Why is it so hard to land the ending of a story? We want the endings of our stories to feel surprising yet inevitable—which is easier said than done.
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Diagnosing the Problem with Your Ending
So how do you fix your ending? There is never any one right answer to that question, but through studying effective endings, I’ve noticed that many of them follow certain patterns. Try these ending patterns on for your story, essay, or book, choose-your-own-adventure style, until one of them feels just right. (And since we are discussing endings, beware of spoilers ahead!)
The Flannery O’Connor–Style Cosmic-Comeuppance Ending
This type of ending is one of my favorites, perhaps because it feels true to life. Often in this ending pattern, a character who has condescended to or blamed another character is brought low and is shown to actually be the one in the wrong. In O’Connor’s story “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” a college graduate named Julian returns to his hometown in the South, feeling superior to his mother, who holds racist and old-fashioned attitudes. But when she is felled by a stroke, he realizes how dependent on her he is.
This type of ending is common in comic writing: Think of how many times you’ve read a humorous story about someone doing something ridiculous or lying their way through a situation before they’re finally caught. Funny nonfiction writer Jon Ronson lets the reader see when he’s caught in a lie. This type of ending is akin to the famous scene from I Love Lucy when Lucy and Ethel are in a chocolate factory and the conveyor belt moves too fast, so Lucy starts shoving chocolate in her face. Basically, it’s the “this can’t go on forever”/“the jig is finally up” ending.
The Flashback Ending
We want readers to have some kind of emotional reaction so the story stays with them after they finish reading. Striking a surprising emotional chord can sometimes be difficult to convey if we keep narrating from the same time frame that our story takes place in. When George Saunders talks about his writing process, he frequently quotes Einstein, who said, “No worthy problem is ever solved on the plane of its original conception.” You can interpret that quote in many ways, but when focusing on endings, I like to think of the “plane of its original conception” as the place and time where the story is initially set. To give the reader that punch of meaning or emotion, you might need to flash forward or flash back, to a different “plane.”
One of my favorite examples of the flashback ending is in Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s story “Julian Plaza” from Sabrina & Corina. The narrator is a girl named Alejandra and her father, Ramón, is the maintenance man at Julian Plaza Senior Home. She and her sister Cora go to work with their father when not in school, because their mother has been seriously ill with breast cancer. Money is tight, so when there is no hope of recovery, their mother goes to stay with a neighbor who runs a hospice in her home. One day the girls walk there by themselves and find out their mother is too sick to be seen. They can’t stand to be apart from her and try to carry her home with them, but they drop her and hurt her. It’s clear their mother is about to die, but Fajardo-Anstine doesn’t depict her death. Instead, she ends with this scene of the girls racing through Julian Plaza:
“As we raced through every floor, zigzagging through Julian Plaza’s ancient insides, I remembered a time when I was very little and my mother wasn’t sick. It was summer and she wore a brown print dress and tall loud sandals with gardenia perfume and olive oil in her hair. . . . We were visiting old people to give them pies—apple and rhubarb, strawberry and pecan. The pies weren’t for everyone, just those without family, the people who needed them most. My mother knocked, and when each door opened, the people of Julian Plaza beamed with happiness, as if they’d never seen a young woman so lovely in all their long lives.”
The juxtaposition of the mom being young, generous, beautiful, and active, with how she is now—bedridden and so sick she can hardly acknowledge her daughters—is what delivers that gut punch of an ending.
The Flash-Forward Ending
One ending pattern I’ve noticed in many stories in The Best American Short Stories is the flash-forward. In this ending type, we’re in scene, before flashing forward in the penultimate paragraph and then returning to the scene. In the wonderful story “Blue Dot” by Keith Eisner, which appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2017, the narrator and his girlfriend live in a ramshackle collective house in Chicago. As the story ends in scene, Eisner takes a step forward in time and writes, “Later, in my room, we’d hold each other. We’d be lovers again. We’d laugh and do the spontaneous, trippy things young lovers did. Then we’d part. You knew this too.” By returning to a scene of them enjoying each other, the reader has a sense of wistfulness. By seeing the future, the present moment feels more special and gives the ending a deeper emotional resonance.
