How to End a Story

Author: Erin Stalcup

I’m possibly not the right person to talk about how to end short stories for two main reasons: I’m suspicious of resolution, and my stories tend to end with the main character disappearing. Three of the nine stories in my collection end like this: a woman flames, turns to smoke, and is “blown away” (figuratively, not literally); a woman floats away, “breathless,” in a gravity-less world (literally); and a man imagines himself “turning to a sheet of falling water, ricocheting into drops, rising as mist, paling to a shade, a ghost,” yet he doesn’t know who to haunt. So, in a third of my stories, the characters imagine themselves, um, evaporating, basically—a strategy I would not necessarily recommend to other writers. However, I have also thought quite a lot about how to end stories in other ways. Here’s a brainstormed list of how a story could end, and examples of the strategy done well, according to me:

  • Image (James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”)
  • Dialogue (Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”)
  • Monologue (internal or dramatic) (Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Third and Final Continent”)
  • Internal third- (or second-) person reflection (Junot Díaz’s “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie”)
  • Direct address to the reader (Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”)
  • Summation of what the story has been about (Gilbert Sorrentino’s “The Moon in its Flight”)
  • Gesture (Robin Black, “Harriet Elliot”)
  • Action (Bernard Malamud, “The Magic Barrel”)
  • A character looking at something (John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”)
  • Something outside of the story itself (Amy Hempel’s “The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”)
  • Flashback (Stuart Dybek’s “Pet Milk”)
  • Flash forward (Aimee Bender, “The Rememberer”)
  • Point-of-view shift (Shannon Cain’s “Cultivation”)
  • Expansion outward in space (James Joyce’s “The Dead”)

I’m sure I’ve missed some things, and I’m sure there are other ways to categorize or describe the endings I’ve listed. But the real question is—why use one of these strategies, and not another? How do you know when an ending is right? The reason why it’s so, so difficult is that stories themselves take such a range of shapes and forms, and the ending depends on absolutely everything else in a story, the entire structure, every turn and move that comes before.

Much wisdom about endings has already been given: John Gardner says they should feel both surprising and inevitable; Susan Neville once told me that an ending should be like a spark that lights the fuse of a firecracker which goes exploding back through the story; I’ve also heard the metaphor that an ending should be like a gong sounding, or a bell, those reverberations shaking back through the story, and forward also; Wells Tower described an ending’s forward momentum as “striking a note in the key of the future.” I mentioned all of these pieces of advice in an AWP panel I gave on surprise endings, in which I argue that any ending should satisfy the appetite that’s been building throughout a story, but a surprising ending should satisfy an appetite that the reader didn’t know she had (you can read my whole panel here if you wish). 

None of this advice asks for endings to be tidy, but I do think a lot of writers want their endings to be orderly, and I think a lot of readers expect that as well. They want to know how things ended up. They want answers, they want things to have been decided, they want irreversible change, they want to know what it all means. But I think we rarely know what it all means. The art I try to make has very little to do with the “real world”—so why am I bothered in fiction by the fact that in the real world, I’m suspicious of resolution? Why do I carry that suspicion over to my stories, if I don’t think stories are beholden to the constraints of actuality? I don’t know why, but I do. I don’t believe most people have epiphanies, I don’t think most people fully understand why they do what they do, I don’t think most people resolve, if ever, certainly not quickly, what just happened to them. That’s the one aspect of reality I try to maintain in my fiction, maybe—the fact that it’s often all a lot messier and more uncontainable than we want to admit.

So how can a story create an artful resolution that doesn’t feel falsely neat? Maybe the best thing an ending can do is create a sense of duality, of two things happening at once, or of being in two places at the same time. That’s probably a fair piece of advice for any part of a story: whatever is happening should be doing two things—dialogue should characterize, characterization should move the action forward, setting should create a container for the tensions to resonate in, etc. But in the ending, I’d say this is even truer, the moment in the story where that twofold purpose is necessary. I’m not saying endings should maintain a binary divide, an either/or, but instead the opposite: singularity and something beyond it. Something is happening, but it’s not pure resolution, and something else is happening too. In all the models I listed above, the thing I said is happening isn’t the only thing happening. Maybe this is obvious, but you can’t just end a story on any of the strategies I listed—the strategy has to be in service to some larger effect. Go back to the list, and see the other thing happening in each of these endings, see where else we’re being brought:

In “Sonny’s Blues,” we’re given an image of a glowing “cup of trembling,” but because of everything that has come before, the image is resonant with ideas of addiction, redemption, and suffering, so we think far beyond the image, to both the past and the future; during the dialogue in “Cathedral” we’re told the narrator doesn’t feel like he’s inside of anything, he’s feeling free for the first time in the story, so we imagine the cathedral they’ve drawn, and the sensations of his body, and we wonder whether or not this feeling will last for him; the monologue in “The Third and Final Continent” is also a nostalgic litany for a life lived, and an elegy for the good days still to come; “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie” ends in the second-person equivalent of internal monologue, where the voice tries to talk itself down from disappointment, tries to tell itself how to make things right even as everything feels bewildering; when we’re told that the narrator(/author?!) can’t help us in our ridiculousness in “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” we’re thrown out of the story, and then thrown back more deeply into what we’ve just read and the purpose of reading at all; there’s a similar effect in “The Moon in its Flight ”when we’re told that art can save nobody from anything, and we realize that’s what we’ve been hoping for all along, but it’s not what the story will give us; in “Harriet Elliot” the title character blinks, a gesture which makes the narrator disappear (so there’s a subtle point-of-view shift there as well: the narrator imagines herself seen, then not, by the person she wants to be important to); in “The Magic Barrel” the father says prayers for the dead while his daughter is on a date with the main character, so we wonder if she is still dead to him, if she’ll stay dead to him, we wonder what she did to deserve that, and what she will do now; when the main character looks at his house in “The Swimmer” we realize the actual story is different than the one we’ve been told, and we see how delusional he has made himself; when we’re told of a chimp using sign language to talk to her dead child, we newly understand the narrator’s grief for the friend buried in “The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”; in “Pet Milk” we flash back to the narrator as a teenager, but we never forget he’s inside a train car making out with a woman who will soon leave him while he sees that image of his former self out on the platform, smiling in the window at his lucky current self; the flash forward in “The Rememberer” shows a few small actions, but their imagined enactment triggers a present-moment pondering of whether history, memory, and evolution are even useful; in “Cultivation,” when we switch to a new point of view we see the narrator we’ve been with the whole story in crucially a different light; and “The Dead” ends with a perspective that opens to all of Ireland, all its history and all its dead, which have been both discussed casually and learned of newly that very night.

I realize there’s much more to say about the exact ending of each of the stories, but my goal in returning to this list is to see how many things are happening in each of them. Sometimes more than just two things! Even though an ending marks the place where a story is over, it should not feel like it stops in the end—and these stories are some of the best models, I think, for how to both conclude and continue, close down and simultaneously open up. I suspect that the most intense part of a story should be its ending, and some sort of duality—allowing the reader to bounce around in two times or two places or two thoughts, or all of those things—is one way to achieve that intensity. That’s the effect I’m going for in my own endings: in their imagined (and actual) disappearances, I hope my characters are newly deposited back into their present moments, so that we shake in that space with them, and are simultaneously propelled forward—to consider the future the characters envision for themselves, and the future the readers envision for them.

So how do we find our way into this duality, this simultaneity, in an ending? There is no formula. There are no rules. There are no real pointers I have, except to write the story, trust your gut, then show it to people whose guts you trust. That’s all I know how to do.