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Pro tips for writing the ending of your novels and short stories

How to successfully navigate the last chapter of your work.

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Good endings

Putting aside the relative importance of the ending in terms of the fictional form, what makes a good ending? What are some basic criteria? Are there any absolutes?

For Cummins, the ending of a short story works best when there’s “a happy surprise, a realization that this – the ending – is what the story is really about and resolves all the preparation.” As to any rock-bottom musts, he states, “I’m reminded of a basic point of reader-response theory best stated by the critic Wolfgang Iser. He says the reader engages in a form of competition with the author, trying to predict what will happen next.” There’s something distinctly paradoxical about this competition: “In one sense, the reader wants to be ahead of the author, but in another, the reader is disappointed when he or she predicts correctly.” This apparent contradiction is easily explained, though, says Cummins, in that “the reader wants the author to display a more creative imagination,” but, “at the same time, the surprise must elicit an, ‘Aha, of course!’” This will happen, he believes, if the ending is adequately prepared for throughout the story – and thus “inevitable.”

Taking the same basic position, Varallo avoids an ending that wraps up conflicts too easily and neatly. “I want the reader to feel, simultaneously, that the story could only end this way and yet feel surprised that the story is ending this way, too.” Accomplishing this, he admits, is “really tough to do.” Beyond the issue of plot, an ending must also be integral to character development or character arc, especially that of the protagonist, “not secondary players or an isolated or solo character.”

As to wrapping things up, Wineberg believes that a good ending can be one that “leaves things to the reader’s imagination.” This is true, she says, of both the short story and the novel, because, regardless of form, “we step into the characters’ lives for a slice of time. The reader doesn’t need to know what happens after this time period or what happens years later in the characters’ lives.”

Whether writing a short story or novel, Midge Raymond, author of My Last Continent and a longtime writing instructor, prefers “open-ended conclusions, in which there’s some resolution at hand, but it’s not tied up in a perfect little literary bow.” The problem with neatly tied-up endings, she says, is that they “tend not to feel quite real to the reader.” For her, a good ending includes “revelation, if not complete resolution.” A little ambiguity is fine, she says, “perhaps even preferable, but a well-written ending offers a sense of where the characters end up and where they might be headed beyond the final page.”

For Ohlin, “a good ending is one that lingers in the reader’s mind afterwards.” Endings, for her, “can be a place for a writer to take risks: emphasizing language, trying something strange or unsettling” or approaching “the ineffable.” Nothing should be nailed down, and there should be room for the open-ended ending. She values Nelly Reifler’s phrase “endings that hover,” which she finds is just right: it leaves room for the reader “to fill in what they think has happened and what will happen after the last sentence.”

Bad endings

How can you avoid bad endings? What are the worst kind, the kind that fall flat, the kind that are bound to be off-putting to intelligent readers?

For Varallo, one of the worst endings is, without question, the notorious It was all a dream – which is “surprising,” but not “inevitable.” Varallo explains why: “Most narrative roads do not lead us to dreams; they lead to us to a greater understanding of ourselves.” Furthermore, says Varallo, “A dream ending breaks the bond of trust between the reader and the text.” You should also avoid various “dishonest” endings, he says. What constitutes an honest one? “An honest story tells the truth about what it’s like to be alive; a dishonest ending deals in platitudes, sentimentality, or clichés. So, for me, a dishonest ending would be any story that tries to tell me that the challenges we face only serve to make us stronger, since that’s a sentimental idea” – and, additionally, “it’s also untrue.”

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According to Cummins, “The worst kind of ending is one that introduces crucial information about the characters and the situation at the last minute and makes that information essential to the resolution.” This, he says, is “a form of cheating” because it’s trying to trick the reader.

There are two trick endings you should definitely avoid, says Ohlin. One is “pulling strings by revealing information that has been withheld for a long time,” and the second is “having characters suddenly act in a way they haven’t before, all in the service of engineering some kind of surprise.”

“Sometimes a story or novel doesn’t end but just stops,” says Wineberg. “This happens more in short stories. When a story stops, it leaves the reader without a sense of resolution or closure.” Admittedly, says Raymond, “It’s not easy to end a story – as writers, we know our characters will live on, at least in our minds and, we hope, in our readers’ minds.” But whether we’re writing a short story or novel, we’ve got to find a way to craft an ending, not just “stop here because we’re not sure what happens next. That’s our job – to figure that out, at least to some degree. It’s as challenging as it is necessary.”

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