Four ways to write a short story ending

The other day, I ran into Eva Crocker and Susie Taylor and we got to talking about short story endings. They’re so tricky to write, I complained. To which Susie said: Yeah, there are only so many times you can end a story with someone dying or getting on a plane.

Ending a novel is infinitely easier than ending a short story. Actually, almost everything about the craft of writing is easier in long vs. short form. Regardless, here are four ways to end a short story:

First off, BACKSPACE. If you’ve already written all the way to the end you might want to reconsider the last sentence, the last word, or the last paragraph. Is it really needed? Many writers, myself included, make the mistake of summarizing things for the reader, just in case they didn’t get the point. Originally, the final sentence of “Butter Tea at Starbucks” was something like: Everything feels miraculous. And my writing group said: you’ve nailed the final scene but knock it off with this dumb line, already. They were right so I did.

There are only so many times you can end a story with someone dying or getting on a plane.
— Susie Taylor, author and astute person

Sometimes the ending is lurking somewhere else in the story and the trick is to go back and find it, then cut and paste so that the ending is a flashback. I struggled with “Happy Adventure” for years before finally moving the second last scene to the very end.

Other times, the ending is a flash forward. Check out Tessa Hadley’s story “An Abduction” which ends with a big leap into the future. It’s disorienting in the best possible way.

One way to conclude a story is to take some previously innocuous image from earlier in the story and reproduce in the form of an epiphany at the end. I learned this trick after binge reading a bunch of stories by Souvankham Thammavongsa. Have a look at Souvankham’s O. Henry-prize winning story “Slingshot.” In the third last scene a character talks about a tornado. It’s a bit obscure, what he says, and for a moment the reader is left thinking: “what’s this guy on about?” but it’s also so fleeting that it’s almost forgettable. Except then at the very end, the tornado returns in an unexpected way, gloriously described so this time we are left with a crisp image. (Read the story and you’ll understand what I’m saying)

Why does this particular sleight of hand work so well? Because a reliable way to end a story well is to surprise the reader WHILE making them feel that in hindsight the ending makes sense. And readers also like foreshadowing. Good murder mysteries do both these things well - surprise ending that also feels authentic because in hindsight you realize the gut punch was lying in wait all along.

Fundamentally, stories are about transformation. Something has to change by the end: either the character or the reader’s perception of the situation/ character or both. I don’t mean to give the impression that a neat little trick is going to be satisfying to a reader without the substance in place.

ps. Advice for improving your dialogue and the importance of ending on an emotional note.

pps. Have you got a completed draft of a novel that could benefit from another pair or eyes? I moonlight as a manuscript evaluator which means I give constructive feedback on works-in-progress. Character and dialogue, plot and pacing, it’s all my jam. I’m taking bookings for 2020 so get in touch for more info or a quote.