It might feel as though it’s the wrong time of year to be focusing on endings. Surely, January is for opening lines not closing ones? Surely, December would have been a better month to publish this particular article. But the more I write, the more I find it helpful to have a clear sense of the ending long in advance of putting pen to page. I also feel as though many of us have made New Year resolutions that involve finishing projects rather than just starting them—which obviously necessitates the need for endings. So, perhaps it isn’t all that incongruous to be writing about endings as my first post for 2023.
In my article about openings, I talk about “timing (exactly when to begin) and method (how to go about beginning)”, and I think the same thing applies to endings. There’s that adage “arrive late and leave early”; as writers we generally want to leave our reader wanting more. And just as you want your opening to intrigue a reader and invite them into the world of the story, I think you want your ending to leave them with something to ponder, something that resonates long after they’ve turned away from the page. The opening and the ending are like two fence posts with the rest of the story strung in between. If those two fence posts are firmly struck into the earth then there is a good chance the rest of the story will create a beautiful arc like bunting at the fair.
That makes it sound pretty simple. Of course, as with everything in writing, it really isn’t. Openings are hard. Endings are often harder. But a good ending can take your story from something relatively intriguing to something which is evocative and powerful. You don't just want to exit. You want to exit, pursued by a bear.
What is my end point?
In the quest for a resonant endpoint, one thing I often find helpful is to look back at the start. Can the opening sentence be reconfigured so it appears in a new light? Can it be stretched into something that carries greater weight than it did on first read. This is what I do in a micro I wrote a few years ago called Constellations (Matt Kendrick | The Drabble). The ending is simply an extension of the opening, but hopefully carries enough oomph to change the way we read that opening on a second pass.
In a similar way, I love the ending to She’s Gone (Frances Gapper | Wigleaf). Here, it isn’t the opening sentence but the title which is clarified by the ending. All the way through this tiny piece, we have that “she” from the title hanging over us. Who does that refer to? At what point does the pronoun associated with the snowman shift from “it” to “she”?
Alternatively, we might aim to suggest what follows after the story. In flash fiction, I always think we want the story that is on the page but also the sense of what has come before and what will happen afterwards. That is the way these micro stories become much bigger than their word count. A great example of this is Relax Said the Nightman (Melissa Llanes Brownlee | Newfound) where the final sentence propels us forwards and asks us to imagine where things go from here.
Where our story focuses on a specific relationship or group of people, it can be effective to end with either a bringing together or a splitting apart. I like the way that the ending of Haunt (Carmen Maria Machado | Conjunctions) brings the two characters of narrator and Elsie firmly together. Conversely, in the ending of When We Were Young (Christopher M Drew | Trampset), there is the sense that this cohesive group is now split apart, that what follows is no longer a story about “we” but separate stories about “I” and “he” and “she.”
Finally, we might think about the ending as a key to unlock the whole story. In both “She’s Gone” and “Relax Said the Nightman”, I feel as though the last sentence shifts the whole piece, so we read what precedes it in a very different light on the second time through. Sometimes, the piece itself is envisaged as a sort of puzzle box, deliberately holding back the whole story from the reader. That's what I’ve attempted to do in It Was the Horse that Killed Her (Matt Kendrick | Retreat West). That last line aims to suggest exactly how the horse killed the old lady if a reader hasn't guessed prior to that point. (Apologies for using two of my stories in this post!)
Creating something evocative and powerful
I often feel as though the best place to leave a story is with an image, something that will literally haunt a reader like the ending to Blood Flows Slower than Water (Jo Gatford | Flash 500). Here we have an image that sticks to the central theme, the point to which all the other imagery has been building – that feels like a good takeaway: the final image shouldn’t just be powerful, it should bring together all the threads that have been woven up to that point.
