Pro tips for writing the ending of your novels and short stories
How to successfully navigate the last chapter of your work.
“The problem with books is that they end,” Caroline Kepnes, author of You , has said. This is certainly true for the reader, so enthralled by a book that they don’t want the story to stop. For the writer, then, pulling off a successful ending is crucial in satisfying such an enthralled reader.
Endings are important in giving your reader a sense of closure – or at least a final look – from all that has come before. They’re also notoriously difficult to write. How much closure do you need? Are the guidelines the same for a short story and a novel? What makes a good ending? What causes a bad one? When should you write your ending? Should you at least plan it in advance, then focus on building up to it?
We asked several seasoned short story writers and novelists for their considered opinion on these questions – the kinds of questions you’re likely to face as you try to nail down your own finales.
Short story endings versus novel endings
The length of a fictional work isn’t just about word count – it’s integral to the scope of the work. A short story, a highly compressed form, has a much smaller canvas than a novel, which can have great breadth and range. What part does the form play in the ending?
According to Anthony Varallo, author of a novel, The Lines , as well as four short story collections, your choice of form will determine the kind of ending you write. In novels, you “witness time’s passage” on your characters and find out what happens to them in the end. Not so with shorter works: “In the short story, you get to follow one character through a narrow passage of time up to and until the character experiences a moment of change or transformation, without finding out what happens to them, necessarily,” he says. That moment of transformation, in which the character “feels slightly different about the world around them,” signals the end.
“If J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit were a short story, the story would end when Bilbo Baggins feels brave confronting the dragon, not when the dragon is slayed, and the gold is returned. Bilbo would just be talking to the dragon, have an epiphany, perhaps – and that would be the end.”
For Walter Cummins, author of seven story collections, the choice of form determines the importance of the ending. “A short story is limited to a singular situation, even if that situation involves a long passage of time,” he says. To be successful, a story must have a “satisfactory culmination of that situation.”
On the other hand, he says, “A novel – as many have – can please readers even with a weak ending because literary novels are explorations of characters and usually involve their development through a number of situations.” In contrast to the short story, in the novel, “the situations exist for the characters,” although the characters in the shorter form must still be “distinct and compelling.” Once readers have spent hours and hours with a novel, digging into the lives of the characters, living with them through their various successes and failures, a flawed ending doesn’t curtail their overall enjoyment in the way a bad short story ending does, says Cummins. In the latter case, it feels like a “waste of reading time.”
Ronna Wineberg, author of two short story collections and a novel, agrees with Cummins on the relative importance of the ending in a short story and a novel: A reader “has spent hundreds of pages with the characters in a novel and can forgive a weak ending.” It’s very different with a short story, which is “compact, precise, and economical,” she says. “In that sense, a short story is more like poetry – the end is crucial and illuminates all that has unfolded in the work.”
In contrast, Alix Ohlin, who writes both novels and short stories, holds that it’s the novel that calls for more attention to the ending. “Novels often exert more narrative pressure on the ending than short stories do because there’s been so much machinery leading up to it.” On the other hand, she says, “while some short stories are heavily plotted, others are not and can be architected more like poems.” For her, stories can be “lovely and contained and a bit mysterious even after they end.” Even so, she finds that short stories and novels do exhibit a common feature: “In both stories and novels, I visualize composing them as making a pattern, like a quilt or a kaleidoscope, and when I search for the ending, I want one that fits into the pattern I’ve made, returning to some color or theme or idea that’s been threaded throughout.”
How to End a Short Story
For some writers, starting a short story is usually easier than writing the ending. For others, it’s the end that falls into place quite easily.
But with fiction writing, every part of the story takes huge amounts of creativity and effort, so I wouldn’t conclude that the ending of a short story ought to be the easier part.
As a matter of fact, we―more often than not―write the ending to our short story lastly. By this time, we are probably tired, have exhausted a lot of time trying to approach the conclusion, and are likely out of ideas.
So it’s okay if you usually don’t have the littlest ideas of how to end a short story.
Don’t sweat it though, I have you covered. In this post, I have included the best and worst ways to end a short story. And… I have also added some examples of short story endings, among other tips.
Let’s get started.
The best Ways To End A Short Story
1. A Cliffhanger
A cliffhanger ending leaves the story unresolved, the end still leaves an aura of suspense, and it is said to be cliff-hanging. This plot device is used to compel the readers to anxiously wait for or, if it’s already published, rush for the story’s next installment.
A cliffhanger can end the short story with a main character facing peril, or it can end the short story with a very shocking revelation.
2. Resolved Ending
This is the “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” type of ending. A resolved ending packages the whole story in one read, and everything is concluded once the reader finishes reading it.
A resolved ending leaves no speculations or questions; all the plotlines and character stories are closed with the ending.
3. Twist ending
Writers can introduce an exciting surprise at the end of a short story, a set of unexpected events that catch the reader off-guard.
This type of ending can turn the narrative on its head and reveal the mirage in the story. In some stories, a twist may involve a villain turning out to be the hero (or vice versa), or a character being someone else who had disappeared in the early stages of the story.
A twist ending can either disappoint the reader or offer them relief from a tragic scene (in which a character ‘died’ but wasn’t dead). Either way, this type of ending evokes an emotional response from the reader.
4. Implied ending
An implied ending involves some sort of explicitness in the way the story is concluded or ended.
This type of ending can frustrate the reader or get them in all sorts of conversations with other readers, trying to figure out what really happened.
Authors hold back some of the details or intentionally cut out bits of logical explanations, leaving the readers some clues to piece the ending together on their own.
With no clear ending, readers usually end up with a blizzard of questions.