The Rewind or “Curtain Call” Ending
Another ending pattern I’ve observed is the rewind. At the very end of the story, the author takes a moment to rewind to the characters’ significant events, reminding the reader of where these characters have been and of the emotional distance they’ve traveled. I’ve also seen, in novels, something you might call a “curtain call” ending, where the author reintroduces all the characters you’ve met along the way.
One example of this ending comes from Jacob Guajardo’s story “What Got Into Us,” which appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2018. The narrator, Delmar, and his friend, Rio, are the sons of two best friends, single mothers who own a taqueria on the boardwalk of Lake Michigan. They live in a beach house year-round, and the boys share a room. When they are teenagers, they become lovers—which, as you might imagine, complicates everything. Delmar grows up and goes to college. Rio stays and falters. At the end, Guajardo shifts to the future tense, detailing how things will go wrong for Rio from here, but then adds a final paragraph that rewinds some key events of his and Delmar’s young lives and shows how close and connected they were once.
The “Frozen in a Moment of Possibility” Ending
One of my favorite story collections from recent years is Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut, Friday Black. In the story “The Era,” Adjei-Brenyah uses an ending technique I’ll call the “frozen in a moment of possibility” ending. One aspect I love about Adjei-Brenyah’s stories is that he takes a thread of reality—like, say, our society’s interest in genetic manipulation and desire for self-enhancement—and then he imagines it into an extreme.
In the last scene of “The Era”—which is a short story about a futuristic literal-minded society in which jokes are frowned upon, parents genetically modify their kids for “optimization,” and authorities regulate teens’ moods with a substance called Good—Adjei-Brenyah gathers a bunch of key characters together: Ben, who’s just been punched; Leslie, who is maybe developing a relationship with Ben; Ms. Higgins, the nurse who dispenses Good, the substance to which Ben seems addicted; and Marlene, Ben’s over-optimized sibling. Leslie and Ms. Higgins want to help Ben. Ben really wants that Good. Marlene intervenes and threatens to report Ms. Higgins if she gives Ben Good.
We don’t see what decision Ms. Higgins ultimately makes. Instead, Adjei-Brenyah ends by showing Ben telling a joke—an old-fashioned joke told by Leslie’s family. I love this ending because it gives the readers many different possible conclusions. It could mean that he wants Leslie to see that he’s interested in her, or it could just be a small, beautiful rebellion against the brutality of this particular society.
As I was thinking about this story, I tweeted my thoughts, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah actually responded. He tweeted, “I like the Moment of a Possibility distinction too, though I think I tend to favor non-neutral exits, so like even if a consequential moment is left off page, what happens just before gestures toward a growth that can be imagined further.”
A nonfiction example of this kind of ending is in Paul Crenshaw’s beautiful essay “Cadence” in The Best American Essays 2018, about the chants soldiers sing in basic training. He mostly stays with his younger self and the people in his platoon and discusses the different songs they sang while they marched. But at a few points, he flashes forward. He lets us know that the soldier in one song dies. He also flashes forward to let us know that the soldiers have received word that Saddam Hussein has invaded Kuwait and that they will soon be sent to Iraq. The readers know what’s coming—war, death, injury, trauma. But Crenshaw chooses to end the essay with a scene from their last morning in basic training, when their families come to watch and cheer them on as they march and sing these cadences. The ending leaves the characters frozen in possibility, because we don’t know what the exact outcome will be for each of these soldiers.
If the first ending you try for your story, essay, or book doesn’t work, try another one of these possible patterns. I did the same for those two stories whose endings failed to please editors and—flash forward—found good homes for them both.
Jenny Shank's story collection Mixed Company won the George Garrett Fiction Prize and was published by Texas Review Press. Her novel The Ringer won the High Plains Book Award. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, Poets & Writers, Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Toast, Barrelhouse, and Dear McSweeney's. Her work has been honorably mentioned by The Best American Essays, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and her mother. She teaches in the Mile High MFA program at Regis University and the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver.