Identifying the end of a story is often one of the most difficult parts of writing. Sometimes writers are anxious to finish, other times we can’t bear to walk away from characters we’ve grown to love, and sometimes we’re still unsure how a story ends even as we’re wrapping it up. The ending of your story is nearly as important as the beginning.
Your opening sentence must grab the reader’s attention and make them keep reading, and your final sentence determines what they take away from it, how they feel when they turn that final page.
Here are some methods to try if you’re having trouble identifying your story’s natural ending.
Just end it
Once you’ve written your first draft and begun to think about your story as a cohesive narrative, consider its structure. Identify the last sentence bearing the weight of that structure, the sentence after which the conflict is resolved, the climax has passed, the protagonist has been changed; identify the earliest point at which you have satisfied your reader, and end your work there. While seldom an appropriate strategy for novels or memoir, this is often very effective in short stories, and essential when writing flash fiction. Try reading Etgar Keret’s “Creative Writing,” in which the last line serves to reveal whether or not the woman is having an affair with her teacher. You can still interpret the answer to the question a couple of ways, but the answer undeniably lies in that last line, “Isn’t it weird,” she asked, “how my brain didn’t know yet, but my subconscious did?”
A helpful trick when searching for a story’s end requires thinking about the story as a series of questions and answers. The narrative hands the reader questions, and he or she keeps reading because they want answers. Read a story-- your story or someone else’s—with the goal of underlining sentences that create a question and circling sentences that answer one of the questions. Don’t end before all the questions have answers. Your story can end anywhere after the final circle.
Sum it up
If you’ve found the final structural sentence described above, you may want to expand upon it a bit. Add a sentence, (or paragraph or chapter for a long work) that acts as a summation. Use this moment to solidify for the reader what the story is about, or why it was important. It doesn’t need to be fancy, but it should be a great sentence. As much as your opening sentence has to grab a reader’s attention, the final one often determines what aspects of the story they carry with them once they’re done reading. It often feels natural to end with a narrative summation, wrapping things up with a tidy reflection, but consider what sorts of actions or dialogue might also serve to answer the question “what is this story about,” or “why is it important?”
“The Great Gatsby” is a great example of summing up the purpose of an entire novel in a memorable last paragraph. Fitzgerald has asked readers to think about the green light as a symbol of hope for the future; both in terms of Gatsby’s quest for Daisy and the search for the American dream. He ends the novel:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And on fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
End with a nod to the future. Often, as readers and writers, we want to know that everything is going to be okay for protagonists.
We want to end the story with some sort of sense of their futures. This can be tough as a writer, but it is possible to suggest a character’s future without over-simplifying.
Doing so through action helps avoid drifting into preachy narration, and often symbolism can help you say more than you’re actually saying in a final sentence.
Annie Proulx throws all sorts of conflict at her protagonist, Quoyle, when he flees to desolate Newfoundland in The Shipping News. Quoyle is an ideal protagonist, widowed by an unfaithful wife, struggling with his history while piecing together a future with his children. Proulx tells us at the end of the book:
Quoyle experienced moments in all colors, uttered brilliancies, paid attention to the rich sound of waves counting stones, he laughed and wept, noticed sunsets, heard music in rain, said I do.
This simple sentence assures us that Quoyle has reconciled with his demons, he’s married the woman he spent the book falling in love with, and while he will still encounter challenges, we know Quoyle will be okay.
Proulx goes a step further in the next paragraph, shifting from her sketch of the future to a reflection on her novel’s theme:
Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat’s blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.
Listen for it
Read your story or last chapter of your novel aloud. It’s likely that you have already written your last sentence, but it may be lost amidst other writing. Reading aloud helps identify natural ending spots. Mark anything that sounds like a strong closing, and then work with those sentences and paragraphs for a while, seeing where you can move or revise to strike the right end.
If you’re working on a first draft, don’t think about the perfect last line at all. Your job while drafting is to get everything you can possibly think of out of your mind and into print. Even when the story is wrapped up, if you can’t shake a piece of unnecessary dialogue or a saccharine glance over the protagonist’s shoulder at his childhood home, write it. You can always move things around later. Write it all, and save the search for the perfect ending for revising.
You know best if your story needs an abrupt ending or a slow descent to its close. The key to ending is to close as soon as possible without leaving your reader dissatisfied. You can leave them unsettled, but you can’t leave them unfulfilled. Last lines teach us lessons, give us memorable images, and provide the note that carries the reader away from the story and back into his or her world. If ever there were a place to make every word count, your last line is it.