How to End a Story

I've been thinking lately about how to end stories, not only because I'm finishing up the first Gryphon Clerks novel and I'm unhappy with how I ended it, but because I've read some stories recently that don't finish. They just stop.

I won't name the anthology I'm thinking of, but I've read partway through it and story after story just stops. It's like I'm getting the first acts of these stories without the middle and the end. The characters and situation are introduced, there's an inciting incident which hits on something important enough to the characters that they want to do something or change something, and then... scene. I actually said aloud when I got to the end of one of them, "Is that it?"

Story after story. By different people. It's like the anthology call said, "Stories must stop abruptly," or the editor cut off the last two acts to see if anyone would notice.

Anyway, that got me thinking about what does and doesn't work as an ending to a story. (By "work" of course I mean "work for me", but I think that, for a change, I may not be atypical in what I like here.)

Here are five ways to end a story. They're not mutually exclusive, or exhaustive.

1. The situation is resolved

A classic story structure is (simplified): Act 1, we meet the characters, learn the situation, something changes that destabilizes the situation and makes the characters want to take action. Act 2, the characters strive for their goal against opposition. Act 3, the characters achieve whatever their goal was that arose from the inciting incident back in Act 1. The Ring is thrown into Mount Doom, the princess is rescued, the dragon is slain, the rightful king is restored, the traveller comes home, the real Seymour Skinner is sent away from Springfield and we never refer to this again.

It's usually a restoration of the status quo, more or less, except that the characters have (hopefully) grown through the experience. It's a conservative story structure: something disturbed the way things should be, now everything is, more or less, back to normal. But it also has its progressive aspect, if only on the micro level of the characters, who have moved from "unable to make a difference" to "able to make a difference".

2. The characters' relationships have changed

This is the classic romance plot, of course, and Pride and Prejudice is the exemplar. They start out hating one another or thinking they can't be together, and at the end, inevitably, they marry and live happily ever after.

It doesn't have to be a romance plot, though. I wrote a story recently in which an airship captain from a humble background starts out distinctly unimpressed with an aristocratic young pup who's been foisted on her and ends up thinking he might make a decent officer. It doesn't have to be about winning love. It can be winning friendship, respect, fealty, alliance.

I like stories in which relationships change for the better, but of course you can write the other sort, too, if that's what you're into.

3. We discover something

This is the mystery-story plot. At the end, we find out that the butler dunnit. But in the meantime we've discovered all kinds of other things, such as that Lady Celia drinks, and Lord Bertie is having an affair, and the housemaid's brother just got out of prison. (Why anyone would ever invite a detective to a house party is beyond me. Not only will someone, more likely several people, inevitably get horribly murdered - because when a famous detective is right there is the ideal time to murder someone - but everyone's nasty secrets will be exposed to everyone else, and nobody will ever be able to trust anyone again, except for the ingenue and the decent chap who end up together, hooray.)

Mysteries, though, are not the only "we discover something" stories. Characters discover things about themselves: that they're not like their father, that they are like their father, that they do have magic, that not having magic isn't important. (More about "not important" below.)

The twist ending (The Statue of Liberty is buried in the sand on the Planet of the Apes!) is another "we discover something" ending. An important feature of "we discover something" is that it can reflect back across the whole of the story and cast a new light on everything that happened before we discovered the something, which is one reason that it's such a good ending.

4. Something new has come into being

This is an underrated and underexplored kind of ending, in my view. Often, the conservative ending, the restoration of the status quo, involves the destruction of whatever arose to threaten "the way things should be". I'd like to see more stories about building and creating things. After all, for most of us - certainly for me, as someone who's done project work of one kind or another for over 20 years - that's how we experience life.

The relationship story has a bit of this. There's a new relationship, a new family, a new alliance or whatever at the end. But I'd like to see more stories where the characters build something together and the ending is where they celebrate that, against the odds, it's built. Fantasy is full of wonderful ancient artifacts and immense architectural wonders built by long-gone civilizations, many of which are destroyed in the course of the stories. How about the stories in which those amazing things are made in the first place?

5. It doesn't matter any more

One overlooked form of personal growth is the kind where you're able to say, along with Melody Beattie's famous book Codependent No More: "It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter!"

While that can be an utterance of despair, it can also be an expression of hope. The person who decides they can let go of their hurt and anger and not take revenge has grown. The young wizard who can say "No, Professor, I don't need to follow your crazy agenda any more. This war is over, as it should have been when you were my age" (not an actual quote from any book) - this young wizard has grown.

If the character can look back on the inciting incident which started all the trouble and say "I made a big deal out of that, but it's really not that important," I think that can be a wonderful ending. I recently read the pulpy but enjoyable Mogworld by Yahtzee Croshaw, in which the viewpoint character decides at the end, "I don't want to be a hero. I want to be a protagonist." While it's not a great book, that's a great ending.

Debora Geary's Witches On Parole trilogy is, at its heart, about this realignment of priorities. And one of the things about the "it doesn't matter any more" ending is this: the realization that your original priorities don't matter is followed by the realization of what does matter.

It's not about external circumstances being exactly as you would wish them, but about being true to yourself and those around you.

So, what kinds of endings work for you? How do you like to finish your stories?

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Mike Reeves-McMillan lives in Auckland, New Zealand, the setting of his Auckland Allies contemporary urban fantasy series; and also in his head, where the weather is more reliable, and there are a lot more wizards. He also writes the Gryphon Clerks series (steampunk/magepunk), the Hand of the Trickster series (sword-and-sorcery heist capers), and short stories which have appeared in venues such as Compelling Science Fiction and Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores.

2 thoughts on “How to End a Story

  1. I like your way of looking at endings. I think nearly all my stories end with some variant of number 4. There is resolution, but not the one the protagonist thought he/she was working toward. I want change and growth in a story. In thinking of LotR, I really see the coda where Frodo realizes he can’t go back home to the Shire as a ‘something new’ ending, rather than a situation is resolved kind of ending.

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