This week, Steve, Heather, and I take a look at endings. These tips and tricks can help you find the perfect ending for your short story or novel. As always, you can listen above or download the episode here. Find Steve and Heather and me on Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, and Stitcher.
Regardless of whether you’re writing a short story or a novel, how you end your fiction will determine how your readers feel about everything that comes before it. However, in a short story, the ending is even more important. While an unsatisfactory ending of a novel may be disappointing, if we’ve enjoyed the journey, we may be more forgiving. If, however, the ending of a short story falls flat, our entire experience with the story will be disappointing. Still, in writing circles, there’s an old adage I find relevant: Your first chapter sells your book. Your last chapter sells your next book. The right ending can guarantee you a loyal following.
So how do you compose an ending that works? Here are some qualities of the best endings. Look at yours to see if it measures up. Or, conversely, see if any of these strike a chord with your story, or if you can work any of these into your work to get the biggest bang for your buck.
- A great ending is one the reader can’t see coming, but once it’s read, the reader can think of no other way to end it. Flannery O’Connor calls this the “unexpected but inevitable” ending. You can see it in most of her works (including her well-known and iconic American short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find).
- Edgar Allen Poe says that the last line of a story (or a novel, one could argue) is like a flashlight. Once read, it illuminates the rest of the story so that the reader notices details they hadn’t previously been aware of. This principle works in large part by distraction and misdirection. How can you give the final detail that illuminates the trail of breadcrumbs that came before it? A good example of this would be Pride and Prejudice, in which Mr. Darcy seems villainous, but at the end, once everything is illuminated, turns out to be the hero.
- A good ending will capture and equal everything that has gone before it. Consider Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, or Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In both cases, the ending of the final book brings back details that had been established in earlier books, often as early as the first book of the series. Once the reader arrives at these conclusions, they understand that the writer has been working toward an inevitable end, but it’s often one the readers didn’t see coming.
- Writers like to talk about the term “earning the ending.” Is the ending earned? Have the characters done enough to bring about this outcome? If not, the ending is not earned, and the reader feels cheated. Consider the Eragon series. *SPOILER ALERT* While Eragon plays a small role in the resolution of the central conflict, more often than not, someone else is saving his backside. It became a source of frustration throughout the series. Additionally, Eragon never really changed. He didn’t grow up or learn to resolve his own problems. He doesn’t even deal the final blow against the evil emperor–a pretty unforgivable sin in my estimation.
- If you’ve got a long series (three or four books), you may consider having a longer falling action. Necessarily, there will be more loose ends to tie up. This is often where you see epilogues that give a glimpse into the future, to answer the questions plaguing readers’ minds. Think, again, of Harry Potter, and the glimpse we get to see of his life in the future. It’s not much, but it’s enough to tell us the road they’re on, and to see the lasting effects of the events of the series.
- Know your audience. Fans of genre fiction have come to expect a certain outcome (the characters save the world, get the girl, and establish peace in the kingdom/multiverse/galaxy etc.). Readers of literary fiction are more agreeable to open resolves and uncertainty. In horror, more often than not, the bad guys win, etc.
- Never end a story with, “and then he woke up.” The dream-sequence ending (and the oh-so-tricky dream-but-not-really-a-dream) renders the rest of the story as a waste of time. If it was a dream, it has no relevance to the real world. Sure, the Wizard of Oz did it, but it’s tough to make it work because the trope is so worn out and cliche.
- Avoid punchline endings. If your ending is a punchline, it makes the rest of your story a joke, and, like the “and then they woke up” ending, is irrelevant and unimportant.
- If you’re writing a story for the sole purpose to trick the reader, you’re writing for the wrong reason. A twist ending works because we didn’t see it coming when we should have. A trick ending is one we couldn’t see coming because the author has withheld important information. This is bad.
- Especially in short fiction, avoid the suicide ending. It’s very difficult to do well, and it removes the source of conflict in a very unsatisfying way. Short fiction is often best served when a little of the conflict lives on. If your character makes their bed, they must sleep in it. Suicide takes that away from them, and it becomes melodramatic.
- Remember: Your first chapter sells your book. Your last chapter sells your next book.
- Remember also that your story is a series of promises you make to your reader, intentional or otherwise. Tapping into those promises and delivering on them is the best way to ensure a satisfying ending. If you’re not sure what promises you’ve made, have someone read it. They’ll be sure to tell you if you’ve left an unfulfilled promise on the table.
We truly hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s podcast, and hope that it has, in some way, helped you find a way to resolve your story line. Until next week, good writing.