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How to End Your Story

November 6th, 2012 Matt Leave a comment Go to comments
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So you are coming to the end of your story, and you feel anxious. Great! Me too! And so I’ve scoured the internet for tips. Let’s take a look.

To clarify, I’m actually editing. The first draft of the story is done, so I’ve already tackled the ending to some extent.

It’s pretty much how I envisioned it when I started, although I felt I had to pause halfway through my first draft and do some serious thinking to get all the pieces in place.

Nevertheless, as I approach the ending from an editing perspective I am growing anxious.

Corsucant, Return of the Jedi

I know someone who likes to tweak their endings, eh George? And the rest of the film for that matter.

Is the ending exciting enough, the stakes high enough? Do the closing events come across too predictable or completely out of the blue? Does it complete a character arc in a believable way?

So many questions!

And so I’ve been looking around the web for tips. Below are some of the most common tips, and also some I found most convincing. Enjoy!

  • Leave readers satisfied. This was the most consistently referenced tip, and always came at the top of the list. And so it is here. The problem with this is it’s also the most vague piece of advice. Consequently (here and elsewhere) a lot of the remaining items go some way to clarifying this, so you should read them in this context.

    Strangely, a lot of sites missed out the most vital tool you have in answering the question of whether readers are satisfied by your ending, which is…

  • Get people to read it! I know it’s obvious, but while you (and by this I mean me of course) are wringing your hands over whether people find your ending satisfying, you could be using them to pass a manuscript to someone who will tell you. The one piece of feedback you are guaranteed to get is whether they liked the ending or not, because it’s that important to the reader.

  • The ending should answer a question posed early in the story. This is a good one, and one I referenced in an earlier post about maintaining the focus of your story. Basically your story should have one main question, posed in the opening scene, as early as possible, and then answered in your ending. Every scene goes towards this answer, but the ending should nail it.

  • Find and emphasise the main theme. Stories are often about more than their characters, or their setting; more than the sum of their parts. What is your story about really, in the wider context of humanity? What does it say about human nature, or nature itself, or God, or space, or entropy? This should be present in some form throughout, but find that something, and accentuate it in your ending.

  • Set the stage for several endings. Not several at once, but a range of possibilities. I once heard a great piece of advice saying you should list ten possible endings. The first few will be obvious and therefore uninteresting, some would be ridiculous and not justified by the rest of the story, but by the time you’ve got to the tenth you will have one that is neither.

    Aside from this, allowing the possibility of several endings makes the story more interesting – the reader is unsure which way it’s going to go. When you then give them something exciting and unexpected, you’ve got ‘em. But…

  • Don’t cheat. A surprise is fine, but it must not be completely out of the blue. There needs to be clues to the ending, and it must make sense within the context of the story.

    Lee Adama on his own

    She disappeared because she was disqualified from the show for cheating.

    The worst possible ending is a Deus Ex Machina, where something brand new is introduced at the last minute to solve your plot problems and save the day.

    Don’t do it! Supermonkey is not going to save your protagonist, it wasn’t all a dream, and Starbuck isn’t a friggin’ angel!

  • Provide an extra area for reflection. This is a good point, and something I realise I have subconsciously done myself.

    You will likely not find this in a short story, certainly not flash fiction, but anything 20,000 words or up usually has some kind of epilogue. This may be a scene or two. Or a whole “chapter” in a novel.

    This happens after your thunderous climax, and is a quieter section that reflects on what has happened, usually to the benefit of your characters and the reader.

    This slow in pace is often accompanied by a change in place and a more relaxed atmosphere.

  • Beware of exposition. A place for reflection is fine, but it’s also a tempting place to answer loads of questions unnecessarily. I’m looking at you Harry Potter. Especially in the earlier novels, the epilogue was used to have Harry ask Dumbledore a series of questions (“but I don’t understand – why did this happen? Why did so-and-so do this? What was that stuff coming out of my wand, matron?”) and Dumbledore dutifully answered.

    Dumbledore and Harry


    Your denouement may seem like a good place to offer explanations, and it is, but do so skilfully to avoid the last minute info-dump. The most satisfying explanations come from your reader, when you have left enough clues along the way.

  • Your protagonist should have changed. Ah, character arch. Look at your protagonist at the beginning of the story. Now look at that character at the end. How has their journey changed them? Think of a way you can show that to the reader.

  • Don’t tie off all the loose ends.I quite like the reasoning behind this. Characters lives live on after the story closes (most of them anyway). So if you leave some threads hanging, it reinforces this impression, and can be very satisfying to the reader – they get to fill in the blanks, which some readers will love. Plus, you should definitely be following this rule if you’re leaving your story open for a sequel.

    But how do you reconcile that with…

  • Don’t leave any loose threads. Yes, look up any question on that internet thing and you’re bound to find every possible answer, even if they’re contradictory.

    The reasoning here is that if you’ve got a subplot running, it’s going to be annoying for the reader if it is not resolved.

    I can see both points of view. Certainly there are plot lines or relationships it would be a bad idea to leave hanging. But I also find complete closure annoying personally – it seems too convenient and contrived – people’s lives just aren’t like that.

    So I guess it’s a balance, and it means you need to know your readers and what full-stops they are likely to want to see at the end of your story. If all else fails, remember the second point and your beloved beta readers! They can tell you if you’re going wrong.

  • There was a lot of repetition across the webs on the best ways to end your story, but I found these articles the most useful, so check ‘em:

    • The Writer Today – Writing Strong Endings
    • The Write Practice – 3 Important Rules for Writing Endings
    • The Creative Penn – How To Write The Ending Of Your Novel
    • Wordplay – 10 Stories With (Brilliant) Loose Ends

    Thanks to those bloggers who consistently provide us with great content!

    But what about you? I do like discussion, so let rip about writing endings in the comment box below.

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  • Craig

    Just a few swift thoughts… In terms of showing the character journey, I seem to recall from some podcast or other that, boiled right down to it, the protagonists story hinges on just one decision that they make. Once that decision has been made, then their journey is – maybe not ‘concluded’ – but… complete. The decision can occur at any point in the story too.

    In terms of how to end the story, as you say, a lot depends upon whether its a one off, or part of a series. I never used to be a fan of sequel friendly endings (at least just for the sake of it), because you do need SOME catharsis for the reader, but then again, tying EVERYTHING up can be kind of dull. I would suggest tying up the threads that directly relate to the main plot, but leave some openings in the background.

    As you say about the main character changing because of their journey, one thing I cant stand is ‘everything returning to the status quo’, because that renders everything that has occurred throughout the story moot. SOMETHING has to have changed, about the character, about their situation, about the world of the story, otherwise, what is the point?

    • http://getmewriting.com Matt Roberts

      Absolutely – something has to have changed. And I think that advice about decision is great as well. In fact, I just sent you a draft of a story, and you should notice the very first line, which I added yesterday. It’s intended to sum up the story and give a hook, and it basically says – here there will be a decision – now watch it unfold!

      The question for the reader then becomes, “which decision is it?” and the answer may not be obvious.

      Having a character’s decision be the main reason for the story also forces you to have an active protagonist by the way, which is esssential.