What Are the Best Ways to End a Story?

by Christi Craig

Smiley face, sad face

Today’s article is written by regular contributor Christi Craig.

Not long ago, I showed up at my critique group with a story I’d been revising, off and on, for a few years.

I had poured my energy into edits several times over, and this night, finally, I felt satisfied. With most of it. I knew where the story fell flat, even before another writer pointed it out: the ending.

I will spend weeks and multiple rewrites on beginnings, trying to craft the perfect first line that will jump start my story and propel my main character on a journey. First lines will do that. Blockbuster beginnings, though, are quickly forgotten when the end leads to disappointment. Or—worse yet—indifference.

Here’s where I would love to list all the books or websites that give hard and fast rules for writing the perfect end to a story. But, that’s the problem; there are no hard and fast rules. There are suggestions and guidelines and lists of what not to do. But, every story—and every writer—is different.

Here are three ways you might approach the end of your story:

1. Imitate Life

That night at the critique table, as I shared my frustration (this wasn’t the first of my stories to suffer “throwaway” last lines) and heard some great advice from Robert Vaughan, a prolific writer and an excellent leader at the critique tables: look around, observe how endings naturally occur in life, in relationships, and in nature.

Sometimes endings, like breakups, can be pointed and abrupt, taking us by surprise. But, if we look back, we notice signs of the inevitable that we chose to ignore. Other times in life we see the signs all along the way: the sun changes position ever so slightly, the wind shifts. A flock of geese fly over head and the cattle huddle together. By the time the first leaf falls to the ground, we are ready.

Whether you aim to surprise your reader in the end, or guide them to an expected place and leave them with a final image, gratified, take lessons from life and apply them to the page.

2. End Earlier

“I had yet…[to] realize it doesn’t matter how your novel ends as much as where it ends.” ~ C. Patrick Schulze, “How to Write the End of a Novel”

A good ending will leave the reader lingering with thoughts of what might be in store for the characters they’ve come to know so well. I’ve heard it said before that if you’re struggling with the end of a story, chop off the last paragraph (it works). If you’re struggling with an end to your novel, experiment by turning back a few chapters and sending the characters in another direction.

Sometimes, a simple change, in perspective or in resistance to that natural urge to add just one more detail or one more bit of dialogue, will give you the insight needed to see your way through to a successful ending.

3. Follow the Leaders

One proven way to learn about the craft is to study how others are doing it. Analyze what works and what doesn’t work.

I know exactly when I’ve finished a good book or a powerful story. There’s that moment after I’ve read the last line when I let the quiet engulf me, when I soak up every last detail of the final scene. And later, as I’m cooking dinner or tucking the kids into bed or driving to work the next morning, I remember the book again, the characters. I wonder about them, feel for them, look for them on the street.

Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us, Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True. Those are three books whose endings stuck with me long after I closed the cover.

It took me a long time to get through Wally Lamb’s book, but when I reached the end, I wanted to go back and read it again. I didn’t want to say goodbye to the characters. As a reader, I recognize a good ending. As a writer, I can study an authors’ technique and carry it into my own work.

What was the last book that left you satisfied but lingering in the last moments? And, how do you know when you’ve hit the perfect end to your story?

{ 22 comments }

Vaughn Roycroft October 1, 2012 at 10:40 pm

Nice job, Christi. I’m in a constant state of fret over my endings, so I could totally identify. One ending that left me sitting, absorbing, then thinking/feeling for days was Last Will of Moira Leahy, by Therese Walsh. And speaking of ending early, there were spots I thought she could’ve ended but didn’t, and in this case the extra layers to the end paid huge dividends. A few favorite endings are: LOTR (mucked up a bit by the movies, or should I say ‘sapped’ up a bit – Sam’s line, “Well, I’m back.” is so wonderful); The Mists of Avalon (love how Avalon and the Morgaine’s goddess fade and yet morph into a new sort of mystical Christianity).

Keep up the good work over here, Christi!
Read Vaughn Roycroft´s last article ..The Mentor/Mentee Benefit—Writer Unboxed Redirect

Christi Craig (@Christi_Craig) October 2, 2012 at 7:09 am

Thanks, Vaughn.

I’ve read Therese Walsh’s book, and yes. Loved the layers. That’s a great example of not ending too soon.

And, I hate to say this, but I haven’t read the whole Lord of the Ring series. My son is getting ready to start the Hobbit, though, and that would be a good one to read together, I think. My kids motivate me to go back and read the books I bypassed when I was younger ;)

Sarah Nielsen October 2, 2012 at 1:46 am

Excited to see your work over here and look forward to your regular contributions!

Christi Craig (@Christi_Craig) October 2, 2012 at 7:10 am

Thanks, Sarah!

Melissa October 2, 2012 at 5:00 am

An ending that stayed with me from a recent read was 32 Candles by Ernessa T. Carter. Your jaw drops at the end. I think the whole book really got to me.

Christi Craig (@Christi_Craig) October 2, 2012 at 7:13 am

Melissa,
Thanks for mentioning that book. I’ve heard of 32 Candles, but I haven’t read it yet. It’s on my list, not only as a good read but as a book with a great ending!

