By Kathy Flann

Baltimore, MD, USA


Sometimes, stories refuse to end. They do end in the physical sense that there is a final sentence, a final word, a final period. However, to the reader, it seems as though the writer fell off a cliff just before the story was finished. Or perhaps the writer was abducted. Possibly, the writer is now living as a pirate at an undisclosed latitude of the open seas. Whatever happened, it seems like it could be more interesting than the (non) ending of this story.

Dozens of times each semester in the fiction workshops I teach, aspiring writers say, “I’m terrible at endings!” They say this because it’s true. They are terrible at endings. However, they also say it because it’s a copout. They make the claim in the same spirit as I might claim to be terrible at breaking the world record for sprinting. I could say, “I’m terrible at running faster than Usain Bolt!” Everyone would probably agree with me. Everyone would tell me that it was an impossibly hard task. They’d say I probably didn’t have the build for it, no matter how hard I trained, because of my slow-twitch muscle fibers. They’d suggest I take up paddle boarding.

The comment, “I’m bad at endings,” is a way of trying to essentialize a problem. Being bad at endings is not a fixed condition beyond one’s control, like slow-twitch muscles or alopecia. Rather, bad endings are a craft problem. There is something the writer has failed to understand about her own story. If the writer has been capable of developing everything except the ending – the characters, the setting, the point of view, the rising action – then what reason do we have to believe that she is intellectually or creatively incapable of figuring out what’s missing and bringing the story the final inch across the finish line? It’s only natural to feel exhausted at the end of a race. I get it. However, there are no physical or mental limitations preventing a strong finish in this particular endeavor. The only way out of craft problem is to work harder.

Kathy Flann

If your story refuses to end, here are a couple common culprits:

The Undersell: Go back and rewrite the beginning of the story for clarity. This is a suggestion I make especially for short stories, in which we have little time to develop the plot. Did the story make clear, right on page one, what the character wants and would be willing to risk to get it? What are the consequences for getting it or not getting it? These questions might not be answered outright, but is there at least some hint on the first page?

It’s challenging, if not impossible, to create a strong resolution if the story has not made clear what needs to be resolved.

In a novel, you might not need to set all of this up on page one, but you do need to set it up early – earlier than you think and more clearly than you think. If you can crystallize the beginning for yourself as well as the reader, you may have an epiphany about how it should all end.

This is all easier to grasp with an example. Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis begins with the famous line, When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin. Gregor wants to conceal his new insect identity from everyone, especially his family. Kafka makes this situation super clear in the opening of the story. If Kafka didn’t know that this was Gregor’s goal, he’d probably have a heck of a time figuring out where the story could or should go. Maybe Kafka did have this problem. Who knows? We don’t have a record of the struggles behind composing the story.

Nine times out of ten, though, fuzzy character goals are what I observe in story drafts that struggle to end.

The result of not knowing the character’s objectives in the story and expressing them clearly is that the story either doesn’t really end at all or else the story culminates in a “ghost in the machine” situation in which the writer, desperate for something to happen, makes a bus run over the character.

The Oversell: A less common phenomenon (but still common) is that a writer does understand very well the character’s goals in the story and has made them clear, but the writer overwrites the ending. This tendency usually grows from a failure to trust the reader to “get” the story. I think of this as “the Lord of the Rings problem” After all the conflicts in the movie trilogy resolved, there were about four different endings that went on and on, lasting for nearly an hour.

One easy little trick is to look at the last page, examining each paragraph. Does the story actually end more elegantly with the second-to-last or third-to-last paragraph? If it’s a novel, you might consider even lopping off a couple pages of falling action.

Readers enjoy ending with images. If the whole story has been written with care, there’s less pressure on the ending than you think to do a ton of thematic work. Ending with a significant image or a gesture or dialogue allows readers to end with a scene of the characters to whom they have become so attached. This moment will suggest a great deal about whether the character has achieved the goals set out earlier in the story, as well as what this outcome might mean for our character. It allows readers to leave the story pondering and discovering, something they’ll continue to do hours or days later when they are grocery shopping or lying in bed. This is a much better type of preoccupied for readers than the kind that involves wondering if the writer fell down a well.

Here’s an exercise to try:

The end of the story, that decisive moment, that crisis point, usually comes most effectively through action. When we see that action, we can figure out what the character's decision is. The thing the character is doing (external action) represents or underscores the resolution of the conflict going on in his or her head (internal action).

Below you'll find several story endings. Write for ten minutes with one of them in mind. What conundrums might a character face at the beginning of the story that the images below could symbolically resolve? You won't reach the end in ten minutes, but you can write the beginning of a story that might get you there.

*Right in the middle of Tropical Storm Rupert, a man returns a jug of milk he stole from a quickie mart

*Right in the middle of Tropical Storm Rupert, a man walks into a quickie mart and steals a jug of milk

*On a perfect fall Saturday afternoon, the leaves a burning red, a softball player interrupts a team meeting to make an important announcement

*For the first time in a month, it rains – and also for the first time that month, a softball player does not interrupt a Saturday afternoon team meeting to make a bizarre announcement.

*In the basement social hall of a church (give the church a specific name), two women work together to sweep cobwebs out of the corners and bake cakes for the parishioners. As they work, they speak kindly to one another for the first time in a year

*In the basement social hall of a church (give the church a specific name), a woman works side by side with a friend she no longer trusts. As they break apart the spider webs in the corners with their brooms, she realizes their friendship was no more permanent than those webs.



Kathy Flann is an award-winning author whose latest book, Write On – Critical Tips for Aspiring Authors, was released in August of 2020.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.