Endings define stories. A great ending can make everything that's come before seem retroactively great. A weak ending can ruin everything. But why do they have to be so impossible to write? And is there any trick for crafting a strong ending that doesn't involve endless misery?
In a word, no. Not really.
I've written over 150 pieces of short fiction, and I've never had any where the ending didn't drive me nuts. Beginnings are hard, too — sometimes you have to rethink a beginning five or six ways before it stops feeling like a waste. But endings are way, way harder than beginnings for some reason. I'll often find myself deleting the final 15 paragraphs of a story a dozen times, trying to figure out a way to make it feel like less of a cop-out.
Just a few nights ago, I basically lay awake all night, trying to figure out how to make the final reveals in a particular story work dramatically, and make sense. I knew what had to happen, and what the main character needed to find out — but the sequence of those events was important, and so was the way in which they would happen.
In the morning, I had a brilliant idea for how to end the story — which turned out to suck, after I'd had a few cups of coffee and thought about it some more.
Just look at the language we use to talk about endings. Nobody ever accuses the beginning of a story of being a "cop-out," or a "cheat," or of "falling flat." Beginnings don't have to pay off anything, or explain everything. The beginning of the story hooks us, and makes a bunch of promises — and then the ending has to deliver on all those promises. So perhaps it's not surprising that it's slightly easier to make promises than to deliver on them.
We expect a lot from endings — and we have every right to.
So there's no silver bullet for building the most awesome ending — other than the bullet that kills every one of your characters, allowing you to end the story with, "And then they all died. The end." — but maybe there are some ways to troubleshoot an ending that is refusing to gel?
Here are some things that have worked for me and for other writers I know:
Tear the whole thing up — and let your dreams die
You can come up with the ending in advance — but it still might not work. In fact, your problem may be that you're married to an ending that seemed really perfect and cool when you were outlining the story. And now that you've actually written the dang thing, suddenly your perfect ending is all wrong.
Like I said above, I often find myself writing a dozen different endings for a story. And having an ending figured out in advance doesn't eliminate that step of the process, usually — even if I stick with the ending I originally had in mind, I have to figure out how to get there in a way that makes sense.
Apart from all the logistical plot issues that can come up while you write the story, your characters will have gotten more complicated and idiosyncratic, meaning that they can't necessarily jump through the hoops you lined up for them when you started out.
So the first step is often letting go of the idea that you already have the right ending, and committing to the awful process of reimagining the story's conclusion until you get one that clicks. And then open a brand new Word file and try to write a new ending, without referring to what you already had written down.
Simplify and trim
You might have one subplot too many, that all need to pay off in your final dozen paragraphs. You might have some themes or ideas that are actually extraneous to the story but which you fell in love with during the writing process, and you want those things to be resolved in your conclusion. You might have raised some questions early on in the story, because you thought they were cool, and now you have to shoehorn in the answers somewhere.
Oftentimes, if the ending isn't clicking, it's because the rest of the story is too bloated or overstuffed — and the key to fixing the ending is to go back and pare down the first two acts. Or to figure out which things are actually important and in need of payoff, and which things you can let go of.
Think about what would actually happen in this situation
Often, if yourending isn't working, it's because it's unrealistic — either for common sense, or for your characters and setting as you established them earlier. Obviously, this is just a story, but the key to the "right" ending is often sitting and trying to imagine what would actually happen in a situation like this.
Not what would make a cool ending, or what would pay off all your buildup. What would actually happen, in real life.
Sometimes this just lets the air out of your awesome escapist fantasy, in which case it's probably not super helpful. But sometimes, trying to step back from the frame you've set up as a storyteller, and imagining how this could actually play out in reality, can be instructive. How would people really react if everything was falling apart at once? What would go through people's minds in this situation?
The closer you can get to imagining this as a real event, that actually happens to people on the street in your town, the more grounded in reality the whole thing will be. But also, you might find yourself coming up with a surprising way for the characters to react and deal with their problems — because nothing is more surprising than reality.
Dive deeper into your characters' heads
When you outlined your story — if you outlined it, which isn't mandatory at all — you were thinking of it as a single entity, a bubble that you were crafting with some characters and settings inside it. But now that you've actually written the thing, your characters are more real. And similar to the previous item about trying to imagine how this would play out in real life, try imagining how your characters would actually deal with this.
And think of this a problem-solving exercise that you've set for your characters. They have to stop the Elf Prince from getting his hands on a magic lyre that will cause the atmosphere to turn to fairy smoke. Great. You've given them a challenge, and you've provided them with a series of obstacles, but also a set of tools.
Instead of coming up with a solution and shoving your characters towards it, try to imagine how they would actually set about solving the problem you've created. Put yourself in their shoes a bit, and try to figure out how you would really go about stopping the Elf Prince from playing the cursed lyre.
Often a weak ending is symptomatic of not really understanding what your characters are going through, and how they'd really approach this situation. You have to go back and think about who these people really are, and what makes them tick.
Re-read your beginning
The conflict you set up at the beginning is — with notable exceptions — what you're seeking to resolve at the end. Especially in a short story. If you're stuck on the ending, maybe it's time to remind yourself of the promises and questions you set forth when you started.
What would yourending look like if it were your beginning, in reverse?
Front-load part of the resolution
Maybe you have a character who has to work out some emotional or psychological issue, and also solve some plot crisis. Ideally, you want both of those things to happen at the same exact moment, so that your hero is having an emotional epiphany and defeating the aliens in a single grand climax.
But epiphanies are complicated, and they take a lot of time and energy, and it's hard to have an epiphany at the same time as you're blowing up an alien spaceship. So sometimes you have to frontload part of the resolution to your story, so the epiphany happens first and your hero, newly unencumbered by emotional baggage, can go on to blow up the alien spaceship.
Or do it the other way around — the hero blows up the spaceship, and then realizes that she's learned something.
This goes for plot reveals too. Sometimes you have to stagger the big reveals, so that the reveal you wanted to make at the end of the story actually comes closer to the middle. Maybe we find out that the ship's chief engineer is an alien spy at the midpoint, instead of during the final battle, because it's easy to get cluttered. Especially in short fiction, where the whole resolution is likely to be a handful of paragraphs in many cases.
Think about what your story means to you
You can't tell your readers what the story ought to mean to them — but you can know what your story means to you, and let that knowledge guide you. This is part of the whole business of writing a "sincere" draft. The right ending is often the one that is the most meaningful in terms of the story's overall themes and ideas, in your own head.