Conclusion to a Great Short Story

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Conclusion to a Great Short Story

  • Don't leave your readers hanging in the dark at the end of your story. Be sure that your conclusion is satisfying, but not too predictable. Readers need to be left with a feeling of resonance, a feeling that they long to know what happened to the characters after you wrote that last word.

If you can successfully incorporate these tips into a compact, focused story, you just might find that you have created a memorable short story that lingers in the minds of readers and editors alike, long after they've finished reading!


  • Surprise your readers. Add a little twist at the end of your story that leaves them wondering about your protagonist long after the story ends. Avoid the overtly predictable ending and make publishers remember your style.

Trouble Areas of Short Stories

1. You write, describing scene after careful scene, but eventually you run out of juice. So you end your story, on a lovely, poignant image. But – what happened? What’s the point of the story?

2. You write, carefully moving from story point to story point, until you reach the final scene. You may have known it was there all along. You feel the urge to make the ending satisfying, so you finalize it with a sentence or two that leaves no confusion: this is the end! It’s clearly a whole and compelling ending! But when you read it over, it sounds cheesy.

3. You write, exploring action and causality, following what if? after what if? and then get to a point where you don’t know what to do anymore. Your characters are in trouble (good) and the scene is ready for a shift (good) but you don’t know how to resolve this.

* The reason it’s hard to find answers to the “how to end a story” problem is simple and infuriating: it will always depend on the story, and what that particular story wants. There’s no easy way to do it, and there’s certainly no formula. Every story is different.

But the same elements you need to start a story are also present when you end one: you need to be familiar with risk, faith, receptivity and uncertainty.

Writers, The End is Near: Four Ways to End a Short Story

Submitted by Edward G. Talbot on Wed, 04/07/2010 - 10:57


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"This is the end. My only friend, the end. Of our elaborate plans, the end"
- from "The End" by The Doors, 1967

In my humble opinion, that song is one of the truly great rock songs. The mixture of pleasure and pain it describes applies to more than just lost love and killers and death. Sometimes when we writers are working on a story, finishing the story can be bittersweet, or even just plain bitter. And sometimes we get near the end and we have no idea how to finish it, especially with a short story. In this post, I've outlined four possible ways to effectively end a short story.

There are more ways to end a story other than these four of course. And there is often overlap between the different ways. But if you are stuck, a look at these may help unstick you. Even if you aren't stuck, they may give you some ideas. Anyway, here they are:

The Twist Ending

Add something a bit unexpected right near the end. If you have listened to or read Edward G. Talbot, you'll know that we like to end stories this way. It works for many genres. The one thing you have to be careful about is not making it too unexpected so the reader feels like you just threw it in there. The reader needs to feel that it's consistent with everything else in the story

There are so many ways to implement this concept. You see it all the time in suspense movies. Jeffrey Deaver is a master of this with his thrillers. A really good example is in James Patterson's second Alex Cross thriller, Kiss The Girls. The killer turns out to be the FBI agent who was working the case. It's just possible enough that the reader buys it and feels a chill at the betrayal.

The twist can also be subtle. My friend and fellow podcaster Scott Roche recently released an e-book short story called Bitter Release about a soldier trapped in a cave with only memories and a case of absinthe. Roche gives us a subtle twist literally in the last line that ties the surreal feel of the story together very effectively. I can't say more without spoiling the story.

The Resolving Action

In action, mystery, thriller, and suspense genres, this is probably the most common ending. The line between a resolving action and a twist ending can be blurry, but a resolving action to my mind tends to be more expected, more like a traditional climax. This can be a major action like a bombing or a killing, or it can be something simple that punctuates the story.

A good example is in Tom Clancy's "Debt of Honor", where a plane crashes into a joint session of Congress, making Jack Ryan the President. That's one serious resolving action. Or in our own audiobook New World Orders we resolve the chase that has at one level been going on for the entire book. I won't give the details, but it definitely ends with a Resolving Action.

