Crafting the perfect story – Part 3: The ending

In part 1 and 2 of this series, we looked at the beginning and the middle of effective short stories. Now it’s time to jump to the ending.

All we hope to do here is give examples of the kind of endings you could use. However, whatever you choose will completely depend on the entire context of the story you have written. The list below is quite comprehensive but endings come in all shapes and sizes, so something completely different may better suit your piece. For each ending, we’ll also be using example stories from the latest edition of Firewords.

The twist ending    

This kind of ending is one that takes the reader completely by surprise. Often (though not always!) the success or failure of this kind of story hinges on hoodwinking your reader. Here a real challenge arises. How do you write a twist? And how do you ensure the twist is not contrived and obvious from the start?

A friend who gives honest feedback can be useful when it comes to twists. Give them a synopsis of your story and ask them what twist they would expect at the end. If they guess correctly then assume that other readers may work it out too.

In Firewords 8, An Accident on a Dirt Road by Luke Larkin is a great example of a simple twist that takes us by surprise. We are so caught up in characterisation that we miss the bigger implications of context until it is thrust upon us.

The cliffhanger ending

Especially in a short story, a cliffhanger can be difficult to pull off effectively. As readers, we need the story to have taken us somewhere. This makes the whole reading experience worthwhile. However, an ending doesn’t necessarily mean the story is finished.

So when attempting your cliffhanger ensure that the reader has reached a conclusion in a major area of your work, whether that is resolving the nature of a relationship or a particular plot point. Ensure that the cliffhanger, while related to this, takes the story in a new and interesting way that makes the reader want to read on.

A warning here: if the cliffhanger is just something left unresolved, rather than something moving the story onwards, then it is easy for the reader to feel cheated and that an easy option has been used to give a weak conclusion.

An example of this working well is in Firewords 8’s The Barber of Mars Base 1 by Greg Michaelson. There is most certainly a cliffhanger to this story, but it does not detract from the resolution of the relationship between the astronaut and pesky computer.

The ambiguous ending

Following on from a cliffhanger, why not write a conclusion that does provide an ending, but still leaves options open for the reader? This avoids tying things up in a neat bow. The reader can put their own interpretation onto the piece and the ending relates to what it means to them.

In Firewords 8, the winner of our visual prompt competition, The Man With No Shadow by Stephanie Percival, is a great example of this kind of ending. While the end clarifies a dire predicament, the future of our protagonist is less than certain. Some optimists out there might cling onto the potential for escape!

The full circle ending

Here, it’s necessary to look to your beginning to create the ending to your story. Foreshadowing is often a useful technique to employ here because it can sow the seed that something mentioned at the start will become important later.

Hope by Carole Ellis is a fantastic example of the full circle ending. The mysterious trunk mentioned in the very first line, as well as being a recurring theme throughout, is explained at the end and becomes a metaphor for the whole story.

The understated ‘normal’ ending

When it is emotive, this can often make for the most effective ending. It is necessary to create a final thought and make the piece stay with the reader for a long time to come. In this way, the strength of these pieces comes ultimately from the beginning and the middle. The end is a way to tie all this together. Still, there is progression in the ending that feels satisfying to the reader.

In Firewords 8, take Legless Edbur by Leslie Beckmann. We are much more aware of the character’s emotional state and melancholy at the end. In Big Life by P. D. Walter, Anthony’s pride in everything his partner has achieved wraps up the story and confirms she now has the elusive, titular ‘big life’. These endings – that don’t try to be dramatic or off-the-wall – are extremely emotive and necessary to portray the characters in a way that builds a strong bond between them and the reader.

To wrap up...

The important point here is to look at the story you have written up to this point and ensure that your ending creates impact, even if this is in an understated way. What do you want your reader to feel when they think about what they have read? What impression do you want to leave them with?

Is it an emotive piece, character based, plot based or centred around atmosphere/setting? Which ending best suits this creation?

Remember, in a short story there has to be a cyclical quality where everything ties together, even if some elements are open ended.