Elements of a story ending

I’m preparing to write some short stories, and I’ve been thinking about plot structure a lot lately, and plotting endings especially.

Of course, endings are always a challenge in plotting any story, whether it be a novel or a shorter work. But novels have much more time to establish the rules of a new world, establish multi-dimensional characters, and build tension through plots and subplots. Short stories must be much more economical in their approach; their endings must resonate emotionally while being based on far less development. They don’t have time to take characters through long emotional arcs, or build up world-threatening doom.

So I pondered the art of the ending for a while. And while they may still present a creative challenge to the writer, I have noticed at least two ingredients endings tend to have. Understanding these ingredients may help a writer come up with ideas for a story’s ending more easily.

Endings tend to consist of two things: a resolution of the stakes and a thematic revelation.  (I’m not sure if these are the most precise terms for these ideas, but they’re what came to mind when I first thought of them.)

The resolution of the stakes

The resolution of the stakes is basically the climax. Whatever was at stake throughout the story is no longer at stake. The threat is vanquished. The hero saves his own life or the life of a loved one, the villain is defeated, etc. (Or the reverse of this in the case of a tragedy; the anti-hero himself is defeated or meets his doom.)

This may seem fairly obvious, but if you’re having trouble coming up with an ending, it may be because you have not defined the stakes in your story clearly enough. That is, coming up with an ending may be difficult because you’re not exactly sure what’s at stake in the first place.

So first, you need to know the stakes of your story. Typically it is the hero’s death or the death of a loved one, eternal separation of a loved one, or eternal suffering of some sort. If your hero doesn’t achieve his goal, what is the worst that could happen? (If nothing bad could happen, beware — it could mean you don’t have a very strong story. It’s hard to care about whether or not a character achieves his goal if failure holds no threat.)

Then ask yourself: What threat needs to be removed for the stakes to be resolved? How can the hero remove that threat, directly or indirectly? This is the story’s climax.

Thematic revelation

Following the climax, stories often end with a revelation of some sort, the story’s final note, the closing image. The revelation reveals some sort of new information. It could hint at what the future may hold (“and they lived happily ever after”). It could shine a new light on what has happened before (rosebud!). It could simply be a reminder of one of the story’s themes, or it could illustrate how things have changed since the beginning. Remember Dr. Grant looking out at a flock of birds at the end of Jurassic Park, with children now asleep on his shoulders.

Often, the thematic revelation mirrors something that happened near the beginning of the story, and together they “frame” the rest of the story. Since the final thematic revelation is the last thing the reader imagines, it’s the image he’s left with in his mind as he looks up from the page and thinks back about your story as a whole. He will then decide whether to catalog the story in his brain as something special, or to forget it as a silly or boring waste of time. The final revelation should not be taken for granted.

In conclusion

I have only recently come to this understanding of endings, though of course I think anyone who reads a lot of stories or watches a lot of movies understands this on an intuitive level. When endings feel flat or anti-climactic, it’s usually because something about resolving the stakes didn’t work or the final thematic revelation didn’t fit the spirit of the rest of the story.

Anyway, these realizations have already helped me come up with ideas for endings. It still takes work and creativity, but its easier to get ideas when you understand what functions those ending scenes play in the overall story.

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