Writing ‘The End’

The EndWhat is your favorite type of story ending? The surprise ending, the wrapped-up and tidy ending, or that something which leaves you pondering ending? The type of story depends a lot on how the end should end, and I think this is where the trouble resides. How do you choose an appropriate ending for your story?

Much of it depends on taste, and this has certainly been a reason for my rejected stories. In the past I’ve fixed it to get the story published, like I did with “The Dream Depot,” but I wasn’t happy with the new ending, and it turns out a few of the readers weren’t either, so I’ll rethink this in the future.

Recent books I’ve read have also sparked my curiosity in endings. While I loved Gillian Flynn’s writing in her book, Dark Places, I thought the ending was terrible. It was a surprise ending, and a disappointing one at that, without enough logical ties to it. I didn’t feel that it connected well enough to the rest of the book. I’m also not a fan of neat and tidy endings like what John Hart has in most of his books, but he always has a few killer lines to finish them off with, like this one in The Last Child:

“We might have died without Levi Freemantle.”
Silence. Sunlight on new-cut marble.
“He told me life is a circle.”
His mother looked at the trees, the rows of stone. She put an arm around Johnny’s shoulders.
“Maybe it is.”

Here is Kurt Vonnegut’s take on endings:

To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

And Orson Welles:

If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”

And Chuck Palahniuk:

Discovering the ‘impossible’ ending to a new book makes me sick with joy and relief.”

Given the story is speculative in nature, what is your favorite type of ending? Your least favorite? Have you changed your endings to get published and been satisfied, or were you still fond of your original ending?

FYI:
How to Write Successful Endings, by Nancy Kress
10 Endings to Avoid, by William Miekle
How to End a Short Story: a Case Study, by Sarah Selecky

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12 thoughts on “Writing ‘The End’

  1. In short stories, especially 700 to 1000 word stories I love it when i can have an ‘ending’ that seems surprising and then just after that have another, real ending, that ties everything together and is logical yet still surprising. I’m not sure how often I pull it off but that is my intention. I have changed endings to satisfy an editor and get something published and I’m okay with that as long as it is because it makes the story work better for me too and not just because the editor likes it more. The story that I’ve so far gotten the most positive feedback on had a real surprise ending and one writer/editor I really respect said it was a ‘cheat’ but still, like I said, I think it is my most popular online story and people keep talking about the ending.

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    1. I know what you mean about double surprises, Mike. I’ve seen it in many story arcs, where the first one is more related to the climax, and then there is a more subtle surprise at the end to sort of bring the reader back down without crashing to the bottom of “The End.’
      What was the story you received the most feedback on? Again, I think endings have a lot to do with personal taste, and so even if your editor friend thought it was a bit of a cheat, it sounds as if other readers enjoyed the surprise.

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  2. A great ending is so subjective. I love the quiet, poetic voice of Daphne du Maurier’s last line in her novel, Rebecca, “And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.” But I also love endings that punch me in the chest like Allan Folsom’s The Day After Tomorrow (talk about a breakneck speed).

    To me, the ending should really correlate with the length of the work. It’s next to impossible to tie up every loose end in a piece of flash fiction, so a bit of ambiguity should be expected. A successful flash fiction ending should offer the reader a stunning snapshot, an image they can manipulate in their minds long after the story is put away. It becomes a tale they can add to and draw new self-satisfying conclusions.

    Since short stories, novellas, and novels allow for far more developed characters and plots, endings need to be made ‘neater’, closing the majority of loose ends (minus story arcs that may be continued in sequels), and also, in my opinion, should avoid the dreaded ‘twist’. An ending with a surprise element is always welcome, but it has to make sense. The ‘out of left field’ reveal will always leave the reader with a lemon-sucking face.

    Now regarding comprising the ending or content therein for the sake of publication… this is tricky. I think, more often than not, we as writers know when an ending works. When it doesn’t, we can’t stop thinking about it, or sleep, or have focused conversations with others until we get it right. I’m ever open for constructive critique from editors and readers (many helpful suggestions have been re-worked in), but bottom line, it’s my story and I need to be okay with it. Just like any perceived relationship, people only know what they see from the outside, so evaluate their two cents, but ultimately trust your gut. If that means passing on the publication and submitting elsewhere (unless, of course, they are paying you an ungodly sum of money), then do so.

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    1. That’s a good point, Angel, about the length of the piece correlating with the type of ending. More is invested in longer pieces and so more should be invested in the endings as well, unless there is a good lead up to it.

      I’m glad to hear your take on changing endings. They are our stories, and in the end, we need to make sure that we’re ‘completely satisfied’ with it, along with the beginning and middle. Sometimes I doubt my perspective in my own stories compared to those reading it with fresh eyes, especially if I haven’t let the piece chill for long enough, but you’re right, ultimately, we should just trust in our gut and move onto the next.

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  3. I’m a big fan of open endings (both in my reading and my writing), but editors tend not to like them. I rewrote my story “Breathe” with an alternate ending (that I hated) in order to get it published back in 2011, and I wish I could say I’d never done that since. To get “Roadkill Joe” into AE SciFi last December, I had to modify the ending — but I liked my original version better. I like endings not to be endings at all but to bring resolution to the story on the page while continuing the story in the mind of the reader.

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    1. I wholeheartedly agree, Milo. That’s exactly how I like my endings too. I suppose it is a fine line in doing it correctly. Though I’ll probably change an end to get it published again like you, I’ll think hard on it. We shouldn’t sacrifice our style, ever.

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  4. I like an ending that leaves the reader to ponder, too. Obviously loose ends need to be tied up in order for the story to be a satisfying whole, but leaving questions dangling is always pleasantly intriguing…

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    1. That’s interesting you said questions at the end, Simon. It reminds of a recent post I read about horror writing, and how suspense was the key to leading them through the story, and often presenting more of it or a question at the end, that feeling that not everything was resolved, just enough to satisfy the reader.
      Thanks!

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  5. interesting. I’ve been reading the other comment. I’m not such a fan of open ending. I know, I know it depends on the story. But it sometimes feels like a get out of jail free card.

    A couple time I’ve changed the ending to get published. Once with happy results. once not so happy. I guess its wise to consider the expertise of the editor making the request.

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    1. I can see how some open endings cheat the reader. I think its a delicate form to leave a story open and still leave the reader satisfied, but on favoring the closed ending, you are not alone. I think most editors and publishers prefer this method, as that is most of what I see published out there.

      Excellent point too on considering the expertise of the editor. Absolutely.
      Thanks, Deborah.

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