Anonymous asked: I need some tips on finishing short stories. I’ve been writing for a while and I really love it, but unless it’s for school I have never finished anything I have started…help?
The ending is the thing that can make you hold the book against your chest and start sobbing, or close it with a satisfied smile, or throw it across the room in outrage. All endings are valid endings, with one exception. This is the ending in which the reader casually closes the book, drops it on the table, and brings up their Facebook page without another thought.
We’re going to try to help you write everything that isn’t that. Although the original question was about short stories, we’re going to give some tips for endings in general, then for short stories, then for novels.
First, some general tips to keep in mind:
- Give some answers. You set up a story, so finish it. You don’t have to resolve everything by either killing off the main character or having her solve all of her problems and live happily ever after. There’s a lot of life in between those extremes, and that’s where your story will probably end. You don’t have to change the lives of your characters Oprah Special-style, but it’s suggested that you address the problem you laid out in the first place.
- Accomplish something. Just like the characters within them, stories have goals. If you’re trying to say something, say it. If you want your reader to feel something, make them feel it. Think to yourself, “Why am I really writing this story?” Whatever the answer to that question is, it should be implemented throughout the story and brought to fruition at the end. Tailor your story to what you need it to do.
- Avoid the Deus ex Machina. This Greek phrase literally means “god from the machine”, and it commonly refers to stories in which the ending comes out of absolutely nowhere. This is when the Love Interest’s fiancé chokes to death on a piece of beef jerky and your main character capitalizes on the availability of the Love Interest, culminating in matrimonial bliss within a couple of paragraphs. Don’t pull endings out of your butt. They come from your story. Pull them out of there.
- You will not please everyone. Ever. There will be people that will have a beef with your ending. There are probably a couple of ways that you could have done it, but it’s your challenge to rifle through those alternatives and figure out which one your story really needs, not your critics’. Don’t worry about pleasing your audience; worry about respecting the story you’ve told by giving it a proper end.
- Be careful with ambiguity. You might love those endings that make you think about what really happened, or make you fill in the blanks yourself. Those endings are great, but they should be approached and implemented with great care. If you want two readers to fight over whether your character decided to do something or other, give them a reason to fight over it. Make your character complex enough where it would have to go either way. The ambiguous ending can be magnificent if the story requires it, but it can seem unsuccessful and faux-artsy if done weakly. Tread carefully.
Now, on to the short story.
- Keep it short. While your short story probably has depth and complexity, it is still limited because of its length. There is only so much you can do with a small word count. (By the way, please don’t try to cram a novel into the space of a short story. You will only do yourself a disservice.) Don’t look for a massive, grandiose ending if it isn’t there.
“I have an aunt who thinks that nothing happens in a story unless someone gets married or shot at the end of it.”
An ending can be small, like a change in attitude or direction for one of your characters. At first, it might not even feel like an ending, but if it resolves the problem, you’ve gotten the job done.
— Flattery O’Connor
- Leave early. Don’t volunteer to clean up. You haven’t been at the party for that long. Your readers don’t need to know every detail of the ending and ever little thing that gets tied up. The ending should have some emotional impact, and if you keep writing once that’s delivered, it’s going to get stale. Your reader hasn’t been able to establish very involved relationships with the characters over the course of your short story, so be aware of that in writing your ending.
What about novels?
- Stick around. Help out and clean up. You know the people that threw this party pretty well. The least you can do is to help put everything back in place. Unlike the short story, the reader of a novel has spent loads of time with these characters and probably isn’t averse to finding out what happens to them when the dust clears (assuming, of course, your reader liked your story).
- Plant. In many stories, the ending is the coming-together of many elements, characters, and ideas from earlier in the story. Many stories use plants, or things that are mentioned earlier in the story for the purpose of being used later, to impact the ending (this is a good way of avoiding Deus ex Machina). The ending should develop from the rest of the story and follow logically. While it may surprise and astonish your reader, it shouldn’t make them cock and eyebrow and wonder where it came from.
- Pivot on your climax. The outcome of your climax is going to be the material that you have for your ending. In dealing with the post-climactic world, take a look at the rest of your story and figure out what’s fundamentally changed during the climax. The ending, whatever it may be, lies in those changes. After you’ve excited your reader over the climax, resolve what’s happened. A resolution is not inherently happy, but it does end the story.
It is very tricky to pull of the perfect ending. Rely on your story and keep to your goals. If you got them reading up until now, they’re going to want something good. Trust yourself to not disappoint.
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