Thoughts on an ending

A weak ending can ruin a whole story. But strangely, the problem usually doesn’t lie in the final lines. Yet that’s where we spend endless time trying to “fix” it, by revising, rewriting, rereading that last paragraph.

When the ending is causing a problem, it could be there’s something wrong with the way you got there. It’s worth going back to work on the story rather than the ending.

There are a variety of reasons why endings falter.

– The character may have gained a sense of realisation, or achieved his or her desire, too early and everything after this point seems anticlimactic.

– If your story just stops, the plot could be forced and inorganic, or fail to track the development of a character or society.

– Nothing stops a story short more than a closed ending. The goal is accomplished, the character gains self-revelation, and there’s a new equilibrium where everything is hunky-dory. These stories don’t reflect life, and suffer because there’s no sense they go on living in the world after the story has been told.

It’s important to see a story as a structure in time. The characters we’re writing about should exist outside the story we’re telling. A story is just a moment when something important happens to someone within their lifetime. They should have lived before they reached this point and they will keep on living and developing after the story is finished.

Open endings tend to broaden the scope of the writing and expand the possibility and complexity of its meaning. Stories with open endings often finish on a turning point, and as a result open up a whole world of potential directions. Marion Halligan’s Spidercup, one of my favourite novels, ends before the main character makes a choice about how she will live in the future.

If you’re having trouble discovering the right ending try these things:

1. Weave a more complex tapestry of character, plot, theme, symbol, scene and dialogue, elements that provide texture and richness to the story. This will usually result in an organically grown ending.

2. Reconsider plot. End your story with a reveal that shatters the equilibrium and sends the reader back to rethink the characters and their actions. A classic example is ‘The Alexandria Quartet’ by Lawrence Durrell. Four narrators tell of the same events, but each reveals new aspects, and the reader’s understanding of these events changes dramatically with each telling.

3. Don’t show what the character will do when faced with a moral choice, or make the moral argument ambiguous. Let the reader question what makes a choice morally right. This will hopefully lead them to explore that choice in their own lives. Chekov was the master of this.

4. Images are more powerful than words. End on an image and an action that symbolises the outcome for your character. Let the image show a turning point that will point towards future possibilities and reveal hidden layers in your character. Nic Low’s story Rush which won the Overland Victoria University short story prize in 2013 does this to perfection.

When the rest of the story is working well the ending should suggest itself, and floor you with the rightness and inevitability of it. Jack Hodgins’ words deserve to end this post.“I suspect the best endings do not have to be invented at all, but recognised.”

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16 Responses to Thoughts on an ending

  1. Mridubala says:

    I could relate well with this post & yeah the last quote says it all.
    If interested drop at mine…

    Merry X’mas & Happy New Year!

  2. Maree says:

    Thank you for that helpful post Karen. I’ve recently struggled with an ending on one of my short stories. Your suggestions about the characters in the story and their life outside the story really resonates with me and helps to develop ideas for open endings. I agree that ending with an image is powerful. It seems to evoke thought and emotions in us for a long time after reading has finished. Thanks for the reference to other writers, I’ll check them out.

  3. Diana Threlfo says:

    Your post is enormously helpful to me, Karen, because I struggle with endings in a lot of my stories. You’ve pinpointed some of the reasons for me for which I’m very grateful.

    • Hi Diana. Endings can be a problem for most of us. The best endings grow organically and should open up and expand the story. Like everything else about writing, that’s not always easy. I’m pleased you got something out of the post.

  4. Sue. says:

    Great insight Karen, I was worried about my ending in “Sally” as I did leave it quite open ended because the story and the turn of events demanded it. but now, after reading your post I think I’m on the right path after all. As usual you pin point the problems and explain possible inevitable outcomes with perfection. I will of course take another look and probably tweak some more but thank you for the much needed advise.

    • Hi Sue. It sounds like you’re on the right path. I seem to get a strong feeling of ‘rightness’ when the ending works. Sounds to me like that’s what you have with the ending to Sally’s story. Trust your instinct.

  5. Nic Low says:

    Hey Karen,
    Nic Low here – just a quick word to say thanks for the mention of Rush. I’m stoked you like the ending. It’s lovely to see what it’s doing articulated well; sometimes you’re not sure why things work yourself!

    • Hi Nic,
      Congratulations on the well-deserved win! Rush is a fabulous story. I could have used it as an example of a host of writing skills at their best.
      Thanks for commenting. It was great to hear from you.

  6. Margaret jackson says:

    Hi Karen
    This is amazingly helpful information thank you. Such a clear explanation of closed and open endings has resolved some puzzles for me about endings. This whole post will sit beside me when I am editing..

  7. What a great summary on endings! I especially love your suggestion to stop focusing on the last line when an ending doesn’t seem right and to reconsider the overall story. Good strong advice that I’m sure will come in handy! Really loving this blog of yours… wish I’d started reading it earlier!

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