by Robert Gray
There are hundreds of books on how to construct a story. While many of these books dedicate entire chapters on how to begin a story, there’s very little mention on how to end a story. At best, you’ll get a list of terms: words like falling action, resolution, conclusion, and, my personal favorite, dénouement (a fifty-cent French word meaning the “untying of the knot” or just “unknotting”). If you’re like me, you’ve probably seen these words and wondered how to use them effectively in your own stories. Like all art, however, there is no definitive answer, but hopefully we can at least move beyond simply naming the parts that belong in the end of a story.
I would suspect part of the reason why so little focus is invested on endings is because few authors can agree on what an ending should accomplish. Even something as simple as a good ending should resolve all those conflicts your characters faced is a point for argument. Sure, genre stories tend to require a satisfying ending, one that tidies up all those loose ends, even if it means burying the remaining stragglers in the old man’s backyard. (It’s okay; he’s senile anyway.) But if we paddle over to the literary side of the lake, we quickly find it’s not uncommon to have stories that just stop, leaving all sorts of issues unresolved, and leaving the readers to tease out the meaning themselves. Anton Chekhov was notorious for this, believing that the writer’s job was only to reveal the problem, not resolve it.
The good news is that even though the road splits off into different directions, endings still share a common element that most authors will agree on: your ending should resonate with the reader. So, now that we have a starting point, let’s build up a serviceable definition of resonance, which is the intellectual and emotional reaction to a story created by suggestive details, such as symbols and figurative language. Blah, blah, blah … right?
Let’s look at resonance another way. When I think of resonance, I think of music. For me, most of the music I enjoy, I don’t understand. I can pick out some words in the chorus, maybe a line or two here and there, and that’s about it. And you know what? I don’t care. What resonates with me are those deep layers that run through the song, which are created by the way the vocals and the instruments blend with and compliment each other. If I enjoy the song enough, I get goose bumps that last long after the song is over. In other words, the song resonates with me. When it comes to a story, in particular the ending, that resonance is not too different. I’m looking for goose bumps.
When working on your own stories, you’d do well to remember that what resonates in the story is not the housecleaning of unresolved plot points, but rather the emotional elements, those deep layers, that have been running throughout your story. Think beyond simply resolving character conflict – if the story demands it, resolution should come naturally anyway – but more importantly look at wrapping up those emotional elements by asking big questions like: What has the protagonist lost or gained at the end? What do you want your readers to lose or gain?
If you’re having a problem finding your ending, one technique you can try is to take the beginning of your story and move it to the end. If you think in terms of shape, the plot is really a group of bubbles–conflict, crisis, and resolution–that are always in motion, as if breathing, touching each other at different parts of the story. Eventually these bubbles all gel, creating your story. The point I’m getting at is everything works together in a such a way that pieces of your story can move around if need be. Try it out. See if the beginning fits at the end. If it doesn’t work, it should at least give you some good ideas.
Another technique is to end with imagery. Go back through your story and look for pieces, maybe even a specific object, that you can prop up with emotional support and use to drive home the overall message your story has to tell. The use of imagery works particularly well because it leaves a lasting picture in the mind’s eye, something your readers will be able to see long after they close the book. For good examples of how to use this technique, you can turn to some of our greatest surrealist writers. I would suggest starting with the Three B’s: Ray Bradbury, J.G. Ballard and William Burroughs, who were absolute masters at connecting emotions to images.
As for those things you should avoid … At one time it was fashionable to end a story with something along the lines of and then she woke up, implying the whole story was just a dream. It’s an easy out, but it’s a dirty trick, and readers will be mad that they invested time reading your story just to discover all those events were meaningless. In this same vein, avoid cliché endings. And they lived happily ever after may be the best ending of all time, but, sorry folks, it’s been used … a lot. Stay away from cliché endings no matter how tempting they seem. Besides, you worked too hard on your story to cheap out at the end. Also, avoid being vague in hopes your reader will latch onto something you couldn’t fully realize yourself. Go for the specific, that’s what your readers are paying good money for.
Perhaps the most offensive ending, and unfortunately the one I see the most, is when a story abruptly shifts into a different direction, usually because the writer could not find an ending within the main direction of the story. Sometimes going off into a different direction can work. I think The Terror by Dan Simmons is a good enough example of a book heading in one direction and abruptly shifting into a new direction, but even a writer as masterful as Dan Simmons was treading in very dangerous waters when he shifted the focus from a shipwrecked crew, battling the freezing cold and an unknown creature, to a storyline not too dissimilar to Avatar or Dances with Wolves with a white man becoming part of a indigenous tribe.
The most important piece of advice I can give is to start a journal with just the beginnings and ends of each book you read. Jot down the first paragraph (or significant paragraphs). Make a few notes as to what you liked about the opening, those elements that created a bond between you and the author. When you get to the end, grab your notebook again and write down that final paragraph. Make similar notes about the ending. Was the ending satisfying? If the ending didn’t work for you, explain why. Now, with your knowledge of all the events that occurred in the story, compare the beginning and the end, and look for connections. Was there some common imagery used? Did the beginning repeat anything at the end? If you do this for every book you read, you’ll start to notice patterns, but more importantly, you’ll start to understand techniques that you can bring into your own work.
If you are unimpressed with your ending or having a hard time finding your ending, go back and try some of the techniques I’ve mentioned. And always remember you are not alone in the struggle. Many writers – even our greatest writers – have a hard time with endings. It is perhaps the reasons historical novels or fictional accounts of real stories are so inviting to authors: because the ending is built right into the story.
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet when it comes to endings. Hey, it’s art, what did you expect? Some mathematical formula? But don’t let that discourage you. As long as you have a good understanding of what an ending should do, you’ll find that perfect ending on your own, and you’ll know it’s right, too. Not because you managed to solve for X, but because you felt it. And like great music, it will give you goose bumps.