’ll know that we like to end stories this way. It works for many genres. The one thing you have to be careful about is not making it too unexpected so the reader feels like you just threw it in there. The reader needs to feel that it’s consistent with everything else in the story
There are so many ways to implement this concept. You see it all the time in suspense movies. Jeffrey Deaver is a master of this with his thrillers. A really good example is in James Patterson’s second Alex Cross thriller, Kiss The Girls. The killer turns out to be the FBI agent who was working the case. It’s just possible enough that the reader buys it and feels a chill at the betrayal.
The twist can also be subtle. My friend and fellow podcaster Scott Roche recently released an e-book short story called Bitter Release about a soldier trapped in a cave with only memories and a case of absinthe. Roche gives us a subtle twist literally in the last line that ties the surreal feel of the story together very effectively. I can’t say more without spoiling the story.
The Resolving Action
In action, mystery, thriller, and suspense genres, this is probably the most common ending. The line between a resolving action and a twist ending can be blurry, but a resolving action to my mind tends to be more expected, more like a traditional climax. This can be a major action like a bombing or a killing, or it can be something simple that punctuates the story.
A good example is in Tom Clancy’s "Debt of Honor", where a plane crashes into a joint session of Congress, making Jack Ryan the President. That’s one serious resolving action. Or in our own audiobook New World Orders we resolve the chase that has at one level been going on for the entire book. I won’t give the details, but it definitely ends with a Resolving Action.
On the other hand, you could have a story where a woman has killed an abusive husband and is struggling with guilt and the story could end with some symbolic gesture regarding letting go of it. That is a bit of a cliche, but it wouldn’t seem like it if done right. You get the idea.
The "Story" ends itself
This is very common in literary stories. Ask yourself, "What is the story I am telling the reader?" Stephen King in his book on writing talks about knowing what the story is as the key to all good writing. What is it on a high level that is interesting enough to make people keep reading? The story itself may have a built-in ending.
Seth Harwood uses this technique to perfection in his short story collection A Long Way From Disney. In story after story he has characters or feelings or some tension (or all three) to tell you about, and they end when he has finished telling you that particular story.
Another example is the movie Titanic. There are basically two stories, one how all the characters react to the sinking/tragedy and the other is how that tragedy impacts Jack and Rose, who have fallen in love. The movie ends with Rose casting the necklace away (a resolving action), but it could have simply ended with Rose finishing her tale and the viewers really understanding how that brief time impacted the whole rest of her life.
So once you understand what the story is you are telling, the ending may simply present itself. In some ways it can be easier in a short story because there are usually not very many threads in the story. The flash story that Jason wrote for our Intercast podcast – "Alive" – ends with the main character jumping out of a building. That is no surprise to readers, as the whole story builds to it. You could call it a resolving action, but in this case it’s more of a simple completion of the only place the story could have gone. James Melzer’s ebook story PTS does something similar. Nothing in that story is a surprise, and it ends with action, but again, it’s the only place the story could have gone.
The Intentionally Ambiguous ending
I like this one, but in my opinion it is the hardest to pull off. The problem is that most of the time the reader wants resolution. In a longer work, it’s possible to leave questions unanswered for a sequel, but that’s not the same thing – that’s not really the ending. It generally only works when the "story" is the tension or some interpaly between characters, and the resolution doesn’t matter.
I tried it in my short story "Transition" in the Intercast Audiobook, where the tension between outgoing and incoming U.S. administrations and several different middle eastern governments led to a climax where one group in the U.S. government was about to launch a nuclear strike and another was trying to stop them. The story is about how close we could get to nuclear holocaust with only one or two overt acts leading to it – whether nuclear holocaust actually occurs or not is irrelevant to the story. I actually got a couple of extremely positive comments about how I did this, but I also got one negative for not telling people exactly what happened. This kind of ending will not please everyone, but I do think it can be done effectively.
There are many other ways to end a story, or variations on the above techniques. Tell me about some of your favorites in the comments.