A few months back I talked about the importance of having a strong ending.
Writing a good, strong ending can be a challenge, but as I pointed out in the previous blog post on strong endings, I can’t begin to tell you how many stories I read where the writers seemingly didn’t try (or maybe didn’t care) because their stories just stop, as if they didn’t have anything more to say. A story should have an ending that gives it meaning, a resolution of some sort, but the story itself also needs to have some substance or the ending isn’t going to matter.
Some of you who write literary pieces will say that not all pieces need a resolution. I agree. Literary stories may have resonance instead of resolution. But they still need some sort of conclusion, not come to a sudden stop as if the writer ran out of words or thoughts. In some stories I’ve read, I’ve suspected that was exactly the case: the writer didn’t know how to end the piece, or perhaps decided it didn’t need one and that the writing spoke for itself.
What I find particularly annoying (and borderline depressing) are stories that start off well, hold my attention, and leave me expecting a super ending—then disappoint with a weak ending. Why? Did the writer not know how to end the piece or how to give it a strong ending?
Endings can be—probably are—the most difficult part of the story to write. Here’s one excellent article that discusses that problem.
Even though this article was written a few years ago, writing story endings hasn’t gotten any easier. The article also focuses on plotted stories (of the sci-fi fantasy type), but its advice applies to all types of stories.
Story endings fall into one of three broad categories that are not mutually exclusive: Resolution, Resonance, Open.
For clarity, by “story” I mean a piece that has conflict in it—not an essay, anecdote, or a tale of an experience or how much you love your pet. The main character has some goal or purpose of their own choosing or some task is thrust upon them that will lead to some sort of conflict. Just because a story ends does not mean it has an ending.
(1) RESOLUTION generally occurs in more traditional plotted stories, where an inciting incident creates a goal that leads to a series of events that end when the goal is reached (the resolution). Conflict means that one or more obstacles interfere with reaching the goal.
(2) RESONANCE as an ending tends to be seen more in literary pieces, but it can be a part of any story. Resonance generally refers to the emotional connection the story makes with the reader. Here are a couple of articles that expand on the resonance concept.
A story can have both resolution and resonance, and the best ones will have both. Here’s a great article on that.
At Fabula Argentea magazine, my wife and I look for both in a story. Here’s a link to one such story from issue #20, July 2017. Despite the title, the story has nothing to do with vampires. The ending masterfully combines both resolution and resonance.
(3) OPEN endings have their place, such as when there is a sequel, but even when there is a sequel, an open ending may frustrate or annoy some readers, especially when the sequel is not yet available. It takes a very skilled writer to be able to pull off a good story with an open ending and still make it satisfying. Be warned.
Some writers will use an open ending to let the reader draw a conclusion about what happens. The article above on the denouement advises against making the reader draw the conclusion about the ending, going so far as to call it a beginner’s mistake. While it can be a beginners mistake, some seasoned writers who write open endings may not care how their readers feel. That’s their choice, but it’s probably not a wise one if you want to grow your readership.
Even when there is a sequel to the story, it’s a good idea to have some type of resolution before leaving the story open to more. Open-ended stories that also lack resonance will have a tough time relating to readers. And I’ve seen—and rejected—a few of those at Fabula Argentea.
I hope that I’ve stressed the importance of having a well-thought-out ending to your story. I haven’t provided any of my own thoughts on how to come up with a great ending because I feel that the articles I cited give very good guidance. Even then, there are so many possible story types and so many potential endings in each of those types that it’s impossible to be specific, but I do have some good general advice to offer.
(1) Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that a good story needs a surprise ending. Worse, don’t craft a mediocre story around a surprise ending. (I’ve read some of those and declined them.) The whole story should be worthy.
(2) If you do decide to use a surprise ending, don’t make it come out of nowhere. Good surprise endings are foreshadowed yet still come off as unexpected surprises. Such endings are difficult to craft well.
(3) A good, emotionally resonant ending trumps a surprise ending nearly every time, but the combination of resonance and surprise is often a winner. (Yep, read some, published some.)
(4) Never force an ending. If you have to force it, then you haven’t written the rest of the story properly. The story should lead to the ending, not be a preamble to it. (Read some of those too, and declined them.)
(5) Even when you know your ending and have it down perfectly, be prepared to make changes to it if the story and characters lead elsewhere. One of my writer friends thought he had his ending all set, but I pointed out that his ending, while totally logical to the story and properly set up, might not be well received by readers (meaning it might not be the kind of ending that would result in glowing reviews).
(6) When you really don’t know your ending and can’t figure it out (and don’t want to start over), follow the good advice in the “WHY IS IT SO HARD TO WRITE A DECENT ENDING?” article. As a last resort, seek the advice of some other writer friends, with the caveat that you could end up receiving conflicting advice or advice that might not seem to mesh well with your story. Nevertheless, if you truly are stuck, leave no stone unturned. Your friends might not give you a workable solution, but they may inspire one in you simply because they put your mind on a different path.
All the best with your story endings—and as with story titles, don’t settle for weak or mediocre ones just because you couldn’t come up with something better.