Write It Sideways

What Are the Best Ways to End a Story?

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?