Then stop.

By | December 6, 2011

One of the tough parts about writing short stories, especially if you’re used to reading novels or series instead, is that short stories stop. How does one accomplish this feat? You need an ending. More than that, you need a good ending.

The ending, like every other part of a story, does several things. One, it tells the reader when to stop reading. It signals that this story is done– it is a Thing, and you have set its boundaries. Snow White’s marriage to her prince (or bear) is not part of the story. It’s a different story, perhaps, or it and the dwarves (or bears) are part of another story that is not the same story as Snow White. Everything that comes after the ending is irrelevant to this story.

This can be accomplished by ending a sentence and deciding not to write any more. You will not have written a good ending, though.

A good ending connects to the beginning of the story in some way. It establishes the final tone– hope, despair, triumph– and brings the emotions together. More than that, a good ending connects to the entire story, emotions and all, and changes it.

Come on baby, let’s do the twist….

You can connect to the story and change it by writing a twist ending, but I usually advise against that.

No, wait, I usually wave my hands and yell and stomp my feet because you can do better than a twist ending.

Twist endings work because they surprise the reader– there’s a bonus climax– and suddenly the reader views the text in a new light. Whatever you favorite twist ending is, it’s just as good to go through the story a second or third time and see all the new meanings. You can have this experience with any story, of course, but it’s easier when it all ends with a bang.

The problem with a twist ending is that if a twist ending fails, it fails big.

The most common way a twist ending fails is that the reader sees it coming. This is especially dangerous for new and young writers who simply haven’t read widely enough to know what’s been done and what’s been done to death. If your alien is pinkish and has forelimbs rather than arms, if you play the pronoun game with your protagonist, you have signaled to readers that the alien is a human and the protag is a woman.

You can ameliorate the effects of an untwisted ending by making the story work whether the reader’s surprised or not. You should have enough plot happening that it doesn’t matter what’s in your protag’s pants. Make the twist a bonus– or better yet, avoid the falling-flat gotcha! by making it a revelation instead.

I like revelations. The difference between a twist and a revelation is that a twist has an end point– you read so far and then the story tells you what’s been going on. A revelation happens on its own, and every reader will figure it out at a different time. “Waiting on Alexandre Dumas” at Strange Horizons is one of my favorite stories because of the ooooh feeling I had the first time I realized that there was another layer. The gotcha-moment is also fraught with peril. If the reader’s figured it out already, you’re wasting words trying for drama you can’t get. A revelation lets the reader pick the most dramatic moment to figure everything out.

Another way to make a twist ending work is to twist it again. This doesn’t fix everything, but it does give you a potential second set of expectations to subvert. Again, if it fails, it fails big.

Closure!

Wrapping the story up is an exercise in balance. You can’t just stop, though some stories seem to. The end should tie everything together, as I said before… but not too neatly. Especially in a short story, a little mess is good.

The challenge here is knowing how much ending you need. Some people like to know how everything turns out. Others will fill that in on their own and want more ambiguity. In general, plotty stories need more solid endings– the villain’s defeated and the victors ride into the sunset– while more character-based stories can end with almost wholly internal changes, often without resolving any of the external problems. Compare some of your favorite short stories. What happens to tell you that this is the end?

How do I stop?

Of course, Nanowrimo has taught a few basic tenets: when in doubt, keep the words coming, and do so with explosions. How do you find your ending when you’ve spent a month moving forward?

The easiest way is to start there. What kind of ending do you want? Maybe you want a mage setting out on her own after rejecting her school’s strictures– that means you have a mage, a school, a conflict between the two, et cetera. Maybe you want a young man to take control of a space station he’s not sure he can run– now you have a character and some conflict. Who did he take the station from? Why isn’t he sure he can run it? How can you lead up to that final ambiguity and uncertainty? Maybe you have a weary traveler coming home to family, waiting just outside the door and not quite able to knock– do you have a child stumble out and ask who the stranger is? Do you end with the image of footprints on the doorstep, slowly filling with snow so that in the morning, no one will know they were there? Does your character knock and wait or walk in?

These are different endings, and you can write the different stories that lead up to them. You can even start with a few characters and an emotion. If you want a story to end with sacrifice and hope, it probably won’t begin the same way as a story that ends with triumph, resolve, or a message about society.

But we don’t always write with that kind of plan in mind. When you’ve been writing to figure out what happens next, you’ve been writing to avoid the end. How do you restrain yourself from writing another scene, and another, and another?

Look at what you have. Perhaps you’ve already written too far. Could you cut a section from your story and make it stand alone? Does anything feel like an ending?

Try reading your story aloud and pausing significantly after each scene break. No, really, this can show you how final some of those breaks feel. Is one of them an ending?

If you haven’t uncovered THE END, you can look at the existing arc. If there isn’t one, you’ll have to step back and make one happen– you can plan your ending more easily. If you find an arc, congratulations, you’re halfway to THE END.

If your mage keeps butting heads with her teachers, then that’s your arc, and the end has to deal with it.
If your ambitious engineer knows exactly how to run the station, give him what he wants.
Which weary traveler ending feels right?

This kind of examination is also useful for making sure you have the right ending. Your ending should follow from the rest of the story. If it feels a little off, you may have a mismatch to fix.

It’s frustrating referring to feelings, but a good ending is, in some ways, intuitive. You learn to harness your intuition so you know what will make it feel like an ending, and that starts with studying short fiction. What are your favorite endings– or stories in general? Bring them to the comments and we can discuss how the endings make everything work.

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A writing exercise!
This one is stolen from L Timmel Duchamp, one of my Clarion West instructors. She asked us to write three endings to each of our stories that week. Try a few different endings for one of your stories. Don’t just tack on different resolutions– see what you have to change in the story to reach a completely different emotion at the end.