Some writers know what their ending will be right from the start. Others discover it in the course of writing the story, because even if you have an outline, things change. You get a better idea, or a character becomes more interesting than you expected. But not knowing how to end a story in a way that satisfies you (or an editor) is why many people abandon stories. What keeps going wrong?
Even well-known writers abandon stories sometimes—the feel for the story disappears, or something else seems more urgent.
Some stories are more like exercises—and don’t aim to be polished, finished works.
But if you have stories that you feel are interesting and well-executed (up until the end) and this keeps happening, let’s look at a few things you can do to break that no-ending barrier.
Identify the Problem, Then Troubleshoot:
Problem: You got through all the things you wanted to do in the story or novel, and now there’s nothing left to say.
A fairly common problem in writing stories is that the conflict isn’t visible enough. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to identify a conflict, because the focus has been on character.
- Look at what your character had to face in the course of the story and ask why and how and what changed because of it.
- Heighten the difficulties and their implications.
Problem: You got to the big climactic scene and you haven’t a clue what to do now. What should happen?
Sometimes you can’t figure out what to do because nothing was really in jeopardy. You’ve given the main character a problem, and you’ve got to the point where the problem drives the action, but what you don’t have is how this matters to the character.
- Stop worrying about action and imagine the emotional components that brought your protagonist here. What does this conflict do to your character’s way of life?
Problem: The ending is in line with the conflict, it all makes sense, but it doesn’t have a punch.
You’ve avoided doing anything risky or unpredictable, so it’s no surprise that the ending is soft. I’m afraid you’ve got to shake things up completely in order to make this come alive—and the first thing to do is to... change the main character. You might have been coasting here because you haven’t forced yourself to actually imagine someone with different needs from your own.
- Imagine someone totally unlike you, who wouldn’t make the same choices you would make.
- In the first big branch of the story, force your character to choose a dramatically different path from the one you gave him or her. Surprise yourself by figuring out why someone would do that different thing.
Problem: Everyone says: very nicely written, nice story; sorry but we’ll pass.
This is similar to the above, only this time the story is good but forgettable—when they put it down they really don’t have anything to hold on to.
- Shake up your story.
- For example, about one-third of the way in, have a catastrophe happen—it can be personal or atmospheric, small or large, but what it does is create a background problem that your foreground problem has to play itself against. This automatically ramps up your story, and it forces you to reconcile both large and small issues at the end.
Problem: No one believes the ending. Which is weird, because it actually happened.
Never think that what actually happened makes for a convincing story. You’ve trapped yourself here by falling prey to determinism. The story doesn’t work because there was no free will.
- Go back one or two decisions in the plot, and change it. Whatever actually happened before you get to the end, change it.
- Make yourself think about what’s going on and why; then write what that character would cause or do.
- Another way to handle this is to switch the characters—have “what actually happened” happen to someone who wasn’t there. That should force you to rethink the narrative arc.
Problem: You can’t get a good last line.
What was your story's opening line? Go back and look at it for a while. Where does that first line suggest the story is going?
- In some cases, the first line or paragraph contains the idea for the last line. (This is especially true for short stories.)
- In other cases, you should pick up on a metaphor or image that mattered to your protagonist in the course of the book.
How to End a Story: More Tips and Tricks
Most of the time, you’ll figure out how to end a story. But what if you have a solid story but no good ideas on how to wrap it up? Nothing works in your head or on paper; you’re stymied. Are there any tricks that can help?
Return to a Backup Point
If you just can’t get it to work, go back a few paragraphs or even a page, throw that out, and start again.
Try not to re-read the part you’re about to abandon. You may have written yourself into a corner. (This can also work if you’ve stopped in the middle of a story, rather than the end.)
It can help to start in the middle of a paragraph, or in the middle of a piece of dialogue—someplace where you can pick up on the action or dialogue. Then see where it goes. You may find that the new version takes you in a slightly different direction.
Write past the End
If you know what you want to do, but somehow it just doesn’t feel like an ending (too abrupt, too inconclusive, etc.), then just assume that really isn’t the ending.
Keep going. See where it really stops. You can try different directions: what happened next, how a character viewed what happened next; what unexpected consequences resulted, etc. Picture characters or setting a week later, a year later, a decade later—does that suggest anything?
Work on Your Closing Line
If you’re stuck trying to get that last paragraph or that last, brilliant line, maybe you can pick up on a symbol or image you’ve used in the story. It can be a tree, a place, a song, a sound—something you may have used without thinking about it too much.
Or it’s something you can go back and develop (and you may find that it adds resonance, too, to the story you’ve already written). Use a recurring image to develop the character’s epiphany or the resolution of the story.
You can also use circularity to bring your story neatly to a close. If you opened with a character driving, for instance, to his/her plot device, you can close with a car scene and some enlightenment that goes with it.
In Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, both the first dramatic scene and the closing scene of the novel involve children flying kites: different children under vastly different circumstances.
Add an Aftermath
You can conclude with general consequences after the conflict is over—the world is better; the world is worse.
You can even demonstrate how easily the world got past the private tragedy in a story. In Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” after the grueling experience of Gregor Samsa’s transformation resulted in his death, the family is rejuvenated. The ending contrasts the new sense of life they now have, outside the constricted apartment where Gregor lived his insect life. They begin to see their futures again, symbolized by the health and vitality of their daughter (her actions are in contrast with their son’s rigid insect body): “And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body.”
Change Some Choices
Finally, be aware that stories that refuse to end properly may reflect a problem earlier in the story. Perhaps you went in the wrong direction and now the concept is falling apart. Perhaps your character needs to do something different, or the big conflict is the wrong conflict. You may have chosen the wrong point of view, the wrong voice, the wrong central character. What can you change about the story itself that would make you interested in it? What annoys you about the story? Remove it.
Don’t Know How to End Your Story? Keep Thinking!
Maybe you won’t always know your ending right from the start, but if you approach it thoughtfully, you’ll find it.