“4 Ways To End a Story: Short Stories & Flash Fiction”

It’s difficult to describe good and bad art with accuracy. Creative writing suffers the same fate. What makes a polished story? How does one narrate compelling characters and weave backstory into dialogue? These questions, and more, can’t be quantified on a spreadsheet. One must discuss the issue by way of metaphor, because there is simply a lack of language to describe the issue directly. One such issue is how to end a story. Both emerging and established writers struggle with this part of storytelling. In terms of short stories and flash fiction, the ending is especially important because the story arc requires compression.
An ending is a culmination (or summarization) of the story; a sort of folding back, where the reader receives an emotional retrospective. At the end of the movie, Casablanca, Rick sits at the bar and says, “Play it again, Sam,” attempting to return to an old life before he met the girl, knowing he can’t return to anything except to the transformation of having met and helped her. The moment evokes a return to the beginning; a circling back. The beginning is made new.

The first type of ending is Ski off a Cliff, which means there’s no ending at all. This is almost always a mistake. The movie The Empire Strikes Back is a perfect exemplification. The movie doesn’t end; it just stops. The author didn’t know how to wrap-it-up. Perhaps laziness is to blame. Or ineffectuality. Either way, the ending is an abrupt collapse of strained disenchantment. Splat!

The second type of ending is Rush to the Finish Line. The author is skiing down the side of a steep mountain, moving so fast to completion, the ability to see and chronicle the details of the trip is compromised. Writers may do this out of space concerns, as a way to cut word count, attenuating the story’s breath until it becomes a blurred “yada-yada” moment devoid of nuance and impression. Oh crap!

The first and second type of story ending are a sure sign of novice writers who haven’t yet achieved mastery in their craft. It takes 10,000 hours to reach artistry flair. The good news is there are plenty of bunny hills on which to practice. The bad news is there are plenty of diamond trails on which to crash and burn. The best route is method determination, perfecting one course before shredding the next, harder, curvier course.

The third type of ending is Normal Skiing Pace. Not too fast; not too slow. In the movie, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy says, “There’s no place like home.” The story is over, and everyone strolls to the exit sign. This type of ending mollifies probability through amenability. Things go as planned and everyone, and everything, is okay. Which is okay. Or is it? Sigh!

The fourth type of ending is The Ski Jump, which includes The Surprise Ending and The Emotional/Retrospective Tug. Of the two, The Surprise Ending is easier to spot, and it has less subtlety. It rises high and flies through the air with fluidity, but lands within the confines of expectation, leaving the reader satisfied, but not enlightened. The Emotional/Retrospective Tug requires slalom proficiency and air finesse, arriving in a fresh place of position the reader didn’t anticipate, all the while applauding its credibility by way of leaving an indelible after-image teeming with articulacy and wonder. Damn!

A writer’s job is to end a story with impact, giving the reader the sensory allowance of reflection that enhances the plot, setting, characterization, dialogue, and mood. Care must be taken when attempting any kind of ending, because if handled incorrectly, the reader may feel as if they skied into a ditch ten feet from the finish line. If the ending, however, is handled with skill, the story will freeze the emotion into the reader’s brain, and, if done with pinpoint precision, thaw the heart.

About Samuel Cole

BIO: Jeffery T. Whitney & Samuel E. Cole, who belong to the Minneapolis Writers Workshop, are cohorts in chewing, oscillating, and regurgitating all things creative writing. They admire perfectionists of setting and plot, and never turn down strong coffee.

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