An ending like this works effectively for the story and author because it leaves the readers talking and thinking about the story longer than they would if the story just ended normally. This means that the author can reap some rewards because the story solicits engagement long after it has been read, and that may lead to an increase in the number of people looking at your work.
5. A Bare Ending
The writer reveals the ending at the beginning of the story. Although the reader is robbed of the suspense that comes with an unknown ending, the writer can still throw in lots of twists and turns as the story fleshes out.
A bare ending provides the writer with a clear direction of the story, and they can enjoy writing it, knowing where exactly the story is headed. Any event added to the story is intended to counterpoise anything that might have seemed to steer the story in a different direction, thereby leading it toward the known ending of the short story.
How to Write Great Closing Lines
Closing lines are important in short stories because they complement the perfectness of the delicious story you’ve just dished to the reader.
Fiction is all about creativity, and as such, there can be no rules on how to write final sentences, but there are tips that help you write good closing lines:
1. Be Poetic
Fiction doesn’t need to be overly flowery, but with the final sentence, you can unleash the poet in you and give the reader an aesthetic ending.
Don’t get carried away; maintain the simplicity. Do not stuff the ending with ineffectual decorative words that will leave the reader looking them up in a dictionary.
Simple words, if used creatively, can take on a poetic, symbolic form. It’s not a must that you end a short story poetically, so don’t try too hard. Sometimes, a poetic ending can happen by chance.
2. Use Impeccable Wording
It’s not that easy, but you have to make sure that you revise your last sentence over and over until every word in it sounds perfect, and every period, comma, or dash is in its place.
The truth of the matter is you are not a poet (well, some of you sure aren’t), and coming up with a poetic ending is a tough ask. But, you can still give your most important sentence—the closing line—some time and effort and keep housekeeping your ending until it’s just perfect.
Good Story Endings Examples
The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which
Animal Farm, George Orwell.
George Orwell’s conclusion of his novel Animal Farm is one delivered on a plate of parables, and it indirectly, cleverly, and touchingly remarks on human nature.
Charles Dickens created some of the best cliffhangers of all time. He gave both the readers and his fellow writers the allure of a cliffhanger. And he did this in the early nineteenth century when cliffhangers were really a thing.
He served his novel The Old Curiosity Shop in weekly installments. The most exciting, one that kept readers waiting for weeks, was about a character called Little Nell whose death was used by the author to play with the reader’s emotions—effectively, might I add.
The Worst Ways to End a Short Story
1. Abruptly Introduce a Resolution
You can easily ruin things when you suddenly introduce a resolution to a seemingly impossible situation. There should be no magic wand with the way your story is resolved; it doesn’t have to be realistic, but the way it is eased into the story has to have a logical connection with the rest of the story.
2. Have a predictable End
In an earlier section, I talked about a bare ending that involves the writer disclosing the ending before the story gets there. If you start that way, the end isn’t predictable but known.
However, if you haven’t disclosed the ending, it’s not going to do you any good if the average reader can predict the way the story is going to conclude. Your readers aren’t looking for a plainly realistic ending; they want you to surprise them.
3. Take too long to end the story
I always emphasize the importance of ending a story just after the climax. The story doesn’t have to die down completely; you have to end on a thrashing wave.
If your story takes longer to end, it might bore the reader and force them to leave the story before they get to the end.
4. End a story too soon
Ending a short story should neither take long nor be rushed. A good ending concludes naturally, following a logical sequence. Most often, a writer can feel when a story nears a logical conclusion (if you end it sooner, you’ll ruin it).
Of course, we all know that a short story has a small word count—usually not enough for an extensive plotline—but you have to compress the story in a way that ends it no sooner or later than natural.
5. Kill Favorite Characters
The worst psychotic murderers that I know are writers. It’s like they get intense pleasure from killing characters. They usually do it so masterfully that they get away with it most of the time, but if they kill favorite characters at the wrong time (like at the end), they might upset readers who are emotionally invested in the story.
Killing a favorite villain is more excusable (maybe because the story has to carry a moral element) but killing the hero’s baby right at the end does the writer no favors.
6. Tie Everything Up Too Neatly
Your readers aren’t dumb (well… at least not all of them). You can’t just give the end every detail there was, let them establish some things by deduction. This way, you let them feel clever and relate to the story more.
What Are Cliff Hangers and Why Are They Important?
As I introduced it, a cliffhanger is a plot device that ends the narrative without a definitive end (unresolved) and leaves the reader with a lot of suspense.
A cliffhanger can be used to end a short story, chapter of a novel, a movie episode, a movie scene, a play, et cetera.
Usually, cliffhangers are used to keep readers or audiences engaged in the story. If the story is delivered in installments, the prequel usually ends in an exciting cliffhanger so that the audience comes back for the next installment.
Cliff-hanger endings might come in the form of the main character facing peril or a shocking, narrative-changing revelation being introduced right before the story installment concludes.
Tips for Writing Cliffhangers
There are many tips for writing cliffhangers, but here are a few of them:
- Move the resolution to the installment (quite obvious, right?).
- Introduce an event or scene that the reader didn’t anticipate.
- Employ the use of brusque sentences or phrases to cue in some perilous events/scenes.
- Use flashbacks to introduce new bits to the narrative. These bits have to help you leave the reader on tenterhooks.
Ending the ‘How to End a Short Story’ Article
Short fiction doesn’t give you a wide ground to loosen up your writing; everything is in limited supply—character arcs, plotlines, action. Therefore, every sentence should prove to be effective.
Most importantly, the finale has to be some sort of big bang; you have to try your best to give your short story a killer ending. But, I also have to tell you that you don’t have to force lest you should ruin the short story.
Always craft a natural end; neither too realistic nor overly fantastical.
About Jessica Majewski
Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really. is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories.
She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.