writing

The Trouble with Writing Endings

Gauguin_young_woman.jpg
Paul Gauguin, “Portrait of a Young Woman. Vaite (Jeanne) Goupil),” Ordrupgaard, via Wikimedia.

The trouble with writing endings is that endings don’t actually exist. Not really. Instead there simply comes a moment when we stop telling the story.

Knowing when to stop has always been hard for me. In my head, I can’t help but carry the narrative on. What happens to the hero after she defeats the evil king? What happens after the protagonist gets married? What happens to the soldiers who were part of the losing army? What happens to the rest of the universe when the brightest star in a galaxy explodes?

There is always an after. And an after the after. And another after after that.

But the writer still has to stop telling the story at some point.

Where we decide to place the ending changes the meaning of a narrative. Does the tale finish on a high note? A pessimistic one? Does it leave the reader questioning and wondering? Or are the loose ends tied up in a simple, elegant bow, a gift to the reader?

Some writers instinctively know how to create that end. I’m jealous of them. I’m jealous because I can never quite stop my brain from whirring and seeing what branching paths my characters may take.

But maybe it’s okay to wonder that when writing a story.

Maybe there is no simple answer.

Maybe there is no correct one.

Maybe that’s just storytelling.

Maybe that’s just life.

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91 thoughts on “The Trouble with Writing Endings

  1. Hey i do not mean to be tedious and bothering but I am new here with my blog it would be really helpful if you guys could take a look and provide me with some valubale input.

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      1. I’m never afraid to commit, it’s more like I want the reader to think about what might be next, either to give them a thinking point or to keep them keen in case there is more.

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  2. I agree. The life of the character goes on. I also find it difficult to choose an ending sometimes. Sometimes it’s clear to me that a story should end a very specific way, but other times, I just can’t decide; the ending feels so final, like it seals the fate of the character and will cause unalterable ripples in the life they live after the story ends. I’m working on a short story right now that will have a slightly ambiguous ending because I just can’t bring myself to choose. I don’t know what is best so I’ll let the readers decide for themselves.

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  3. When it comes to endings of a story, I often have a hard time agreeing with them. And as for my endings of my short stories, I guess people might have a hard time agreeing with them. For me, Its all about who writes the story, and what the story is about.

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    1. I’ve had that problem before too. Sometimes an ending just doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t suit the characters or the tone of the story. But obviously in those cases, the author had a different vision.

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  4. Endings can be simple. You end a story when there’s no more central conflict to be resolved. Or if there’s still things to be acknowledged, you leave it open-ended enough for a sequel to happen. In life, ‘endings’ are more like formative experiences, rites of passage we’ve overcome. This leads to a new story, a new ‘beginning’. If you have trouble ending stories, maybe we can discuss it sometime.

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  5. Reblogged this on Wind Eggs and commented:
    Kristen Twardowski discusses the problem many writers face—deciding when to end your story. Tolkien, for instance, had such a difficulty ending the Lord of the Rings that the last half of The Return of the King is an almost excruciating account of Bilbo’s return home, and more, and even more. Peter Jackson, thinking the movie should follow suit, makes viewers sit through almost half an hour of bed jumping and superflous weddings.

    Here’s my rule of thumb: Every story/novel should follow a basic arc. The set up prepares readers for the climactic moment of the story, the moment without which the story falls apart. This should be the bulk of the story. The climax ties the central threads of the story into a single event (or moment). The cigarette (denouement, falling action) recounts the fallout from the climax. It shouldn’t introduce new story elements or turn the page to an entirely new chapter of the story. If your cigarette is longer than your setup, you will leave your reader’s unsatisfied. Oh, and by the way, the cigarette is for them not for you,
    The cigarette can also be a reveal, You finally let readers in on a new version of the events in the set-up, Your hero is gay and wasn’t saving the heroine but her brother; your hero is the long lost son of the victim and was seeking revenge as well as justice.
    My point is, as long as you remember what the three elements do, you will find it easier to bring your story to an end.
    Ask yourself if what you want to include, sets up the climax, is an element of the climax or is a direct consequence of one of the two. If you can’t answer yes to at least one of those questions, leave it out no matter how much you want to include it.
    Your story’s over.
    Put it to bed.

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  6. I usually won’t begin a project until I know when and how it’s going to end. I may make a lot of changes on the way to the ending, and the ending itself may even change a bit, but by having an ending in mind it gives my writing direction and ultimate finality.

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    1. I agree. The worst part about many novels I read is that it’s so clear the author didn’t know where they were going to go and when their characters ended up there, they just take on an ending. I understand writers who want the writing to be organic, but once you’ve got it all out there, give us an ending that we can appreciate.

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      1. I’ve read a few books like that. In the cases I’m thinking of, the books were in a series, and you can tell that the novels may have originally been intended as a standalone. But then the story just…carried on. I understand the writerly impulse to do that, but the narrative sometimes suffers as a result of it.

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    2. It certainly can be easier to write when you have already envisioned the major story arcs! Every once in a while though, I end up meandering when writing, and the narrative springs out organically. Those are the stories that inevitably are either brilliant or disastrous.

