In short stories, there is a clearer sense of a beginning, middle, and end than in novels, which makes the ending more critical. I don’t know how many times I’ve loved a long novel, only to be disappointed by the conclusion—yet, I still enjoyed the book. The same isn’t true in a short story. If the ending doesn’t deliver, the story loses staying power.
(5 Ways to Use Short Stories to Grow as a Writer.)
One key to writing memorable endings is to suggest that the story isn’t actually over. The characters are not just made-up people who dissolve after the last line. Rather your language can suggest what might happen to the main character/characters in the future, inviting your readers to ponder their fates.
Beginning writers often want to tie together all the pieces. But mystery and omission in a story is crucial as long as it is properly cultivated (not just avoiding important details). Another way to circumvent a brick wall ending is to use imagery that compels readers to recall earlier instances in the narrative, thereby reinforcing the strongest moments from the story.
None of what I say here is to advocate for one type of ending or to insinuate that there is a formula to writing great endings. In my fourth and most recent story collection, Cravings, the first story ends with a long paragraph lush with imagery that compels the reader to rethink earlier events. The last story in Cravings concludes with a simple one-sentence paragraph suggesting that while others might not know some of the dubious motivations behind the main character’s actions, astute readers will be able to discern them and, besides, “all that really matters is that [the character knows]…”
Don’t worry or “future trip” about how you will finish the story until you are well into writing it. The most authentic endings are often the result of discovering different aspects of your characters and their situations as they develop and change. Enjoy where the writing is taking you.
Remarkable endings feel honest and real because of the organic way they came about. Reportedly, when Flannery O’Conner composed the final scene to “Good Country People,” she did not know the Bible salesman was going to steal Hulga’s wooden leg until he did. Nothing beats the pleasure of one of your characters surprising you by making a fitting, yet unanticipated action.
2) Imagery & Language.
Look at the endings of successful published short stories. What do their images and words predict about the characters’ futures? For example, at the close of James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues,” the troubled brother “sips” from a cup of Scotch and milk and then places it on top of the piano where “it glowed and shook above [the brother’s head] like the very cup of trembling.”
What do the juxtaposition of the words “sip,” “glowed,” and “trembled” imply about the brother’s current psychology and prognosis? What does it say about the narrator’s change of perspective regarding his brother? Instead of an ending that allows no interpretation, the language here is rich with possibilities.
Think about who your characters were at the beginning of the story as opposed to who they are at the conclusion. In the opening of Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” the younger sister, Maggie, is seen as “a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some careless rich person…” Yet by the end of the story, she smiles—“a real smile, not scared.”
Many successful stories show characters who are “forever” altered by the circumstances and will never be the same. Look at the last line of Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation”—“And anything that happened to me afterwards, I would never be the same.” Or consider the end of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies,” where the character observing the final scene knows that he will “preserve [it] forever in his mind.”
What other words besides “never” and “forever” indicate a story’s enduring power? That all said, a story that ends without character transformation, despite the impetus and chance to change, can be just as impactful (see tip #4).
4) Circling Back.
Of course, having faith in the discovery process inherent in writing to provide an ending doesn’t always work. If you reach the final pages and still have nothing, re-read your beginning and see what the story promised and what inspired you to start writing it in the first place.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited,” begins in a bar and ends in a bar. Maybe Fitzgerald planned this early in the process, but just as likely when he reached the end, he realized that the repeat of the setting could show that the character was not as transformed as he needed to be in order to regain custody of his daughter. In this case, the story acquires added significance by the lack of character change—a person given the opportunity to develop insight fails.
Play with various endings. If you believe a story should or would end a particular way, try writing the opposite ending.
What would have happened if instead of stealing Hulga’s leg in “Good County People,” the Bible Salesman had gotten down on one knee and proposed? What would it mean if the brother in “Sonny’s Blues” had gulped from the cup, hurled the it across the room or offered it to another person in his band? Read Margaret Atwood’s very short story, “Happy Endings,” and see how she experiments with various endings to the same situation.
6) Time & Structure.
Consider employing a flash forward; in other words, an ending to the immediate situation (a false ending) followed by a great leap in the present action to a period much later in the character’s life. Such a device can work similarly to a flashback that illuminates the present, though a flash forward helps explain the past. In Cravings, the story, “Maternal Instinct,” begins with a boy falling into a gorilla pit in a zoo which results in tragedy. The story ends about 30 years later when the grown boy revisits the zoo and provides a revelation about his initial experience.
Check out Garnett Kilberg Cohen’s Cravings here:
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Revise, revise, revise. Consider every word. Cut and tighten. This is true for most writing, but particularly for the ending which will be the last thing your readers will see and savor, and perhaps study to understand the story’s full meaning. The ending is likely to remain with them longer than other parts of the story.