Writing the Short Story: How to Write a Gripping Ending to a Story

“Have you thought of an ending?”

“Yes, several, and all are dark and unpleasant.”

“Oh, that won’t do! Books ought to have good endings. How would this do: and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?”

“It will do well, if it ever came to that.”

“Ah! And where will they live? That’s what I often wonder.”

J. R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.

When it comes to creative writing, it is the ending of a story that is one of the most difficult parts of the writing process for me. When the final line has been written, or typed, and there is nothing else for the characters to do, and victory has been won and the antagonist vanquished – I shed a tear. You may think me to be melodramatic, but I have just finished my first novel. And I feel a sense of satisfaction tinged with sadness.

But all stories have to end sometimes, don’t they? So when it comes to your literary masterpiece, the question needs to be asked “Have you thought of an ending?” (Tolkien).

Like the beginning of a story, there are many ways to end a piece of fiction. You can choose to end your story with a satisfying conclusion – with all the loose ends neatly tied up. Most of us enjoy this type of ending. The neat and tidy ending is so popular because, unlike real life, a story can provide us with a guaranteed resolution of conflict. We can have our desired happy ending and everyone lives ‘happily every after’.

But for those of us who choose to defy traditional storytelling techniques, there is the option of a ‘surprise ending’ or a ‘open ending’. By daring to be different we can ultimately leave the reader desiring more. So let us go a step further and explore the different ways that you can craft your ending so as to stamp an indelible impression on your reader’s mind. Here are five ways to write a gripping ending to a story.

The circular ending.

This type of ending is when the story concludes with a mirror image of the beginning. It is a circular journey where the characters return to the same scene at the beginning of the story, but they have learned some valuable lessons. They may look or still be dressed the same but they have been transformed on the inside.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis is one of the best examples I can think of. Although the children do not enter Narnia in the first paragraph, but in first couple of pages, the ending mirrors this section of the story. As in the beginning, the children tumble out of the wardrobe and are met again by the sound of the footsteps of Mrs Macready and her guests in the hallway.

The surprise ending.

Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour’ is a great example of a surprise ending. In the beginning, Mrs Mallard is notified that her husband has died in a tragic train accident. The majority of the narrative focuses on Mrs Mallard’s conflicting emotions over her husband’s sudden demise, and reveals some interesting revelations about his abusive nature.

As her ‘streams of consciousness’ show her dramatic shift from the grief-stricken widow to a woman who has discovered the guilty pleasure of an overwhelming revelation that she is now free from her husband’s suffocating control, there is a clever twist at the end. Brently Mallard was well and truly alive, and seeing him at the bottom of the stairs, not only fatally shocks his wife, but it shocked me as well. This kind of ending is not everyone’s ideal ending, but Chopin’s ironic and tragic twist contributed to the overall tragic mood of the story.

The ‘open’ ending.

Daphne Du Maurier’s novel The House on the Strand is one of the best examples of an ‘open’ ending I have ever read. Although I am a fan of defying traditional narrative expectations, I initially was quite disappointed by her choice of ending. I really wanted to know what happened to the main character, Dick Young, who had become addicted to a drug that enabled him to travel back in time to the fourteenth-century in Kilmarch, Cornwall.

At the end of novel, Young is back in the safety of his home and under the expert care of the resident doctor. But whilst on the phone to his wife, he suddenly looses consciousness, and this is where the novel concludes. Du Maurier had left me high and dry and I was devastated. I wanted to know what happened to Dick, did he die? Did he return to the past? So many questions and absolutely no answers.

But in hindsight, Du Maurier’s ‘open’ ending was another example of clever writing. She had provided me with an opportunity to dream up my own ending. As the passive reader, she was giving me some narrative power and inviting me to write my own conclusion and to be the ultimate decider of Dick Young’s fate.

The trick ending.

‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ by Ambrose Bierce is a good example of a trick ending. At the beginning of the story a man is being hanged. Bierce then proceeds to provide quite a densely packed narrative about the man’s supposed dramatic escape. But it is not until the man reaches his home and family that we are told that, “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge”.

In writing this story, Bierce had drawn upon the idea that moments before death a person can be subject to hallucinations, and he uses this to trick us into believing that Peyton had cleverly escaped his death sentence. With his trick ending, Bierce reveals that Peyton had only imagined that he had successfully cheated death!

The summary ending.

This technique is used a lot in filmmaking. At the end of film, the audience is shown a written summary about the final outcomes for each of the characters – they get married, they succeed in business, etc. As in films, this choice of ending for a work of fiction provides a feel-good ending for the reader. The hero or heroine are victorious, the villains are punished and justice is served.