On the other hand, you could have a story where a woman has killed an abusive husband and is struggling with guilt and the story could end with some symbolic gesture regarding letting go of it. That is a bit of a cliche, but it wouldn't seem like it if done right. You get the idea.

The "Story" ends itself

This is very common in literary stories. Ask yourself, "What is the story I am telling the reader?" Stephen King in his book on writing talks about knowing what the story is as the key to all good writing. What is it on a high level that is interesting enough to make people keep reading? The story itself may have a built-in ending.

Seth Harwood uses this technique to perfection in his short story collection A Long Way From Disney. In story after story he has characters or feelings or some tension (or all three) to tell you about, and they end when he has finished telling you that particular story.

Another example is the movie Titanic. There are basically two stories, one how all the characters react to the sinking/tragedy and the other is how that tragedy impacts Jack and Rose, who have fallen in love. The movie ends with Rose casting the necklace away (a resolving action), but it could have simply ended with Rose finishing her tale and the viewers really understanding how that brief time impacted the whole rest of her life.

So once you understand what the story is you are telling, the ending may simply present itself. In some ways it can be easier in a short story because there are usually not very many threads in the story. The flash story that Jason wrote for our Intercast podcast - "Alive" - ends with the main character jumping out of a building. That is no surprise to readers, as the whole story builds to it. You could call it a resolving action, but in this case it's more of a simple completion of the only place the story could have gone. James Melzer's ebook story PTS does something similar. Nothing in that story is a surprise, and it ends with action, but again, it's the only place the story could have gone.

The Intentionally Ambiguous ending

I like this one, but in my opinion it is the hardest to pull off. The problem is that most of the time the reader wants resolution. In a longer work, it's possible to leave questions unanswered for a sequel, but that's not the same thing - that's not really the ending. It generally only works when the "story" is the tension or some interpaly between characters, and the resolution doesn't matter.

I tried it in my short story "Transition" in the Intercast Audiobook, where the tension between outgoing and incoming U.S. administrations and several different middle eastern governments led to a climax where one group in the U.S. government was about to launch a nuclear strike and another was trying to stop them. The story is about how close we could get to nuclear holocaust with only one or two overt acts leading to it - whether nuclear holocaust actually occurs or not is irrelevant to the story. I actually got a couple of extremely positive comments about how I did this, but I also got one negative for not telling people exactly what happened. This kind of ending will not please everyone, but I do think it can be done effectively.

There are many other ways to end a story, or variations on the above techniques. Tell me about some of your favorites in the comments.

How to Write a Conclusion That Works

Many writers (including me) find it agonizingly hard to write strong endings because there’s so much at stake. We want to leave readers with a poignant, thought-provoking conclusion, but we also don’t want it to read too trite or corny.

Here are some tips on writing a compelling conclusion.

Use a strong image or quote

There are tons of articles that use quotes or imagery as their conclusion. If you’re using a quote, make sure it’s a good one. In addition to relaying information, it should impart humor and/or wisdom and also be broad enough to sum up the rest of the article. Writing a great conclusion can be as simple as using a quip!

Conclude your article or essay with humor

In this humorous essay by a stay-at-home Dad, the author contrasts his own perspective with that of a father who works in an office. It’s a humorous way to write a great conclusion, and it keeps the essay from sounding too depressed or self-pitying about the author getting laid off. Humor is hard, so if it doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t force it. To write a great conclusion, consider using #1 instead.

Refer back to the introduction

This creates a nice sense of completeness and unity. For instance, in this article about staying in touch while living abroad, the author mentions Oreos at the beginning, then mention the Oreos again at the very end. Rounding back to the beginning is a great way to write a conclusion.

Edit out your last few sentences (the best tip for writing conclusions)

Many writers tend to over-write their conclusions, so often you’ll find that once you take a stab at it, you can go back and delete several sentences without losing any of the meaning. It will feel like you’ve come to a natural conclusion instead of easing your way into an endpoint.

