It is a truth universally acknowledged that writers in possession of a good story must be in want of an equally good ending. In my own writing (and, I’ve been told, in many others’ as well) the number of stories started is disproportionate to the number finished, regardless of polishing. Is it a sign of too many runaway ideas and too little discipline to develop them all? Probably. Will it ever change? Lemony Snicket is supposed to have said, “It is likely I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read.” I could say the same, and also, “It is likely I will die next to a pile of stories I was meaning to finish.”
As with the reading dilemma, I don’t foresee the writing one being solved–as soon as I catch slightly up to the list, more than I had before get added to it. Ideas don’t stop for me. Disconnected and seemingly unrelated to current projects, these ideas threaten to become even more of a nuisance than the absence of ideas is. I can always write or daydream my way out of a writing slump, but the excess of ideas floating around untethered from an actual plot just keep circulating and often distract me from what I’m supposed to be focused on. Toward the beginning of his career, Jack London was supposed to have been afraid of running out of ideas (which, fortunately, he didn’t). I’m worried I’ll run out of time for all my ideas. I’m not saying all the ideas are stellar, or worth the time, but how can you tell unless you write them? So I keep slogging through my stories, short and long, steadily trying for the end.
When I got to the end of one of the first stories I ever finished, I didn’t know how to do it. I looked up tips online. I read posts about dos and don’ts. I tried my best and turned out a half-decent job that I would probably cringe to read again now, however many years later. Later, with that one experience not solving my problem, I found a suggestion to practice endings by writing short stories. I never thought of writing short stories much until I started recording dreams that were particularly vivid or memorable. The dreams might have a very short piece of coherent plot and then things would go all sideways or end without notice. I would write what I remembered, which wasn’t much, hoping one day to come up with slight extensions of the plot and write it into a real story. Most of those were never touched again, but some have finally reached their end. And what I’ve learned from writing a few endings is that writing short story endings is not the same as writing a novel ending.
Edgar A. Poe preferred writing short stories because they could be consumed by the reader in one sitting, evoking a single, particular mood. I think of it as similar to the musical Theory of Affects that influenced the Baroque style: one particular Affect (fear, joy, anger, love, hate, etc.) is conveyed through every element of the short work, unlike in a full length novel which, in order to advance complications of plot and character, goes through many Affects over its course. (Although, I have read some modern, Gothic-type novels in which the writer attempts to keep a consistent, unchanging mood throughout and I ended up exhausted, frustrated, or even bored because asked to belabour a particular emotion without relief.) Also, due to the necessity of breaking up the reading of long novels, they lack the grip that a short story has to horrify, excite, dismay, and possess the reader. Each time the reader comes back to the novel, time must be taken to re-immerse in the setting of the story, and suspension of disbelief is interrupted.
Reading almost any of Poe’s short stories, the majority of the story is occupied with setting the scene and, more importantly to Poe, the mood. Events follow in the framework of the established setting and mood, and afterward it simply ends. It is abrupt and sometimes jarring, but not unsatisfying; the aim of the story has been achieved. We were thrilled, shocked, saddened, or whatever the point of that particular story was. This effect is perfectly acceptable (even preferable) when writing a short story, but if the same technique is used in ending a long novel, the effect is of a half finished magic trick–leaving your readers after the turn and not following through with the prestige. (The possible exception is if writing a series, in which case, the prestige is written to finish the first trick, and then an extra pledge [or sometimes even a turn, if it’s a cliffhanger] is added to set up the next book.) I have turned to sudden endings for my short-story-dreams. It’s freeing to know there doesn’t have to be an extensive arc to be a moving and satisfying read.
But that leaves the problem of longer story endings. The amount of detailed settings, characters, motivations, conflicts, and events that come into play over the course of a full length novel cannot be simply brushed to an end after resolution of the major conflict in a single paragraph–or worse: in a single sentence. I have read books like that and I felt cheated. If, after dragging readers along with them and their characters for over two hundred pages, authors do not see fit to reward them with some modicum of a though-out conclusion, they should rethink their goal in writing. A good ending for a novel need not contain every single detail’s explanation, but it must treat the major subplots to fair and thorough conclusions; a good ending need not answer every single question raised, but it must acknowledge said questions and provide at least some plausible answers or reasons for why they can’t be answered; a good ending need not tie off every character’s arc in a neat bow, but it must do justice to the main characters and any relevant supporting characters present at the end. Above all, a good ending needs to be succinct; this is no time to invest pages or even chapters to irrelevant vignettes of “where-are-they-now” moments. If there is maybe one additional development that is felt to be important after the initial resolution of the conflict, that’s okay. But if there are multiple chapters worth of concluding scenes, the execution of the ending needs to be reconsidered–maybe even axed quite literally and rewritten in a couple of pages or one chapter.
People usually advise writers to avoid epilogues because they can fall into the realm of info-dumping. But a written out story plot or outline is also an info-dump that serves as a guideline for framing your story. So why not use an epilogue as a frame for your endings? Write an epilogue completing all leftover arcs and conclusions that’s only a paragraph or two long, thereby putting only the most necessary information into the least amount of words. Use it as a guide to write the few scenes that naturally give the same information and then throw the epilogue away. And there’s your ending. It’s not a short drop and a sudden stop like a short story ending, but neither is it a butt-dragging denouement of three chapters or more.
Endings don’t always pan out the way we writers hope. They may seem determined not to end, or they may fall all over themselves trying to end too soon, but we must guide our stories to their final resting place in some sort of regulated manner. So, when writing a short story, think about the Theory of Affects; decide upon mood creation and, once that and the events are complete, simply end. Dare to leave your readers breathless and mind-spinning with your last words echoing in the background of your beautiful, moody setup. When writing a longer novel, do your readers the courtesy of acknowledging their investment in your story and carefully consider the extent of you conclusion. Finish the trick.