Anne R. Allen October 3, 2012 at 1:55 am

Great topic. Contemporary literary novelists love that “early ending” –in other words, they don’t resolve things. I find them annoying. Classic novels are more likely to tie up lose ends in a satisfying bow. I have to admit I much prefer a resolved ending. Surprises are good too. But I hate those “you decide” fade-aways. Seems like lazy writing to me.
Read Anne R. Allen´s last article ..An Awesome Award—Plus The Story that Took 50 Years to Write: an Interview with Michael Harris

Grant October 3, 2012 at 3:10 am

Anne,

I can’t say that I always agree with that. Don’t you think that the ending to “Gone With the Wind” was perfect? I think it was perfect for that story. I certainly believe it would have been less powerful or memorable if Scarlet got back together with Rhett. Just some food for thought….

Christi Craig (@Christi_Craig) October 3, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Anne,

I think both you and Grant have good points. Sometimes, I prefer those loose ends tied up nicely, as well. I just finished Erika Robuck’s HEMINGWAY’S GIRL, with an ending that pulls everything together just right. Still, I thought about that story for days after.

But, as Grant says, certain stories do lend themselves to more open endings, and, if I’ve enjoyed the story thus far, those kind of endings don’t bother me as much.

That’s the tricky part of endings, finding the perfect balance between open and
satisfying for each individual story.

Mary October 3, 2012 at 4:01 am

Hi, Christy, Good advice. I, too, love the books you listed, especially Wally Lamb. He’s brilliant.
Read Mary´s last article ..Creating Happiness

Christi Craig (@Christi_Craig) October 3, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Yes, Mary, brilliant. I’ve read two of his novels and loved them both.

Jan O'Hara October 3, 2012 at 6:26 am

My own fiction feels relatively simple in that I’ve become fairly in tune with the character’s main issue and their arc, and since I write romantic fiction, that the couple will end up together. It’s how they get there, of course, and the sense of resonance that can be more problematic.

Last ending that stuck with me for a while? Lisa Brackmann’s Getaway. It would be a spoiler to say more, but as you say, it had a sense of inevitability while still containing a significant surprise.
Read Jan O’Hara´s last article ..Another Instance of My Good Girl/ Bad Girl Dichotomy (Romance University and Writer Unboxed)

Christi Craig (@Christi_Craig) October 3, 2012 at 12:36 pm

Jan,

I like that you bring this up, Jan. Even the endings of formulaic stories need heavy consideration to achieve that “sense of resonance,” as you say. I just read a post by K.M. Weiland on, what she calls, “slam bang” endings, in which she suggests shorter scenes & chapters near the end of the story to really build that tension (here it is, in case you’re interested: http://bit.ly/NK5Cdm).

Nina October 3, 2012 at 8:04 am

These are such great tips! I find the endings of stories I write and that I read the most difficult part of it all. I’ve found myself often complaining about the endings of novels. But I feel back criticizing as it’s the HARDEST part to get right, in my opinion.
Read Nina´s last article ..The Value of a Good Book: Is the Reading Public Cheap?

Christi Craig (@Christi_Craig) October 3, 2012 at 12:41 pm

Yes, Nina, I agree. As a writer, I desperately want to get them right, so that I leave readers with a good aftertaste and a desire to read more of my work.

Heather Marsten October 6, 2012 at 8:32 am

Thank you for this article. I am saving it for future reference and got the three books you mentioned to study for endings. I’m stuck on the ending of my memoir and I suspect the idea of ending earlier is going to be the one I go with, but for now I’m editing the first part and praying hard for how to end my story.

Have a blessed day.
Heather
Read Heather Marsten´s last article ..Judges Chapter 13 – Heather Marsten and Pastor Don Moore

Christi Craig October 11, 2012 at 1:29 am

Heather,
I’m so glad the article was helpful. Enjoy the books, and good luck with your memoir!
Read Christi Craig´s last article ..Q&A with Lydia Netzer, author of Shine Shine Shine

M.B. October 8, 2012 at 7:04 am

It’s kind of funny because I’m pretty good at making endings for stories. It’s almost easy for me. My problem is that I can never, EVER come up with the right beginning, a begging that I actually keep — and that’s what keeps me up at night. I’m fairly certain where I want the story to go to, how much of it to tell and how much I want readers to guess at it. I know about where I want it to start, I know about where I want it to end, but I have next to no idea how to begin it. You know, what comes after the first line. Every time I think I have the best beginning, I end up throwing it out and starting from scratch. The same thing goes for titles. These highly frustrating experiences are [probably] my biggest source of writer’s block.

Christi Craig October 11, 2012 at 1:37 am

Oh boy, isn’t that the truth, how certain aspects of writing keeps us up at night. We should put our heads together, and we’d come up with the perfect bookends to a great story :)
Read Christi Craig´s last article ..Q&A with Lydia Netzer, author of Shine Shine Shine

Ola October 9, 2012 at 7:22 am

I must confess that I am a notorious book-zapper, and I seldom finish my books. But currently I am reading the Patrick Melrose series by Edward St Aubyn and I have actually finished two out of four books now. I think these books are very good but the endings have not been very special for me.

I will however never forget the ending of a book I read many years ago, as a teenager. It was The other side of midnight by Sidney Sheldon, and I remember that in the epilogue some important information was revealed, and suddenly I knew that one character I loved very much was not dead, and I could let the tears flow freely (and secretly, since boys do not weep when reading books).

Perhaps I will reread it again some day.
Read Ola´s last article ..Call to the nation

Christi Craig October 11, 2012 at 1:42 am

Thanks for sharing your story, Ola. That speaks directly to the power of a good ending. And, I hope you do read that book again. I love returning to stories that have stuck with me over the years.
Read Christi Craig´s last article ..Q&A with Lydia Netzer, author of Shine Shine Shine

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