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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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The process of writing your ending

In writing the end, should you just let it happen, discovering, segment by segment, bit by bit, your path to the end? Or should you write the conclusion first, then develop your opening and fill in the middle?

“I almost never have an ending in mind when I start a short story,” says Cummins. In the few cases when he did have an ending in mind, it got “dropped along the way.” His process is almost always to start with “a scene or a character interaction and then discover what will happen next, with the ending the most difficult and most significant discovery.” This discovery can come late in the drafting process, taking a number of “inadequate tries.” For some stories, the right ending hasn’t come to him for several years.

“During revision, I may go back to rework the middle after I have a draft with an ending, but I wouldn’t write an ending before the middle,” says Cummins. “The story process is one of evolution, the ending emerging from all that has happened before.”

“For short stories, I don’t think you want to have too good an idea of how your story will end,” says Varallo. “Usually the only thing I know about my ending is which characters are going to appear in it. But I don’t know what they’re going to say or do until I actually write the last scene.” Counterintuitively, he discovered that when he had story endings in mind, those stories were the “hardest to write, not the easiest, since I had to work overtime to find genuine surprise.”

With a novel, it’s different, states Varallo, since a longer work tends to be much more complicated in terms of plot: “You don’t just have one ending in a novel; you have several, all at once. I don’t want to leave too many – any – loose ends.” On top of that, it gets “trickier,” he says, if you have multiple points of view, “where you have to wrap up several storylines all at once.” In that case, you would need to do some planning, Varallo states, but he doesn’t advocate writing the ending before the middle. “I’ve heard novelists swear by this strategy (Joyce Carol Oates and John Irving come to mind), but I honestly can’t imagine writing the ending first and then trying to make all narrative roads lead to a single destination by the end. That would drive me crazy!”

Although this method clearly works for Oates and Irving, says Varallo, as it did for Charles Dickens, “the master of the elaborately preplanned novel,” he questions it as a general practice. For one thing, he’s read “several dull novels-in-progress where the writer is mainly invested in setting up plot elements that will pay off later and not nearly as invested in surprise, language, or psychological complexity, and those can be a chore to read.”

According to Wineberg, “One of the pleasures of writing is the discovery of a fictional world. You begin with a hunch, follow the threads and characters, discover something, the unexpected, including the ending.” Even so, her writing process does vary from project to project. “I’ve written stories and had a strong idea of how the story would evolve and end, almost as if the story came to me whole. I’ve written other stories without any idea of what the end would be until I was almost there; sometimes the end can be a struggle to write.”

In some cases, when she’s known her whole story, Wineberg has gone ahead and written the ending before the middle. “I don’t suggest this as a strategy – unless a writer finds it useful. If I write an ending before the middle, sometimes the end works, sometimes it doesn’t. A story or novel is fluid until it’s finished; what seems like a good ending at the outset may not fit when the piece takes shape.”

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The discovery mode is largely the case for Ohlin. For her, “not knowing what’s going to happen is a necessary mystery – it’s part of the engine that drives the writing process,” whether in a short story or novel. Yet she does appreciate “some sense of a destination,” but it’s “very partial, glimpsed peripherally or in shadow.” Until she reaches that end, she writes “towards a moment or a mood” she’s feeling. While she’s not likely to compose the whole ending, she has, many times, “written a last line with an image in it, without knowing whether that image will be literal or metaphorical.” Doing this gives her “something to write towards, even if I wind up changing it by the time I get there.” Overall, it’s “a good strategy,” says Ohlin, “mostly because it helps reduce my own anxiety by giving some form to the formlessness of the writing.”

Raymond also needs “some idea of where the story is going – not necessarily the last line but a sense of how the story will reach completion.” She often works ahead to the ending, “especially if I have an idea of what the scene will be, or if I have a line or two in mind.” There’s a payoff, too, in working early on the ending, she says. Doing so “can help ensure it’s as solid as it needs to be. And, perhaps because endings are so vital, they often require more drafts than other parts of a story or novel.”

Facing that ending

If you’re a storyteller, short story writer or novelist, you face that notorious bugbear called an ending. Maybe you’ll write your way into it, or maybe you’ll plan it out in advance – at least a little. Whatever your process, your ending needs to ring true. No tricks. No clichés. And don’t try to nail everything down. A good ending is a final flourish, but readers know more is at hand: what’s left unsaid can be as powerful as what’s said.

 

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—Jack Smith is the author of five novels, three books of nonfiction, and numerous reviews, articles, and interviews. His collection of articles on fiction writing, Inventing the World, was recently published by Serving House Books.

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