How to end a short story: a case study.
Sure, it's fine to talk about what it takes to start a new first draft, how you keep yourself at your desk, how to follow the story along to see where it leads you. But how do you end a short story? Nobody tells you how to end a short story!
Short fiction already has a bad reputation for endings. A successful story doesn't have to resolve in the same way a novel does: often, readers come to the end of a short story wanting more. That's it? they cry. But what happens to the people next?
A seasoned short fiction reader learns to love that rush, the feeling of missing a step. He appreciates having a story-sized stone in his pocket, and touches it for meaning and nuance throughout the day.
But there's a difference between ending a story abruptly because the story has resolved itself, and ending a story abruptly because you don't know what else to do.
Here are three trouble spots I've noticed from years of writing and reading and teaching short fiction. Do you find yourself in one of these cul-de-sacs?
1. You write, describing scene after careful scene, but eventually you run out of juice. So you end your story, on a lovely, poignant image. But - what happened? What's the point of the story?
2. You write, carefully moving from story point to story point, until you reach the final scene. You may have known it was there all along. You feel the urge to make the ending satisfying, so you finalize it with a sentence or two that leaves no confusion: this is the end! It's clearly a whole and compelling ending! But when you read it over, it sounds cheesy.
3. You write, exploring action and causality, following what if? after what if? and then get to a point where you don't know what to do anymore. Your characters are in trouble (good) and the scene is ready for a shift (good) but you don't know how to resolve this.
Any of these scenarios sound familiar? Yeah, I know: all of the above. Me too.
The reason it's hard to find answers to the "how to end a story" problem is simple and infuriating: it will always depend on the story, and what that particular story wants. There's no easy way to do it, and there's certainly no formula. Every story is different.
But the same elements you need to start a story are also present when you end one: you need to be familiar with risk, faith, receptivity and uncertainty.
One thing to do: think about your story before you go to bed, and then ask your mind to give you an ending while you sleep. Keep a notebook by your bed. If you're a well-practiced dreamer, you can solve problems this way. This is not a joke.
If that's too out there for you, here is a story about how I ended a particularly vexing story. I’ve included all of the technical details. I hope this will help you.
Ending Watching Atlas: a case study
I had rewritten about 10 drafts of a story I eventually called "Watching Atlas" (the title came early - it's so much easier to title a story than it is to end one), but I knew it still had a long way to go. Not just because it had a lame (read: nonexistent) ending, but because I still didn't know who the story belonged to. I was having a POV problem.
The story had two main characters - Greg and Lise. They fought a lot, especially about the fate of an alcoholic friend's young son (Atlas). I went back and forth in the writing, telling it first from omniscient POV, then to 3rd person limited, in Greg sections and Lise sections. I separated the sections first, and then rewrote it, weaving them together. It was a mess. My editors resorted to drawing diagrams in the margins to try to help me sort it out. By the 10th rewrite, I had decided to tell it through omniscient POV once again, and write the consciousness of both Greg and Lise.
Each rewrite was a true revision - I started on a blank page, with my previous drafts in a pile beside me for consultation, and I wrote it over again. Writers: please don't underestimate this step. It doesn't matter if you're looking for the right POV or the right ending or the right scene - rewriting is the only way to become truly engaged with your material again; it is the way to discover it.
So I was poised to rewrite for the 11th or 12th time, this time from a big "voice of god" narrative voice. And then my mentor said, I want you to rewrite the ending of your story in the style of someone else. (If you're in the Story Course, you'll see this assignment explained in detail in Lesson 7.) I wrote a new ending for the story that was ridiculous, out of line, and over the top. I knew it was all wrong: I wrote it in Lise's POV, for starters, and I had already decided I was going to have an omniscient POV. I dared myself to write an ending that would make my mentor shocked to read it - something she would never expect from me. I dared to write an ending that made me cringe.
Writing an ending this way -- with energy and a dare, without any boundaries or consequences -- this is how I found my story's ending. I let my guard down, and then there it was.
More precisely: the ending met me halfway.
To be clear: I still had to revise the story after that. I didn't use the experimental ending in my final draft. But in and through the writing of it, I discovered what the story really wanted. For instance:
Writing with abandon was exciting, and much easier than I expected. That told me that my story wanted some fire and race in the narrative.
I'd written in Lise's POV but it didn't match her character. The fire and race felt like Greg's energy. So it was Greg's story that I wanted to tell.
I liked how the final paragraph felt in the new ending. So the story needed a slow crash at the finish.
The bigger lesson: there are risks involved in ending a story, just as there are risks involved in starting one. That feeling of jumping off a cliff - the feeling that got you to the page in the first place - you have to draw on that when you end a story, too. You have to take a running jump and go for it. Don’t overthink it. Get out of the way.
What short story endings do you particularly love? What stories end so brilliantly you can read them fifty times and still feel stunned? Let me know by leaving a comment below. I think it's time to start studying endings again.