‘Have you thought of an ending?’
‘Yes, several, and all are dark and unpleasant.’
‘Oh, that won’t do! Books ought to have good endings. How would this do: and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?’
‘It will do well, if it ever came to that.’
‘Ah! And where will they live? That’s what I often wonder.’
J. R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.
Ending a story is always a difficult part of the writing process for me. When the final line has been written, or typed, and there is nothing else for the characters to do, and victory has been won and the antagonist vanquished—I shed a tear. You may think me to be a tad melodramatic, but I have just finished the first draft of my first novel. And I feel a sense of satisfaction that is tinged with sadness.
But all stories have to end sometimes, don’t they? So when it comes to your literary masterpiece, the question needs to be asked ‘Have you thought of an ending?’ (Tolkien)—and not just any ending—a gripping ending that will thrill your reader and leave them wanting more.
Like the beginning of a story, there are many ways to end a piece of fiction. You can choose to end your story with a satisfying conclusion—with all the loose ends tied up. Most of us enjoy this type of ending. The neat and tidy ending is so popular because, unlike real life, a story can provide us with a guaranteed resolution of conflict. We can have our desired happy ending and everyone lives ‘happily every after’.
But for those of us who choose to defy traditional storytelling techniques, there is the option of a surprise ending or an open ending. By daring to be different we can ultimately leave the reader desiring more. So let us go a step further and explore the different ways that you can craft your ending and leave an indelible impression on your reader’s mind.
The circular ending
This type of ending is when the story concludes with a mirror image of the beginning. It is a circular journey where the characters return to the same scene at the beginning, but they have learned some valuable lessons. They may look or still be dressed the same but they have been transformed on the inside.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis is one of the best examples I can think of. Although the children do not enter Narnia in the first paragraph, but in first couple of pages, the ending mirrors this section of the story. As in the beginning, the children tumble out of the wardrobe and are met again by the sound of the footsteps of Mrs Macready and her guests in the hallway.
The surprise ending
Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour’ is a great example of a surprise ending. In the beginning Mrs Mallard is notified that her husband has died in a tragic train accident. The majority of the narrative focuses on Mrs Mallard’s conflicting emotions over her husband’s sudden demise, and reveals some interesting revelations about his abusive nature.
As her ‘streams of consciousness’ or internal monologue indicate her dramatic shift from the grief-stricken widow to a woman who has discovered the guilty pleasure of an overwhelming revelation that she is now free from her husband’s suffocating control, there is a clever twist at the end. Brently Mallard was well and truly alive, and seeing him at the bottom of the stairs, not only fatally shocked his wife, but shocked me as well. This kind of ending is not everyone’s ideal ending, but Chopin’s ironic and tragic twist contributed to the overall tragic mood of the story.
The open ending
Daphne Du Maurier's The House on the Strand is one of the best examples of an open ending. Although I am a fan of defying traditional narrative expectations, I was initially quite shocked and disappointed by her choice of ending.
I really wanted to know what happened to the main character, Dick Young, who had become addicted to a drug that enabled him to travel back in time to the fourteenth-century in Kilmarch, Cornwall. At the end of novel, Young is back in the safety of his home and under the expert care of the resident doctor. But whilst on the phone to his wife, he suddenly loses consciousness, and this is where the novel concludes. Du Maurier had left me high and dry and I was devastated. I wanted to know what happened to Dick, did he die? Did he return to the past? So many questions and absolutely no answers.
But in hindsight, Du Maurier’s open ending was another example of clever writing. She had provided me with an opportunity to dream up my own ending. As the passive reader, she was giving me some narrative power and inviting me to write my own conclusion and to decide upon Dick Young’s ultimate fate.
The trick ending
‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ by Ambrose Bierce is a good example of a trick ending. At the beginning of the story a man is being hanged. Bierce provides quite a densely packed narrative about the man’s supposed dramatic escape. But it is not until the man reaches his home and family that we are told that he, ‘Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge’.
In writing this story, Bierce had drawn upon the idea that moments before death a person can be subject to hallucinations, and he uses this to trick us into believing that Peyton had cleverly escaped his death sentence. With his trick ending, Bierce revealed that Peyton had only imagined that he had successfully cheated death!
The summary ending
This technique is used a lot in film-making. At the end of film, the audience is shown a written summary about the final outcomes for each of the characters—they get married, they succeed in business, etc. As in films, this choice of ending provides a feel-good ending for the reader. The hero is victorious, the villain is punished and justice is served.
I have provided you with just a few choices for the ending of your story. But whichever one you decide to choose, your purpose should always be to leave a lingering impression or a dynamic image in the reader’s mind. As writers we have the power to entertain and inspire the reader, but to also challenge their literary expectations. Have fun writing your gripping ending for your short story.
Diana Jane Heath is a freelance writer and editor, she tweets here. Read her piece about how to write a dynamic opening to a short story here.