If you’re really stuck, let your conclusion marinate

To write a great conclusion, step away from the computer and do something else. You’ll come up with a good ending when you’re on the treadmill or at the grocery store or some other place when you’re not expecting it. That way your conclusion will come to you organically instead of forcing it out. That’s how I found an ending to an essay about me and my brother.

Of course, many blog posts end with a series of questions designed to open up a conversation.

What do you think – what’s your best tip for writing a great conclusion?

10 Short Story Endings to Avoid – Fiction Writing Tips

1. And then I woke up. The ‘Dallas’ gambit. This approach is nothing more than a cop-out for people with no imagination. Stories should reach a logical conclusion that satisfies the reader and resolves any conflicts. This method does neither.

2. And then I died. The ‘Weird Tales’ gambit. This one turned up regularly in horror tales during the early part of last century, until it was overplayed by HP Lovecraft, among others. A diary which ends in a string of nonsense words as a crawling terror from beyond comes for the author was fine the first time out, but most editors have seen it too many times.

3. And I found out I’d been dead all along. The ‘Sixth Sense’ gambit. This is an old one, which is why people who were well read in the genre spotted the twist very early in M Night Shyamalan’s film. An overused variation is to have someone breaking out of a coffin after a supposedly premature burial. Don’t do it; the editor will see it coming from a mile away. This fiction writing tip may make the difference between getting published or not!

4. And they called them Adam and Eve. The ‘Bible’ gambit or, as Michael Moorcock puts it, Shaggy God stories. If you start with a nuclear holocaust or human colonists on a new planet, make sure you don’t use this ending or the story will be bounced back to you straight away. The other trap to avoid is having a computer become a god. That avenue was new in the ’40s, but these days an editor will laugh himself out of his chair.

5. And then I saw the fangs, just before he bit me. The ‘singles bar pick-up’ gambit. With this worn-out ending, a person visits a bar and is seduced by a pale, interesting stranger who turns out to be a vampire, a ghost, a werewolf or an alien. There are several variations seen nowadays, such as same-gender meetings and graphic sex scenes before the revelation, but the stories are all the same and editors know it.

6. And then I caught up with the ‘@!* who’d done me wrong and shot the @’!** out of them. The ‘Death Wish’ gambit is the beloved technique of Michael Winner fanatics and gun-nuts. It makes for a very dull story unless you can bring style, energy and a unique vision to it, in which case you’d probably be better off trying to sell it as a film treatment. There’s a long tradition of revenge movies, but in the written word they all come across as being very similar.. A variant on this handling is the Charles Atlas gambit, where the weedy nerd becomes a kung-fu expert to wreak revenge on his tormentors. Don’t be tempted to use this angle. Editors will know what’s coming.

7. And the next day I read in the paper that he’d died. The ‘I talked to a ghost’ gambit. This short story ending turned up frequently in Victorian literature. It’s usually no more than an anecdote turned into a story. Variations include talking to someone who is later discovered to be the victim of a plane crash, an automobile wreck or a major catastrophe. Editors see a slew of these after a natural disaster, but whatever caused the person’s death, the stories are all the same.

8. And it was a man in a mask all along. The ‘Scooby-Doo’ gambit. Pretend spooks are a cliché. The whole story builds up a sense of supernatural menace, only to reveal a human agency behind it all. It won’t usually get past an editor but if it does, readers will feel disappointed and let down.

9. And it was my evil twin; we were separated at birth. The ‘doppelganger’ gambit. Stephen King got away with this in The Dark Half and Dean Koontz pulled off a variation by making both twins evil in Shivers, but unless you have their style and wit, you shouldn’t attempt it. Another variation, beloved of the romantics among us, is to have the protagonist find out they’re really the son, daughter or sibling of a rich family. This mode is really just wishful thinking on behalf of the writer. You shouldn’t be sharing your daydreams with editors.

10. I’m really a dog/cat/demon/alien. The ‘non-human storyteller’ gambit is tried and tested. That’s the problem. If you don’t leave any clues to the fact, the reader will feel the ending is a cop-out. If you do leave clues, the reader and your editor will spot the ending coming unless you’re very good at disguising the fact.

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