“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.”