Updated: May 13, 2020
Search online or in books for fiction writing advice and you will always find a plethora of information about how to begin your novel. There seems to be an obsession almost with hooking the reader (aka: agent first) and not letting them go. But what about endings?
Where beginnings certainly should snag the reader’s attention and draw them into the story, endings are the raison d’être: people keep on reading in order to finish the text and reach a satisfying end. They don't start a story so they can stop halfway and never make it to the resolution, now do they? The expectation is that the story will grow in intensity, rather like blowing up a balloon, until something pops and leaves a goo clinging to the walls. Whether that goo belongs to your protagonist or your villain is entirely down to you.
And yet, endings seem so often brushed over, just a light glaze that sometimes can only be seen if one looks very, very closely. But surely, our endings should be able to make our story shine like the glossy fruits on a red berry flan in the window of a professional bakers, shouldn't they? They are what the whole of our efforts are supposed to amount to, not appear to merely be that thing that happens at the end. That may sound blasé, and it is supposed to, because sometimes that is exactly how authors handle their endings.
At The Colored Lens the most discussed subject as to why a story doesn’t work as well as it should is the ending. The main reasons for this are that they feel rushed, or flat and underwhelming. That there didn’t seem to be authentic enough motivations coming from the characters. That the foreshadowing was inadequate, the characters underdeveloped, the denouement too contrived, or the concept under-ambitious.
I like to think of a story as a snowball rolling down the hill – and I’m surely not the first to have said it – gaining in size and momentum as it nears the house at the bottom. And I (the reader) am the house waiting to be hit. I know it’s coming, I can see it heading straight for me, but how big and how much damage it will do when it hits me is up for speculation. It could be an all-encompassing SPLAT that buries the whole building leaving a sense of wow, that freezing cold shock of ice hit me right down the chimney, brrrr! Or it could be a lot smaller but still knocks at my cornerstones with a suitably icy poke that I can’t push from my mind and makes me shiver with its repercussions every time I think of it. At least, that’s what I hope.
More often than not, it’s likely a case of just when I think it’s coming straight at me it swerves onto a different path and rolls some distance until it wobbles quietly to rest in a divot. No drama there.
There’re also the ones that stop halfway down the hill, or suddenly decide to take root and instead become a tree. Most disconcerting.
The difference between the SPLAT/ Poke, to the Divot/ Stopper/Shape Shifter is that, with the former pair, once it happens it feels like I always knew that was the exact impact to expect. With the latter, I’m left silently willing them on, as if within the eaves of my mind I can make the birdies fly down and give them that extra little push to get to their goal. The fact I can’t do that makes the experience frustrating. Frustrating your reader is rarely a good thing.
So my suggestion would be, for those who may wonder if their endings have accumulated enough momentum, is to err on the side of SPLAT, until you are more confident with your writer tools and know how to deliver a poke with a truly frosty finger. Or a sharp stick.
Take a look at whatever story you’re currently working on and ask yourself – can it be bigger or more profound than it is? Has it enough pay-off to have kept the reader hooked in for this long? There’s nothing worse than reading thousands and thousands of words in a story only to find the ending barely given any time to play out to its full and natural end. Even worse if there are early indicators pointing towards a battle with an enemy and a great deal of focus put into that outcome by the author but that somehow becomes easily deferred (and they all went home happily ever after). Or if the finale has nothing to do with those early signposts and becomes something entirely different.
There’re few literary bloopers worse than reading thousands and thousands of words only to find the main antagonist was easily dispatched with as if it were nothing but an irritating fly, or the narrative created a story question and huge investment from the reader to find out the answer, only to deny that reward by the end (unless it is a deliberate obfuscation in order to bring about a greater, more profound truth, but that is a trick for the very talented/skilled, indeed). Or if the climax lasts a mere couple of paragraphs when we’ve read maybe 9000 words prior, building up to it. In this instance, it usually means the climax needs closer focus on the details and the use of micro-tension implemented (a post for another time).
Your climax is what your whole story should be building towards, and the conflict and tension should be rising up like a wave ready to crash on the shore. The crash occurs, the tide sweeps in until it attains its furthest reach point. Then it froths, fizzes and recedes. That moment between the water receding and the next wave rising to crash in is generally the sweet spot you’re aiming for with your final paragraph.
Endings don’t have to be all mega-stress action, but they do need to be profound in some way, or make a connection, make the reader go ‘ahhh, right’ while nodding their heads. Or, as in this example, make the reader step back aghast at the revelation of character. As you can see if you read it (and be warned; it’s kinky and masterfully unsettling), the ending does not amount to much in the way of action, but the development of the stages of the character’s emotional intensity works to give the ending its bang.
So, before you sub that next short story, ask yourself:
- Is the ending foreshadowed enough?
- Is the character’s motivation conveyed adequately to the reader? Will they wonder why on Earth the character would do that?
- Is it believable? (that’s another humdinger, the ending that would just never happen, or couldn’t because the author didn’t invest enough time in bringing around the reader’s suspension of disbelief and figured the audience would buy it simply because ‘I told them so.’)
- Is the climax long enough and dramatic enough to warrant the mini-saga that came before it?
- Did the story reach high enough in ambition? What could be the most strenuous of outcomes?
- Did the emotional content grow in intensity?
- Was there an ‘aha’ moment for the reader?
- Did the story come full circle? Is there a way I could connect the ending to something earlier in the plot?
I’m not saying you need all of these options in every story, but it’s probably wise to try and incorporate a mixture of some of them. But the best tip of all to remember is: the longer the story the better the ending must be.
If not, be it at your own peril, for a reader who feels cheated will not become a fan. The longer the reader’s investment progresses in your tale, the higher the expectation for a big pay-off will be. The beginning of a story makes a promise, but the ending is the author sticking to their word.
For me, endings are what make a short story. I’m not too bothered about a hook beginning – if the writing is strong enough and the unfolding events believable enough I’ll go with it. But if a story fizzles out at the end, if it underwhelms, if it doesn’t deliver on that promise it brokered when our relationship first begun, then forget it. Literally. I will. And if I don’t, it will be for all the wrong reasons.
As a writer myself, I wouldn’t want that.
What I do want is to come away from a story that knows how to expose a greater truth in the last line or paragraph. Something that will linger for it’s wit, or cunning, or it’s warmth. Something that makes a deeper sense of the whole of its mass.
How about you? What's your preferred type of endings?
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