I have provided you with just a few choices for the ending of your story. But whichever one you decide to choose, your purpose must always be to leave a lingering impression or a dynamic image in the reader’s mind. As writers we have the power to entertain and inspire the reader, but to also challenge their literary expectations.

Happy writing!

Short Story Writing – Ten Beginnings to Avoid

In the same way that editors don’t want to see an ending they’ve seen before, equally, there are some story beginnings that have been done to death. Here are ten you shouldn’t use.

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

The “weather report” gambit. Not only is it a lazy way to start a story, but this one was voted “Worst story opening of all time.”

“I hadn’t seen her in the bar before. She was pale, but interesting.”

The “Vampire pick-up gambit” Or maybe they’re a werewolf, or alien, or serial killer. Or maybe the narrator isn’t what he or she seems. Either way, the story turns out the same, and the editor will have given up long before he got to the end.

“The man with the piercing eyes and pointed beard asked ‘What you would give to have your heart’s desire?”

The old “Pact with the Devil” gambit. Only try this if you really have sold your soul for fame and fortune – all other permutations have been played out years ago.

“I thought he was supposed to be in Vegas, so I was surprised to see ………”

Almost as old as pact with the Devil stories is the “I talked to a ghost” gambit. Cavemen probably told this story to each other around their campfires. And you think an editor hasn’t heard it?

“I woke up in the dark, and all I could feel above me was velvet, and beneath that, wood.”

The “buried alive” gambit. Those cavemen probably knew this one as well. A variation is the “Sixth Sense” gambit where the narrator is already dead. Do you think the editor didn’t see the film?

“They gave me a really good going over, and I vowed there and then to have my revenge.”

The “Clint Eastwood” gambit. Generally a sign that you’re going to be explicitly violent. Even if the editor wants that kind of stuff, they’ll want a better plot than this.

“I’ve always felt strange around the time of the full moon.”

The “werewolf” gambit. Even Michael Jackson knows about the effects of the moon on certain people, and you know how cut off he is from reality?

“I got a strange feeling when I saw the sarcophagus arrive in the storeroom.”

The “mummy” gambit. Even more old-hat since the recent blockbuster movies. Shambling piles of bandages just don’t hack it in the 21st Century.

“The red-haired FBI agent turned to her partner and said….”

Editors watch television too you know. The only place to send these, and those concerning teenage vampire slayers, is to fan-fiction web sites. Even there you have to have an original plotline. Rehashes of episodes just won’t make it.

“What would you do if I gave you three wishes?”

The “Leprechaun” gambit. And guess what – the protagonist gets screwed on the third wish. The editor will be asleep before you get to wish number two.

There’s only so many good ideas floating around. Remember, if you’ve seen something like it before, then the editor will have too. Try to make sure your idea is an original one.That way you might get an editor to read past page one.

Then you’ve only got the middle and the ending to worry about, but that’s two completely different articles.

Writing Short Fiction

INTRODUCTION:

The question concerning story ideas is universal. “How did you come up with that idea for your story?” And the answer may be just as universal, but not necessarily very satisfying. “I don’t know. It just came to me.”

Your life, comprised of events, experiences, people, feelings, emotions, perspectives, and conclusions, can be considered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and how you creatively inter-relate and interlock them determines how many story ideas you can devise. The number must be in the thousands. Generically, these pieces would be labeled “plots,” “settings,” “characters,” “scenes,” and “dialogue.”

THE PATH TO A STORY:

What leads to a story may be the same as what jars your memory and creativity, serving as the needle which threads its way through the experiences of your life and results in a unique knit you never thought you could sow in such a manner. The clink of a glass, the smell of the ocean, or the soft voice of your secretary can suddenly cause the planets to align and spell “story.”

You could most likely not initiate this process even if you tried. You do not necessarily make it happen. It happens to you-and often at times when part of your brain is focusing on doing something entirely different, such as baking a cake, sweeping the floor, or tilling the soil in your garden. In the greater depths of your mind, creativity works backstage while you continue the mundane tasks at the front of the stage.

Perhaps the process can be reduced to inspiration, whose dynamic eclipses anything understood on the physical plane and can only be deciphered by the very word’s definition when dissected-“in spirit.” This, more than anything, may be the location of creativity, if not the very essence of it.

A memoir can be considered a piece about what happened. A short story, through rearranged pieces, can be considered what could happen if you had no limitations as to how you could connect its elements.