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      1. Hopefully the former ☺
        But even a planned out story needs to feel organic. I do make a lot of discoveries on my way to the end, some of which bend the direction of the arc. I came up with write to ending technique because in the beginning of my writing I noticed that some stories I could finish and others died at around page 2, and the difference was that with the finished stories I already had an ending in mind and I could write to it.

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  7. Postmodern fiction has changed the concept of story telling. Plots are not substantial any more. let’s look at Joyce, his Ulysses , it is a narrative about one day in person’s life. It does not have a plot. Postmodern fiction has deconstructed narrative structures. Anand Bose from Kerala

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    1. There is definitely a great deal of flexibility in how writers structure the stories they tell. As long as that structure suits the purpose of the prose, authors can write however they want. (Which can be an overwhelming thought!)

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  8. At times I reread the ending three or four times- having to come to terms with it all, making sure I’ve drawn everything from the words. I’ve cried over the deaths of imaginary people more frequently than real people!

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  9. Good morning and Happy Sunday dear Kristen. There can not be an ending to a storytelling because writers are just “escribidores” (scribes that desperately try to put a piece of real life on a piece of paper) and the story of Mankind on this planet keeps going on, thank God. I really enjoyed your blog and I am now following you. Un baccione. Arrivederci!

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  10. Nice, thoughtful piece. I am beginning my writing journey later in life and just working on personal essays. I try to have an ending that wraps up the essence of the feeling I am after, but have often thought about this subject. Thank!

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      1. Yes…The author/writer just writes and want to write the heart out but it’s the narrator who makes every effort to retain the interest of the readers.

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  11. Kristen, thank you so much for discussing this topic! Ending a story is extremely difficult, but, to make things worse – it is crucial for the message we want to communicate. The ending is an answer to the reader’s question “so what?”. The bright side of it that the ending is a deeply personal choice. Especially when I am writing my 100-word stories, I always ask myself how each one of them will end. It is hard to transmit your thoughts in a 100 words, but once I have accepted the challenge, everything has to be flawless – no loose ends! The ending has to correspond the author’s thoughts. Reader can disagree – but should not remain indifferent!

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  12. My professor once challenged us to take a story we love and write a new version, from the perspective of one of the other characters, very Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

    It was interesting, especially since we still had to find the ending to this new story we were writing. Often the new ending occurred at a far different moment in time than the original ending.

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  13. Wow… You are like really talented! The way you ended the post. The small, but substancial words. Just… wow! Also, I am a fanfiction author and currently writing a huge fanfic. I actually think I will never end it. How can you end something, when you don’t want it to end? I just sucks. Other than that, I am sure we are going to figure it out.

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  14. I definitely agree that endings are the hardest and I so often find myself feeling dissatisfied with endings even if I have really enjoyed the rest of the book. The two main problems I encounter is that it either seems to end suddenly, you know you have a couple of pages left and you are looking and panicking that things haven’t been completely explained or there’s not enough time to wrap certain story lines up… Or the author goes on way too long after the conclusion and ends up telling you what happens years later, so everything that the characters have been through up until this point seems like it was all completely arbritrary in the long run. It’s a delicate chemistry.

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  15. For me there often (but not always) is a very simple answer.

    I’ve learned that my best stories are the ones where I already know the ending. The more exact the better (for example, my short story Inck).

    But a lot of the time I don’t have the luxury of starting with an ending in mind. I come up with it along the way, organically. I write, but I keep my eyes on the future too, speculating.

    Once I know where I’m going, things come into focus, and (nearly) every scene becomes a means to an end. It’s that focus that makes for good fiction in my opinion!

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    1. That all makes perfect sense. The stories I write occasionally begin as a single scene that I can picture with startling clarity. From there I have to build backwards. You are right that ever scene should have a purpose and help take the reader closer to some point.

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  16. To me an ‘end’ implies a stop, whereas an end in a story implies a ‘pause’. I think of it that way as I have favorite authors I follow, so the end is just waiting for the next book. Personally, in writing, I know the final line before starting, and writing is figuring out the path to that last sentence. Great post.

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    1. I love the idea of working backwards from that final point. After all, in many stories, the whole purpose is to explore the journey of how the characters get there, there to the end.

      (And I’ll admit that I’m impressed you know the final line from the beginning! I’ve had one or two cases like that, but for the most part, the final line has to be wrung out of me.)

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      1. I end up with the whole story having to be wrung out, since all I know is that last sentence! But you’re so right, the purpose is the exploration of the journey. Well said.

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  17. Alternatively, maybe it’s not so much the idea of when the writer stops writing the narrative as much as it’s when the reader stops reading into it. I whole heartedly agree with you on the ending’s lack of existence – we don’t pour lives into characters just to cut them off short. They continue on living. To that point, it’s kind of difficult to think of the NARRATIVE and the STORY has the same thing. More so they’re Siamese twins. If that makes any sense. . . it might not #oops

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    1. No, I see what you mean. The story can carry on even if the narrative ends for the reader. Despite all of that, the book’s world continues to exist for readers. (At least, that’s what various fandoms imply!)

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  18. I love this. I always struggle with deciding when to end a story. I usually decide to end it after I’ve conveyed the essence or the soul of a story and try to end it with a concise statement. If that makes any sense… I just posted a flash fiction where I had a hard time figuring out how to end it. But I think it’s ok.

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