Another way of ending a story that often packs a punch is to use the sensory. In “Relax Said the Nightman”, we have “his hard fingers digging into her skin”, leaving us with that sensation as we ponder the story we’ve just read. This is similar to the wonderful ending of In This Tale of a Suburban Tiger, the Part of the Mother is Played by a Bird (Gillian O’Shaughnessy | Splonk). There is a fantastic progression here from the “warmest feathers, her favourite yellow cardigan” of the opening to the “hot, thick breath crawling over your skin” of the ending, and I think that’s key – not just “have I landed my ending?” but “have I scaffolded the rest of my story firmly towards it?”
Another place to end might be with dialogue or internal thought. Both seem well suited to creating a powerful endpoint since with dialogue, you get the combination of something spoken out loud (therefore sensory) and something that might be meditative or revelatory; and with internal thought, you have a sort of chiming effect of “a thought for a thought” – a character’s thought transplanted to a reader’s mind. Dialogue is how “Haunt” comes to an end. And it’s also how Then I Was Blue (Rowan Hisayo Buchanan | AAWW) reaches a conclusion; and here it isn't just dialogue but a question, something that feels directed at the reader, something for them to take away and ponder.
As writers, we are often told to be wary of the so-called punchline ending. Someone once told me that a piece of flash fiction should never end with a punchline, but as with all writing rules, I would encourage you to take advice like that and throw it in the dustbin. There are some brilliant pieces which end on a note of humour and, for me, the reason these work is because it fits the tone and message of the piece. I think the ending to Washerwoman’s Wish (Bayveen O’Connell | MacQueen’s Quinterly) is perfect. And a “punchline” ending can come in many different shades. Here is a much more subtle one – The Assimilation of Boyboy Santos (Elison Alcovendaz | Lost Balloon).
Finding that sense of tempo and rhythm
We want to bring our reader to a stop in the most effective way possible. Sometimes, we want them speeding through to the end until they reach a cliff edge. Sometimes, we want them to slow much more steadily to a halt. As always, it depends on the story. But I do think we should pay attention to rhythm and tempo in the final few words of a piece.
Finding the right rhythm can be tricky, and often, for me, it’s about reading your work out loud until it sounds just right. However, a couple of things that can help. Firstly, think about where the word stress lands. Poets would tell you about the magic of trochees and iambs, but without getting too technical, consider making your word stress regular so that you have something like STRESSEDsyllable—UNSTRESSEDsyllable--STRESSEDsyllable—UNSTRESSEDsyllable. We see that in Breath (Bruce Johnson | Wigleaf) where the final phrase is “there was nothing you couldn't come back from”. Note the pattern of that. It’s two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable followed by two more unstressed syllables etc. Look back to the ending of “When We Were Young” and you’ll find the same thing – “each of us heading our separate ways home.”
Another technique that is sometimes helpful is using a solving phrase. This is a short phrase that reflects back on what has come before, often negating or confirming the central idea. In order for it to work in terms of tempo, it generally needs to follow a longer phrase or sentence (or group of sentences), and is often punctuated using a colon or semi-colon as in The Bones of You (Donna L Greenwood | Reflex Fiction) or Bitter Hot Chocolate (Sudha Balagopal | Monkeybicycle).
Finally, consider the power of three. The final phrase of The Corner of My Eye (Doris Cheng | Lost Balloon) is three single syllable words “she was gone”, and I think there’s an impact in the rhythm of that. Alternatively, you might create a group of three separated by a conjunction like in Bone on Bone (Eric Scott Tryon | Fractured Lit) which is also a solving phrase, also sensory, also an image that sticks in my mind – and that’s the thing with endings: the more of these techniques you can layer on top of each other, the more powerful they might become.
Hopefully that gives you a few things to ponder, but if you want some additional ideas, Tommy Dean recently shared nine useful tips on Twitter. For me, the important things with endings are (1) leaving your reader with something that will linger, (2) structuring your story towards that idea, and (3) finding the most pleasing rhythm to bring your reader to a halt. The more I write and the more I critique the stories of other writers, the more it comes down to those three things.
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