How to end a short story: a case study.

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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.

Go here to read the experimental (unused) ending of Watching Atlas.

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.

xo,

Sarah” width=

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18 comments

Sarah, this was SUCH a useful post. I appreciate your generosity in sharing the writing process. Eek. I had NO idea how many drafts and complete re-writes went into a single story. I'm guessing that they're not all like this? I really liked the alternative ending. It did have a raw and untethered energy. So neat what you discovered by writing with abandon in a different voice. I'm looking forward to more writing from you (and me). :-)
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Chris Kay Fraser

Sarah, Thanks for this! It's a great post. I recognize myself in ALL the "trouble spots" you mentioned. My favourite surprise ending was for a short story I wrote about a troubled young man who was wandering farther and farther into his own darkness. There was some hope to it, a glimmer of light, but if I moved him right into that light, it felt silly and unrealistic. Finally, I asked *him* how it should end, and then sat down and wrote 3 times, for 10 minutes each, from his point of view, "Maybe this is what will happen to me..." To my amazement, that was my ending! I edited it down and plopped it in and it felt weirdly perfect. For this kid, but letting him *imagine* possible outcomes was enough to bring the story to it's most hopeful-without-feeling-contrived space. Of course, the best case scenario was saved for the last, so that the story was able to finish off somewhere gorgeous. Thanks again! You're full of smarts.
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Thank you so much for this post. I come from a playwriting background and started trying to write short stories a few years ago.I gave up because I was so confused by how short stories ended. I felt that it was way above me and that I had better stick with the dramatic resolution of playwriting that I felt comfortable with. I think I'll dust off those short stories and have another gander. Thanks for the inspiration, Meg
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Heather Thorkelson

This is super useful! I'm only just a beginning writer but I know it's crucial for me to get my storytelling chops in order. Going in with this kind of strategy will help me immensely. Thanks Sarah!
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Thank you so much! I recognized myself in all the trouble spots. Hope to find myself in some of the attempted solutions too! So far, my solution has been to leave the story alone for a long time, then try to read it as though I've never seen it before. Sometimes that helps trigger something different...
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The final paragraph of the story "Work" from Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson. http://ssy.ms/UXgztK
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Mary Nicholson

My favourite ending, and it is so subtle, is from Ernest Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast". For the first time in the novel, the author expresses sorrow, regret, and the inevitable end of a relationship. And makes the whole story, make sense.
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Sarah, Thanks for this terrific post! As a beginning writer, I see myself in the three trouble spots you mention. Thanks for the inspirational advice! My favourite ending? Ernest Hemingway's ending in his terrific short story, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." It still shakes me every time I read it.
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I always find it easy to start stories. Images of characters I enjoy in compelling situations flit through my head all the time. But about halfway through every story, a sense of dread starts to creep up my spin. By the time I'm at the end it's wrapped its fingers around my brain and any hope of writing a not-total-and-complete-crap ending disappears. I think you've just taught me how to deal with that. Thank you so very much!
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You know how some people are just plain brilliant? Well, you're one of them. I've been stuck with an assignment (a four-page story) for weeks, just because of the ending. I write long books all the time, but I had no idea how to wrap up an entire story line into four pages. When I read this I was so excited I literally squealed. I have now finished my story and my teacher loved it! Thank you so much!
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thanks, I can use your ideas on ending by just writing a couple with "no consequences" that frees me from being so uncertain. thanks again for the ideas.
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Donald Wilson

My favourite short story ending is "The Dead" by James Joyce.
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Patti-Kay Hamilton

Sinclair Ross "The Painted Door" Haunting ending that allows readers get it. Good example of the potency of show don't tell.
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Mark Johnson

Three endings come to mind; all three opened my eyes to new possibilities when I read them. The first is, "Shut up, Bobby Lee. It's no real pleasure in life." ("A Good Man is Hard to Find", Flannery O'Connor. I first read this in high school, and it, and Flannery O'Connor's stories generally, were a big factor in my wanting to become a writer myself. The second is, "I have been Homer; shortly, I shall be No One, like Ulysses; shortly I shall be all men; I shall be dead." ("The Immortal" by Luis Jorge Borges). I found Borges in college. or rather Borges found me: he taught an honors seminar in what proved to be the last year of his life, a seminar that I was fortunate enough to attend. His blending of erudition, high art and the 'low' genre of fantasy fiction added the techniques of these and other popular genres to my writer's tool box. The final ending is too long to quote here: it is the entire final section of Chekhov's great story 'Gusev'. Until its final section, the story is told in close 3rd person focusing on Gusev, a soldier on a ship carrying him and a number of other sick men back home to Russia from their posts in China. One by one, Gusev's shipmates die en route. Chekhov's ending has direct relevance to your point, Sarah, about re-imagining endings and taking things to far out places. In the last section of the story, Gusev dies in the first paragraph. The POV now shifts to omniscient 3rd, Gusev's burial at sea is described, and we follow Gusev's body, sewn up in sailcloth, as it begins its three mile descent to the ocean floor. A shoal of fish surround him, a curious shark investigates. The final paragraph then leaves Gusev to his fate and seems to encompass the entire universe: "Overhead at this time the clouds are massed together on the side where the sun is setting; one cloud like a triumphal arch, another like a lion, a third like a pair of scissors....From behind the clouds a broad, green shaft of light pierces through and stretches to the middle of the sky; a little later another, violet-colored, lies beside it; next that, one of gold, then one rose-colored....The sky turns a soft lilac. Looking at this gorgeous, enchanted sky, at first the ocean scowls, but soon it, too, takes tender joyous, passionate colors for which it is hard to find a name in human speech." This ending still affects me when I read it, though I have read it scores of times.
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What are your thoughts about ending a series short story with diolouge? Example? “My son, Jackie, He is dead” Chloe made eye contact with him staring right through him. He had always been a dishonest man. From the start she knew he was corrupted getting away with various crimes because of his charm. He knew how to play the part to keep himself from being sent away. She was too young to understand the reasons behind his darkness. But she did know that somewhere inside of her there was an urge to control her own. “You killed him” She said quietly kissing each knuckle. “I can't prove it, But I know you did it”
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Enjoyed this post, and happy to find your site. I've recently started writing short stories as creative exercise (to inspire me with my larger WIP) and endings are hard for me. I was curious as to what your opinion is about inspiring a story by first writing the ending sentence (as opposed to the usual writing prompt). Any advice? Thanks.
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Lisa! Thanks for your comment. Endings are so mysterious - I think USE WHATEVER WORKS! If starting with the final sentence sparks you into a story that feels fresh and compelling, I'm all for it. I find that as soon as I start doing something habitually, thinking "Oh good, NOW I know how to do this," my writing has a way of forcing me into finding new answers and routes. It wants us to keep growing and exploring -- I think that's the point. Good luck, and welcome to my site! xo S
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Layla Cummins

Great post and such detailed advice. I'm going to go and put these into practice, but with the added bonus of classical music - you've not written until you've blasted Bach into your ears and got finger cramp from typing like a maniac.
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