“I think the end is implicit in the beginning. It must be. If that isn’t there in the beginning, you don’t know what you’re working toward. You should have a sense of a story’s shape and form and its destination, all of which is like a flower inside a seed.”–Eudora Welty
“The most wonderful stories, the ones that stick with you forever, are stories with endings that are both surprising and inevitable. But in order to surprise the reader, first the author has to be surprised by what happens. Sometimes you think you know what the ending will be but when you get to the ending it’s not there.” –Jane Yolen
Story endings need to satisfy the reader. Many stories end with a good feeling, or at the very least, with hope. Many reflect a main character’s growth in maturity or understanding. At the end of a story loose ends are tied up, mysteries revealed, foes beaten or reconciled, goals achieved–or abandoned with good reason.
Here are some techniques writers use to make their story endings satisfying and surprising at the same time:
THE CIRCULAR ENDING:
In a circular ending, the story circles back to the beginning. A classic circular story structure concerns the hero who “starts at home, goes out into the world, struggles to overcome great obstacles, acquires wisdom and knowledge through experience, and returns home again,” but changed by the journey. (Fletcher, What a Writer Needs p. 93). A well-written circular ending doesn’t strike the reader as repetitious (“I read this before.”) Instead, it allows the reader “to grasp the significance of the beginning for the first time.” (Fletcher)
THE AMBIGUOUS ENDING:
Ambiguous endings are tricky. Done badly, the reader is left feeling cheated and angry. Done well, the reader is challenged to attach his own personal meaning to the story, and to defend his interpretation. (The ending of The Giver, by Lois Lowry, comes to mind.) Well-written ambiguous endings may ask readers to choose between two futures, as in the last line of Jeannie Baker’s Where the Forest Meets the Sea. — “But will the forest still be here when we come back?”
THE POIGNANT ENDING:
A poignant ending elicits an emotion–such as joy or sadness–that lingers with the reader long after the story is finished. An observation by the author, or a realization by the main character may provide such an ending:
“Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” (Charlotte’s Web)
The most powerful poignant endings make readers sigh with pleasure, giving them the feeling that “it just had to be that way.” The story feels complete, as if the last piece of the puzzle has fallen into place.
THE RECURRING DETAIL ENDING:
A detail mentioned early in a story can show up at the end and provide a very satisfying (and poignant!) resolution. This recurring detail works like an echo. The second mention is usually always more important than the first. Here is an example of a recurring detail ending from Jane Yolen’s Letting Swift River Go, in which a woman remembers how her hometown was drowned to make a reservoir:
4th page of text, an event before the flooding, when Sally Jane was still a girl:
One night Nancy Vaughan and her cousin Sara from the city brought three mason jars to my house. We caught fireflies in them, holding our hands over the open tops. Mama came out to watch. She shook her head. “You have to let them go, Sally Jane,” she said to me. So I did.
Ending, after the flooding. Sally Jane is now a woman, rowing on the reservoir with her father:
I leaned over the side of the boat and caught the starry water in my cupped hands. For a moment I remembered the wind through the willow, the trains whistling on Rabbit Run, the crossroads where I had met Georgie Warren and Nancy Vaughn. Gone, all gone, under the waters. Then I heard my mother’s voice coming to me over the drowned years. “You have to let them go, Sally Jane.” I looked down into the darkening deep, smiled, and did.
A few teaching suggestions:
- Ask students to help you collect effective ending lines from favorite books. Share them in class. What makes the endings effective? Classify them according to the types above.
- Give students some unsatisfying endings (endings that are too predictable, trite, coincidental, or unbelievable as well as endings that feel too incomplete), and ask students to discuss how the endings could be made more satisfying.
Have students examine their own writing and revise or/create better endings.
From the Writing Curriculum Files of Children’s Author, Suzanne Williams www.suzanne-williams.com