Back when I started writing short stories, I got teased a lot by my boyfriend (now husband) about how often I killed off my characters. “But that’s just the story,” I’d protest, “it called for a death.” “Well, it’s interesting that you keep dreaming up worlds where people need to die.” Well, what can I say, I got my Dostoyevsky game on as good as I can. 🤷♀️
But let’s get real. Endings. As crucial as beginnings, and even bigger in weight when it comes to measuring the story. You can have the best build-up in the world, but if the ending falls flat? Your story didn’t work. On the other hand, a story with an okayish beginning and middle can still be redeemed by a killer (cough) ending. The ending is the piece de resistance, the final outcome of all the work you put in throughout to make the events work and have your characters behave a certain way and insert the right number of clues and symbols. Small wonder, then, that it’s so hard to get right (witness the number of ditched drafts in my Recycle Bin on account of delightful concepts descending into un-delightful conclusions).
Now if you’re a writer of literary fiction, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you probably don’t want a conventional happy ending for your story. That’s more a fairytale sort of deal, anyway – everything comes right at the end, they defeat the bad guys, live happily ever after, etc etc. Literary fiction is about grown-up life, where bad things happen. And what’s the worst thing (okay, one of the worst things) that could happen to anyone? Death, especially when it’s of a gruesome nature. That’s not to say there aren’t other options. There are ambiguous endings, where you either circle back to where the story began – with conflict – or where you don’t really know how the protagonist ends up. You can also – at most – have a bittersweet ending, although this tends to require a much more detailed catalogue of ups and downs and is best left to novels. But conventional happy endings? Where the hero finds the treasure and gets the girl (or boy, or person, or two-headed shark)? Nah.
Of course, death for death’s sake is clumsy. You shouldn’t kill off characters unless their deaths make sense in the grander scheme of the story, or the world it is set in. Far too often an otherwise good story is ruined when the writer doesn’t know what to do with the protagonist and just kills her off. Never mind how prettily it’s done and how many descriptions of dying visions and tragic drug overdose there are – it doesn’t work. But as long as you keep this in mind, deaths as a story ending are a useful tool, and often an artistic one. And if you’re worried about your plot reading like pulp fiction, who says deaths have to be bloody and violent affairs? I’d say a clever bit of psychological skullduggery that drives someone to kill themselves is as good an ending as any other.
But. Let’s say you don’t want your story to end with a death. Either because you’re trying to break the habit of killing off your characters, or because your plot doesn’t call for a death. You still want a compelling ending, though – one that doesn’t fall flat or rely on something unrealistic working out.
So how can you end your stories satisfactorily, if not with deaths?
End with a life-changing realisation
You can never go wrong with a smartly executed cliffhanger. And it doesn’t have to be too thriller-y either. Bring about a twist that’s unexpected but not unrealistic, and leave your reader hanging. Something that challenges whatever the protagonist has held to be true all this time, or something that will require a whole new set of decisions for him. You might need a bit of deus ex machina for this to work – a letter bearing shocking news, for instance, or a remark let slip by a neighbour or guest. Remember to introduce this element plausibly – panting messenger boys bearing telegrams went out with whalebone corsets.
Explain something that you’ve been hinting at throughout the story
A lot of stories use this technique, and for good reason. Revealing an underlying secret in bits keeps your reader interested throughout and gives you the scope to conclude with a bit of a shocker. This is different from the previous idea in that the twist was hinted at all along, rather than happening at the last minute. It could also give the reader the opportunity to piece it together for himself, like a detective story – which makes it more fun.
Have a character find what they wanted, but with a twist
There just isn’t enough justice done to the ironic good fortune technique. You can have this play out as pure tragedy – the character gets what they want, but at terrible cost – but it’s ever so much more delicious to do it as tragi-comedy or black comedy. So maybe an intern who conspires with a hot fellow intern to overthrow a workplace conspiracy gets to see her psycho boss get his comeuppance, but in the process the the hot intern vanishes without a trace and leaves only a mysterious note that sort of hints that he was part of the conspiracy all along? (This, by the way, is a plot I shelved long ago as too Iris-Murdochian for me to do justice to, but perhaps one of you will make something of it.) Typically this requires a black comedic tone throughout the story, so be sure to structure your plot so that it doesn’t feel like you suddenly changed your narrative register at the end.
Bring the day to a close
This isn’t exactly a plot suggestion, but there’s obviously a sense of closure inherent in a sunset, or the end of summer, or a party winding up. Introducing elements of departure into the setting allows your characters to bow out, without necessarily bringing their journeys to an end. It might even be a new beginning for them. For instance, taking the overnight train to a new city heralds the start of a different life for your protagonist, while winding up the chapter of their life that was represented by your story. This kind of ending isn’t always the most exciting, so it’s especially important to evoke the right feelings with your prose. Descriptions of the surroundings, little details that build up that sense of finality – they all count. As long as you make them that way.
Perhaps befittingly, writing a conclusion for this post is a head-scratcher of a task. So I’ll bypass it altogether (the luxury of this being a blog post!) and open the floor for comments. Do you find it hard to end your stories suitably? Have you tried any of the techniques I’ve mentioned? What short story endings do you regard as #goals – or, conversely, #cancel? Type away.