10 Ways to End a Story

10 Ways to End a Story

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

Last month, we looked at 10 Ways to Start a Story. Let’s flip that around and consider 10 ways to bring it all to a close. For many writers, the ending is as much a challenge as getting those first few words when they begin. And for some writers, it’s even a greater challenge.

But make no mistake. Just as how you start a story is vital, how you finish is equally important. Getting to “The End” can’t disappoint or frustrate your reader — whether you wrap it all in a nice neat bow or leave the reader in contemplation, your ending should work with the whole story. Consider these 10 approaches to see how each one affects the end of any story. We’ve given examples and have done our best to avoid spoilers.

1. Back to the Beginning (Circle or Frame) Mary Shelley’s gothic horror novel, Frankenstein, begins as Dr. Frankenstein is rescued in the Arctic Sea by an obsessed ship captain. The driven doctor recognizes the captain’s obsession, so he shares his story of creating the Frankenstein Monster to warn him how he came to be there, chasing his monsterous creation to the North Pole. An equally creepy modern title to check out for this approach is Fight Club.

2. Implied Ending (Walk into the sunset) Many western genre stories end with the protagonist and companion “riding off into the sunset” and presumably to live and face another day, side by side. This kind of can be a fine example of show, don’t tell. An implied ending can be ambiguous. For example, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers offers readers the sound of water in a bathtub to set a kind of closing mood that could be “sorrow or gladness”. Our narrator chooses to think he and his brother are likely safe; the reader is not so certain.

3. Sequel (We’re baaaaack) Oh, there are so many sequels out there — trilogies, series, cross-pollination (think the Marvel Universe), prequels and so on. The good news is that writers who have long, complicated stories (The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games) can separate them into connected standalone novels. Remember, however, standalone is key. The end of each of The Lord of the Rings trilogy had to satisfy its readers, while at the same time enticing them to read the next book.

4. Open-ended (Choose your own ending) with Frank R. Stockton’s 1882 story The Lady, or the Tiger, readers must decide at the end what choice the princess makes; will she choose to let her lover be devoured by a tiger or let him live in arms of another woman. It’s a question that has troubled readers for over a century. And not a bad way to get your story to keep your readers thinking. And thinking.

5. Twist (Surprise!) A variation on open-ended conclusions, this approach builds on expectation. Author O. Henry was a master at this form and The Gift of the Magi is one of his most memorable tales when a wife’s and husband’s love and sacrifice at Christmas — surprise! — both negates and honours each of their gifts.

6. Happy Ever After (smiles all ’round) Of course, romance stories are supposed to end in this same way: girl gets guy or girls get guys (as many of Shakespeare’s romance plays end)… romance is all about love.  And there are many forms of love — girl gets girl or guy gets guy — but not all of them sexual. And happy ever after doesn’t need to even centre around a romance. Indeed, once Gretel pushed the witch into the oven, she and Hansel reunite with their remorseful father and live, we are certain, happily ever after.

7. Mirror (architecture echo) It was the worst of times and the best of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities starts off with a 119-word long opening sentence, a description of duality echoing the conflicted chaos of the French Revolution. But he doesn’t end it the same way. He echoes the basic architecture of the opening comparison but with a short and tight finality that makes clear that this is “the end” of the story and of one of the characters. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

8. Lesson (Pay attention and learn) Aesop’s Fables are all written with a moral lesson endings — that fox never gets the grapes and is sure they’re just sour anyways. Many fairy tales also have a moral or a lesson, sometimes it’s just implied like Goldilocks:  Goldie, don’t go in strange houses or Red Riding Hood: Red, don’t talk to strangers and for Pete’s sake, Hansel and Gretel, don’t nibble on strange houses.

9. Reveal (Elementary, my dear Watson) A classic ending for mystery or thriller novels, the protagonist (dogged detective or amateur sleuth or unjustly accused victim) pulls together all the clues, red herrings included, and dissects them one by one. The final clue, the moment of ah-ha, is delivered with a flourish and the reader remarks either, Gosh, I didn’t see that one…or…I knew it! The point you need to remember is to be clever and careful; today’s readers don’t expect Sherlock Holmes’ genius and acute observation skills.

10. Epilogue (Fortune teller reveals all) At the end of Offred’s narration in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it isn’t 100% clear on whether protagonist Offred is being arrested or, as she believes, in the hands of an undercover resistance member on her way to freedom. However, there is an epilogue that helps us decide on that question — and gives us more information about the time in which Offred lived.

No matter how you end your story, remember that it is always a story that the reader wants. A great story will pull your reader along to the end. So a clever and creative ending will make little difference if what comes before it lacks energy, doesn’t have compelling characters or loses its way to reach that ending

And for now, that’s got to be The End.

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