The End of a short story is very often truncated, both before and after the climax or final battle. Planning for the final battle is often skimmed over or skipped, and afterwards, the primary concern tends to be having just enough run-out to bring the reader back down from the peak tension of the climax, rather than to necessarily show the hero in their new or reprised normality. (The rule of thumb for the run-out being: the higher the climax, the longer the run out. But still as short as possible. Make whatever sexual allusions you like from that.)
Most importantly – in any form of storytelling – the end of a story should give the reader something, some feeling or idea, to take away with them. You (the writer) want your story to stick in the reader’s head. Bleeding obvious, but a story’s ending not delivering that payoff is a common problem in my experience of critiquing and having my stories critiqued. Sometimes it’s because the payoff hasn’t been set up well enough earlier in the story (the characters haven’t had to struggle hard enough, the tension hasn’t risen enough, etc). But often the problem is that the ending itself doesn’t sit right. Perhaps it seems like a let-down, or leaves the reader feeling cheated. Perhaps it doesn’t provide enough closure, or it doesn’t make emotional sense with the rest of the story.
The ending has to fit the story that precedes it. Again, bleeding obvious, but herein lies the trick: knowing what ending will be the best fit for a given type of story. Here’s a few different kinds of endings, and the story types I think they fit with:
1. Happy Endings. By ‘happy’ I mean dancing-to-ABBA happy. I think there’s only a couple of story types that a happy ending will definitely work with.
- The whimsical story – that has a light-touch, a gentle off-beat tone, no-one gets seriously hurt, and the reader is happy to just float along with it for as long as it lasts. Go find Ray Bradbury’s short story ‘The Wonderful Ice-Cream Suit’ (or the movie adaptation). My friend Tina Connolly can write these kinds of stories too – see ‘As we report to Gabriel‘ in the Fantasy magazine archives.
- The ultra-cool hero story – maybe a heist or an action story where the hero is the baddest of them all. He (yes, I think usually ‘he’, Mr Bond) is never seriously threatened and loses nothing of importance (not getting sidetracked by the misogynistic inferences of the disposability of Bond-girls), but the (male?) reader doesn’t care because it’s all so damn cool and this dude can seriously kick ass.
Of course, it’s possible to pull off a dancing-to-ABBA ending to a story full of suffering and woe. If the protagonist follows the British approach to warfare and loses every battle but the last one (stealing a gag from I can’t remember where), then that final, ecstatic victory can leave the reader walking on air.
2. Unhappy Endings. As in: with not a glimmer of light or hope. Again, there’s only a few story types that an unhappy ending will work with, and I think that’s a stricter rule than for happy endings. An unhappy ending can easily seem like a failure of imagination on the part of the writer – like you didn’t work hard enough to find a way for the protagonist to win.
- The joke story – joke stories are generally at the expense of the characters. If the humour’s black, the ending can be too.
- The creepy or freaky story – a story doesn’t have to have a miserable ending totally creep or freak the reader out, but it can work really well.
- The soul-crusher – I think this kind of story needs to have a point, some kind of political or philosophical purpose so that the reader still has something to take away. The crushed soul is the means by which the writer opens up the reader’s receptiveness to the point of the story. Margo Lanagan’s short story ‘Singing My Sister Down‘ is as fine an example as you’ll find of an inexorable, inescapable soul-crusher, with a boy watching the drawn-out execution of his sister in a tar pit. For us ordinary mortals, a good way to make the soul-crusher ending work is to give the protagonist their victory, but make it a Pyrrhic one – my story ‘Bitter Dreams‘ is an example of the Soul-Crusher Method For Ordinary Mortals.
3. Twist Endings. These have acquired something of an image problem, certainly outside of noir and crime fiction. The good ones play on the reader’s assumptions, rather than actually withholding information, or meticulously and subtly set up the reader’s expectations so that when the twist comes, they think “Oh… yes, of course.” Ted Chiang’s short story ‘Hell is the Absence of God‘ in his collection The Story of Your Life and Others is a good example of the excellence of writing required, with a man seeking to join his wife in heaven, and the ending turned on its head entirely within the established logic of the story. Or you can take the Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels approach and let the reader, rather than any of the characters, in on the twist. Again, that’s some very clever storytelling. Treat with caution, IMHO.
4. ‘Hmm’ Endings. The endings that leave you (the reader) either feeling something really powerful, but you don’t immediately know what, or feeling like you’re teetering on the brink of some incredible intellectual revelation. I think this kind of ending goes best with idea-driven stories, where the writer lays out their philosophical argument or speculative conceit but leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions. In fact I think this is usually the best way to make an idea-driven story work. Haruki Murakami and Ray Bradbury (again) are masters of this kind of story ending – try most anything in the collections Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman and The Day It Rained Forever, respectively (in the latter you’ll also find ‘The Wonderful Ice-Cream Suit’).
5. Yin-Yang Endings. For me, and the kind of stories I tend to write, this is the workhorse of endings. If the story has had conflict, striving, suffering and loss, then a triumphant ending will have a note of sadness or bitterness; a defeat will contain hope. A victorious protagonist might have sacrificed something important to have overcome their problem, and been changed or scarred by the experience. A traumatic failure might result in a return to the proper order of things, as in Shakespeare’s tragedies. The size of the yin in your yang (or yang in your yin) varies with the needs of a given story.
…And Closing with a Click.
Terry Bisson’s rule #43 for (SF and fantasy) short stories says that the story must close with a click. (Bisson also says that you ignore his rules at your peril… and that peril is the writer’s accomplice, adversary and friend. Words to live by, I think.)
The ‘click’ often comes down to the last line, and finding a last line that clicks can be tricky.
The first line of a story is often innocuous. Its primary purpose is to make the reader wonder what comes next. I think a good last line tends to be more striking, usually emotive, often powerful. The last line’s purpose is to add the final, defining note to the journey that the story has taken the reader on, and what the reader takes away with them. The last line should resonate with the condition of the protagonist at the end of the story.
The first line of George Orwell’s 1984 is “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”, which leaves the reader curious about a world where the clocks strike thirteen, but it doesn’t have any emotional punch. The last line of 1984 is “He loved Big Brother”. Click. You need only the sketchiest idea of the novel for that line to make your skin crawl.
Sometimes a really good last line, standing alone, can virtually tell you all by itself about the story that preceded it. As in Shirley Jackson’s short story, ‘The Lottery‘:
“”It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.”
But the last word, of course, has to go to Elmore Leonard, in Get Shorty:
“Fuckin endings, man, they were harder than they looked.”