We know. Endings are not easy. In fact, they’re so difficult to pull off, that many decent writers spend all their time perfecting everything else just so they can muddle through the last few lines hoping no one will notice. But writing a great ending to a story is as necessary as nailing a super difficult jump in skating or snowboarding: you can do all the impressive tricks and flips that you want, but you’re not going to get very far in the sport if you regularly botch the landings.
Never fear, though, it can be done. But just like anything in the X Games, it’s going to take a ton of practice to get there. While you’re on your way, it helps to keep in mind these basics:
1. Don't Wrap Things Up to be Tidy
We are no longer in the literary time of O. Henry (though there is still a very prestigious award named after him, which can be somewhat confusing), so readers of literary fiction aren't reading to find out the moral of the story or to find out WHAT HAPPENS. They want to think and feel in surprising ways, otherwise they could just go read the blockbusters. If you're writing a story that has a point, you should maybe reconsider writing it as an essay or an editorial and let your stories take on more of a life of their own.
2. Nobody Likes Twist Endings
Do you like surprising people? Great! Play some practical jokes or throw a surprise party for a friend. Do not let this tendency bleed into your fiction. If you want to surprise readers with your story, do it at the sentence level, at the level of word choice. The ending of a story should feel unexpectedly inevitable. It should both follow directly from everything that came before but also be something the reader could never have predicted with any degree of precision on his own.
3. Ambiguous Does Not Mean Cryptic
Some of these distinctions are subtle, to be sure, but subtlety is what separates great fiction from stories that are just meh. Writing an ending that is purposefully cryptic confuses readers and pisses them off. They’ve invested all this time by being generous to your story, and you’ve gone and squandered it; there’s no profundity to be found in something that just doesn’t make any sense. You can still be clear and leave the ending ambiguous, which Paris Review editor Lorin Stein strongly advocates in his recent interview with The Atlantic, and part of this depends on where you end the story. Many people write past the end of the story, and it’s likely that your true ending is actually lingering somewhere a few paragraphs before the one you initially wrote. Try it. You might have to rework a few lines to make it fit, but you are often being more generous to the reader by leaving things to their imagination.
4. Troubleshooting Tips
In case you find yourself stuck, try these exercises and techniques to get yourself out of a jam:
- Start with the ending in the introduction so that you have something specific to write toward. Since the reader already knows what’s going to happen, you know that what you’re getting at is going to be deeper and more intense than plot.
- Reread your favorite story by a master of the craft and try to reproduce what that ending accomplishes in your own story (using none of the particulars of that great story). Here, you’re just picking apart what the story does and how, and seeing how those techniques can work when applied to a different set of circumstances and characters.
- End on a compelling image that’s relevant to the story. It’s a decent way to avoid summarizing what’s happened or wrapping things up too neatly if that’s something you have trouble with.
5. The Ideal Ending
If you ask an editor what her ideal ending looks like in a short story, chances are she isn't going to be able to articulate it, and that’s important. Imagine yourself being interviewed ten years from now by Terry Gross about this short story you’ve just finished now—maybe it’s your break-out story (Ha! Just kidding, no one gets famous these days writing short stories, but bear with me anyway). Imagine the types of interesting questions she might like to ask you about what you meant there at the end, what you were going for. If you can’t think of any thought-provoking questions, that’s a red flag that maybe it’s too simplistic, obvious, or nonsensical of an ending. Now, think about your potential answers to her interview questions. Can you explain your ending in just a sentence or two? That’s also a bad sign. If, however, you feel strongly about the ending, had a specific intention for it, but still find the ending to be a little elusive…maybe even ineffable, well, then you might just be on the right track.
What do you think is the greatest fictional ending ever? Let us know!