“If you’re like the vast majority of writers… what you start with is a vague intuition, like a hard-to-scratch itch, the uneasy feeling that accompanies something-an errand, an anniversary, a date-you’ve forgotten, but that lurks in the mind’s corner, a nagging specter,” according to Mark Baechtel in his book, “Shaping the Story: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Short Fiction “(Pearson Education, 2004, p. 9). “This is how stories most often begin: small apprehensions, a twinge of spiritual discomfort, a certain stillness in the house… “

READER PERSPECTIVE:

Writers, without doubt, write for themselves-what they need to say, feel, express, complete, satisfy, and clear from their systems-and secondarily do so for their readers. But you may clarify your story’s meaning by asking yourself what you wish to do to your reader through your literary efforts: inform, entertain, provide suspense, love, or have a laugh.

Writing, like sculpture and painting, is art and art is expression. Through that expression, the writer sees himself and the reader catches a glimpse of the writer and, ultimately, himself-that is, how he relates to and sees part of himself in what he reads, expanding and enhancing his self-understanding.

Like a mirror, if the reader sees himself in the writer, he sees the commonality or truth in all of us, the shared essence.

TEN IMPORTANT FICTION WRITING TIPS:

1). Stories are about events, even if small in scale that change the life of the primary character. It does not mean that they must undergo an epiphany of sorts, where they suddenly understand themselves and their place in the universe. But even in stories with the slimmest of plots, the reader must witness an irrevocable change. The main characters may not necessarily be aware of it themselves, or even its implications, but at the close of the story, the reader should be.

2). Stories are built on scenes. Scenes are significant action that deliver information readers want to know. These revelations continuously raise the stakes of the story and cause the reader to want to know more, keeping him riveted until the final line.

3). Stories must feature a character or characters the reader cares about, whether or not the reader actually likes him/her or them. The reader’s connection to them is developed through watching them struggle with their competing fears and desires, and wondering what they will do.

4). Characters must talk, but what they say should not be used as a vehicle for delivering information the story itself can provide in other ways, such as through narration, thoughts, and/or actions. For example, the following dialogue would sound artificial, egotistical, and serve as almost an oral resume: “As you know, as the director of the operations, who has been employed for six years and holds a summa-cum-laude degree in Astrophysics from Cornel University with a minor in chemistry and served on the yearbook committee… “.

5). Man is his desire or the desire of man is a measure of his kindness.

6). Characters live in the world and are products of it. How they see their current lives, as well as how they think about their futures, is directly connected to where they come from. And what they notice about their world-their setting-is directly connected to their biggest concerns of the story.

7). Stories take their own time. Often, the surprises our characters bestow upon us-the secrets they reveal, the unexpected actions they take that move the story in a direction we had not originally imagined-are gifts that we can only receive by being open to them. This can mean that when we feel “stuck” on a story, we have to put it aside, no matter how much we want to force its conclusion.

8). Because every word counts in a story, we must scrutinize each one for accuracy, clarity, and economy. Every word, phrase, sentence must serve the story’s purpose. The author is often unaware of that purpose until he has given his work time to “cool.” This is where the beauty, power, and necessity of revision comes in. In this vein, some authors are actually lousy writers, but great editors.

9). The same way a skilled chef can turn a stale piece of bread into gourmet cuisine, a writer can write about anything-and should-in order to stretch his imagination and skill beyond his comfort zone. A writer usually writes about what he knows, but when he eclipses this boundary, what he can know can equal the universe.

10). An author writes-and reads–because he cares about the mystery of life, the myriad aspects of the human condition. His writing should, to a certain degree, scare him, since to play it safe becomes a waste of time. His characters will never thrill him-or his readers-with their secrets, if the author is too scared to ask for them.

SEVEN TIPS TO BETTER WRITING SUMMARY:

1). Characters should be developed, multi-dimensional, and fleshed out, and undergo some type of change or growth by the story’s end, as should real people in real life.

2). They should influence and act upon the plot, not react to it like detached bystanders.

3). Injecting something fresh or innovative can breathe new life into an old, tired, tried-and-true, classic plot.

4). Plots require obstacles, problems, and tensions. The more important the protagonist’s goals, the more these obstructions will add turmoil and drama to the story.

5). Make sure that your readers will care about your characters; otherwise, they will not invest their time in paralleling their journey.

6). Readers should be grabbed in the first paragraph.

7). Eliminate unnecessary details, words, and back story information in order to “lean” your writing.

Article Sources:

Baechtel, Mark. “Shaping the Story: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Short Fiction.” New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004.