Ending a Story

– American Gods by Neil Gaiman

So, you’ve been writing your next short story or novel, plugging away on word after word. Your main character has been through the ringer, and just learned a valuable lesson that fixed their main flaw. It doesn’t feel right to stop yet so you provide them a denouement, seeing how their new selves affect the world around them. But, how do you actually stop? When does a story feel right to wrap up?

Much like what Gaiman eludes to in the above quote from American Gods, life itself seems to be perpetual. However, all good stories must come to an end! Sure, some are serialized and continue on in other volumes, sequels, and spin offs. Even in those scenarios, chances are high they only carried on because of a fully realized, complete ending to the original tale.

Whether you are a plotter or pantser, it wouldn’t be wise to simply cut to black, as if you were watching an episode of The Sopranos. This is your last chance to leave your readers with a thought-provoking idea or argument. You took them on a journey that required their undivided attention for hours, what are you going to tell them was the point?

The best advice I’ve received on ending a story is to provide your readers one last look, or new angle with what has taken place, putting it all into perspective. This is all very well explained in Josip Novakovich’s Fiction Writer’s Workshop (you don’t have this? Get it!) so if you want any further information on any of this, flip through those pages. Using Josip’s buckets, I’ve summarized his findings on the common fiction endings below;

Circular Endings – This is a where a story ends in a way that mimics the beginning, but with a noticeable change. Or, sometimes entire sections are repeated word for word to symbolize that nothing changed. These are quite popular and, in my opinion, seen more in literary stories, rather than genre.

A sub-type of circular endings, or (more appropriately) an exact opposite type, would be the non-matching endings. These are endings that do not at all mimic the beginning, and could even be confused for a completely different story or genre.

Surprise Endings – Surprise endings are absolutely infamous in genre fiction like SF/F, horror, and mystery. The point of these endings is to pull back the curtain and provide a reveal that had eluded the readers all along. An example of this would be that the martians in War of The Worlds were not defeated by the military but, actually, micro-organisms.

There’s a sub-type to these called trick endings. Arguably, it’s the surprise ending’s lazier sibling, even though some writers have put it to very effective use. Here, the twist or surprise comes about only because the writer chose to not show you this before. This where you get, “he was dead all along,” or “the killer was under the bed the whole time!”

Summary Endings – This is where a perceived ending is summarized for the reader, providing a timeline that extends well past when the last scene actually took place. Epic fantasy tales use this quite often, or stories that have an ensemble in order to provide a quick update on where each character ends up after their adventure. “Timmy went on to attend law school, and barely thought about his summer again in the swamp.” Something like that.

A sub-type for summary endings would be a muse ending. They are related because both have an awareness for the reader but the muse ending particularly speaks directly to them. These tend to be more meta, drawing attention to themselves.

Open Endings – When a story ends in an open state, there usually is not a definitive wrap up of ongoing conflicts or situations. Instead, it concludes in a manner that leaves the resolution up for interpretation. One of my personal favorites is from the movie The Thing from director John Carpenter. Is the alien parasite MacReady, or is it Childs? The film ends with these two staring each other down, never to get a proper conclusion.

There is a sub-type for this, and it is the image ending. Rather than focusing on particular characters or conflicts, the storyteller chooses to instead put focus on a visual. This usually emphasizes a metaphor previously referred to, or represents the point of the story in some way.

I’ve managed to use quite a few of these in my stories, but rely a little too much on only one or two. How about you? Do you try and use all the various types of endings across your catalog? Drop me a comment or email and let me know!

As for personal updates, writing is slow but I take to get a few more sentences down. You can catch me on Twitter and I have a few short stories out there in the slush piles! The focus still remains on a larger piece, which I hope to get plenty of traction in the coming months.

Keep turning the page,


2 thoughts on “Ending a Story

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  1. Great article! I love circular endings, there’s just something so satisfying about them 🙂

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