Every part of a story is important, but I would argue that a story’s ending is the most important. You can write a decent beginning and hook people enough to keep reading, do some fun stuff in the middle that may or may not be brilliant, and you can get away with it, at least some of the time. You cannot get away with a terrible ending. A reader will not let you.
I have a tough time with endings if I’m not passionate about what I’m writing, and this happened in college when I had to hammer out a short fiction story “with a bottle, a train, and a betrayal,” as well as some other ridiculous assignments. I would start a story without any clue where it was going, slush my way through some rising action and witty quips in the middle, and at some point, I’d decide it was the end because I’d reached my word count requirement. I’m not proud of this, and though I didn’t do it often, it did happen. I’m wagering that if you’ve ever studied writing, you’ve done this at least once. Therefore, please know as you read this that I’ve been there, but there’s no excuse for ending stories in any of the ways I’m about to discuss.
As a general disclaimer, I’m aware that some people can get away with the endings below. I daresay many successful writers have used them, and perhaps this is why they became popular. But you, beginning writer, will more than likely not pull it off. Just like grammar, before you know the rules, you should not break them. Therefore, I’m not saying you can never use these endings, but I am saying you shouldn’t use them until you’re at a point where you can get away with it. When you’re starting out, focus on the basics. Stephen King and Christopher Nolan may use these, but you’re not them. Not yet. Although as a side note, I’m still pissed about the ending of Inception, Mr. Nolan. But I digress.
1. Kill them off
I once had a fiction professor who had a rule for all stories written for his class—nobody could die. Sounds restrictive, right? However, it’s actually brilliant. When writers start out, they often think the most powerful, emotional, eureka-it’s-brilliant idea is to kill their protagonist. Or his mom, or his dog, or maybe all three. They want their writing to be serious, and what’s more serious than death? It’s positively literary, I tell you!
It’s also lazy. I can kill a character with two words, but if I do it to end my story, I better have promised to do it from the very beginning—writing a story is making a set of promises to your reader, in even the smallest details and connections. I don’t mean telling your reader at the beginning that your character will die, in so many words. But there are ways you can tell them without actually telling them. See Tracy Buckler’s Crafting a Story, Part 3 post for more of what I mean by making connections throughout your story. Make connections, and don’t break your promises.
If you’re just starting out, don’t let yourself kill anyone. Actually, I forbid you from killing anyone. Don’t kill a character until you can do it properly.
2. Crazy/it was all a dream
These are slightly different endings, but they both center around the story taking place in a distorted reality. You know that professor I mentioned who didn’t let us kill characters? He also forbid us from telling our story from a crazy person’s point of view or making it all a dream. Again, you may think this is harsh, but it’s not. It’s a gift. It makes you focus on good old fashioned story-telling, not adding a twist to make your reader question the integrity of your entire piece. Distrust is the last thing you want your reader left with, my friend. A sure way to lose their trust is to make your character crazy or pull the rug out with the dream card and shout “gotcha!”
Once you’re more skilled at making those connections we talked about earlier, you might be able to sprinkle them throughout your story so that instead of ending up frustrated at a crazy/it was all a dream ending, your reader’s mind is blown. This is why Fight Club works. SPOILER ALERT. At the end, you realize there were clues all throughout the movie that Tyler wasn’t real and was a creation of the narrator’s mind. If these clues weren’t there, I would guess the movie would be generally hated rather than adored.
If you’re just starting out, your protagonist needs to be of a sound mind, and your story needs to actually happen. Again, practice writing sanity and reality before you dive head first into the land of Tyler Durden.
3. Deus ex machina
You’re writing. Words are flying, shit’s going down. Oh good God, you’ve written yourself into a corner. There’s no way out! But hark! A solution—Batman happens to be flying by in the Batwing and throws a cable down to rush your character out of danger. Boom, problem solved.
If you’ve ever studied writing, you’ve heard of deus ex machina: “a character or thing that suddenly enters the story…and solves a problem that had previously seemed impossible to solve” (definition courtesy of Merriam-Webster). This cop-out has been around for an insanely long time. The Greek tragedian Euripides was the king of deus ex machina, then there was Shakespeare who used it quite frequently, and it’s still around in modern times. An example close to my heart is Tolkien’s use of the eagles in The Lord of the Rings—SPOILER ALERT. I love Tolkien dearly, but come on, the eagles just swoop in at the moment of imminent death and save Frodo? Really? Why didn’t they just take the ring and fly it over Mount Doom to begin with? But Tolkien gets away with it because he’s freaking Tolkien. See this hilarious HISHE video for an alternate ending to LOTR.
Using a magical thing or character that was barely mentioned earlier in the story, if at all, is lazy and unbelievable. If you’re writing a slapstick comedy, maybe it will work. However, in more serious writing, you’ll be shunned for it. If you write yourself into a corner, use the backspace key until you’re out of it, then try again.
4. Artsy image sans closure
I love ending on images. I do this quite frequently. Here, I’ll even give you two examples:
The machine’s lights burn with life as it moans its pleasure with being full.
The bathroom door is still for a moment but then moves a few inches, as if pulled by a draft, until the latch slides home.
Both of these images are connected to the rest of their story and strengthen the feelings I want to leave my reader with. They work, or at least they do in my opinion. The kinds of images that don’t work are what I call “the artsy finish.” You see a lot of these in creative writing classes. The person writes fifteen pages about their protagonist eating cereal in the morning, only for the big finish to be the protagonist looking through the kitchen window at a sparrow on the bird feeder. There was no mention of the sparrow earlier, or flying, or even an allusion to being free, but they end the piece on that little bird and call it art.
Ending on images is great, and you can do it, but with caution. Make sure your image ties into the entirety of your piece, and that it’s the cap on your story, not a cause of whiplash that leaves your reader going, “Where the hell did that come from? That’s the end?”
5. Moral lesson
Again, you see these in a lot of pieces by writers just starting out. They write a short story, perhaps with the deeper meaning being “respect your elders.” Instead of letting their story stand on its own to get this meaning across—and it should be able to—they put the moral lesson in at the end, plain as can be. For example:
“Georgie realized when grandpa put his medals back into the box that he was a hero. He’d always been a hero, and Georgie had been too foolish to see it. Now, he’d treat grandpa the way he deserved.”
Gag me. When I read these kinds of endings, my mind shoots back to Animaniacs—Wheel of Morality turn, turn, turn, tell us the lesson that we should learn. At least Yakko, Wakko, and Dot’s lessons were hilarious.
Don’t end your work with a moral, whether you’re a beginner or a veteran. If your piece can’t get its deeper message across through the story, then rewrite the story. Writing, especially writing with subtext, needs to be subtle. You sneak into the mind of your reader and plant the seed of the moral/message without them being consciously aware, and then when they finish your story, the seed sprouts.
Think of Inception here—not the crappy ending, but the actual inception part of Inception. When Arthur tells Saito not to think about elephants, Saito thinks about elephants. Then Arthur points out that even though Saito’s thinking about elephants, he knows it wasn’t his idea. Don’t tell your reader the point of your story is elephants—put that in his mind without him knowing it, and then he’ll come to it on his own and love your story for its depth. As Cobb said, “Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed—fully understood—that sticks, right in there somewhere.”
Have you come across any terrible endings? Let us know in the comments!
By Madeleine Mozley