Two weeks ago, I wrote about story beginnings but today I am going to write about endings. The difference, however, is that I am not going to give any examples from real stories. The problem with endings is that they really do not make sense without knowing the story that came ahead of them and if I tell that and you have not read the story (or watched the movie), then it kind of spoils it if you ever do. And since I don’t want to spoil anything for you, especially those endings that are surprising and shocking, I will just give general principles and let you apply them to your own writing and to stories you have read.
The Purpose of a Story Ending
It might seem obvious that the purpose of a story ending is to end the story. However, if that was all you wanted to do, you could just stop writing whenever you got tired. The purpose of the ending is to wrap up the story in a satisfying way.
This will depend on how long the story is, for one thing. A novel has a much longer ending since there are more story threads to wrap up. However, for very short fiction, such as flash fiction, the ending might be only a sentence or two. There is only one point of conflict which will be (or might be: see below) resolved by the end of the story.
The ending is also a good place to express the meaning behind the story, in other words, why you wrote the story. I don’t mean you should state a moral, such as in a fable, but if there is a message you want the reader to remember, the end is the best place to put it since whatever they read last, they will remember the most.
Kinds of Endings
Stories can have any number of types of endings. But they usually fall into some main categories. I have included a few of the common ones here.
It used to be, long ago, that stories (plays especially) were broken into two groups. Comedies were stories with happy endings and tragedies were stories with sad endings. These days, we usually think of a comedy as a funny story, although they also have a happy ending.
These are usually the most popular type of ending since they make you feel good. The main character goes through a lot of trouble but in the end, they live happily ever after and you can finish the story feeling good. The problem is that since this is the most common type of ending, it is also predictable. So, even if you have a happy ending in your story, it is good sometimes to hint that maybe it won’t have a happy ending. This will keep the reader guessing at what will happen (and keep reading.)
As I said above, stories that have sad endings are called tragedies. Tragedies are not as common these days. The most common type of sad ending is where the main character, or one of them, dies at the end. The hard part of writing a sad ending is not making it too depressing. So it is good to add at least a note of hope to the story so that it is not all sad or bad.
This is a mixture of a happy ending and a sad ending, just like something that is a mixture of a bitter taste and a sweet taste. Examples of this might be if one character dies but the other main character learns to live on anyway. Or if one side wins the war, even though thousands of people die in the process. It is a good compromise between a traditional happy ending and a totally sad one.
Twist endings could still be happy or sad, but they are a type of ending where there is some surprise at the end. Maybe an example is that the mob boss’s friend turns out to really be a policeman, or the person who died in the beginning of the book is really alive.
The good thing about twist endings is that they are memorable. A good twist ending can leave a much bigger impact and can help people remember your story long afterward. It is also very satisfying to think you know where a story is going and then suddenly be surprised.
However, I will tell you that writing a good twist ending can be hard. It is like walking a tightrope where you do not want to go too far to either side. For twist endings these sides are:
- Making the twist too obvious. People like a mystery and they like to be able to try to figure out a mystery. However, if it is too easy, that is not very satisfying. It is like doing a 4-piece puzzle: it’s easy but it’s not that fun. For example: a story has twins in high school. One of them is the main character and people are always coming up and thanking him for things he didn’t do or being mad at him for other things that he doesn’t know about. The twist is that it was his twin doing them. That is pretty obvious so it’s not much of a surprise. If you try to pretend it is a surprise, the reader might feel insulted.
- Having the twist come out of nowhere. If there are no clues about the twist ending, then people will feel like you are cheating. For a good twist ending, people should be able to reread the story and see all the clues that are leading to the twist. If there are no clues, it is not much of a mystery. For example: a man is always helping people and giving them money. He doesn’t have a job and although they investigate him, they can’t find any secret bank accounts or other ways of getting money, nor does he have any rich relatives. The twist is that he has a magic box in his house that makes money. Especially if this is not a fantasy story, that will seem like a very unsatisfying ending since we could never have guessed that. It seems like the writer could not decide how to end it and just made up something easy.
Ambiguous means “not clear”, so an ambiguous ending is one where the story stops without resolving all the conflicts. Maybe it ends without you knowing if the main character lived or not or maybe it ends without your knowing if the character is dreaming or awake.
Ambiguous endings are difficult to write well and many readers do not like them anyway. They want to know what happened. However, if it is written well it can leave the reader with something to think about, which makes the story memorable. One famous ambiguous ending is in the movie Inception, although I won’t say why, in case you have not seen it.
Now it’s your turn
- Think about some of your favorite stories and the ending to the story. How does the ending make the story better? Would it be better with a different ending?
- Think about a story you have written. What kind of ending does it have? How would it be different if you changed the kind of ending it has?
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.