The Trouble with Writing Endings

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.


164 thoughts on “The Trouble with Writing Endings

  1. Sometimes they end the book or the series but then don’t know when to stop *cough* Uncle Rick *cough* Percy Jackson was the best *cough* the rest of your demi-god stories just don’t make the cut *cough*

    Anyways, for myself, I wish I could stick it out to the end when writing, but I am too easily distracted by other story ideas. And this is why I have a ton of works in progress, but no completed manuscript to show for my many hours of hard work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! It’s true! Sometimes authors really do need to admit that enough is enough; it is time to let a series of books go rest.

      And I know what you mean about having too many ideas flitting around in your head. My drafts and ideas folder is…large.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Kristen, your blog is short and simply poses somewhat of a question; it is a fun read! I can see how endings are difficult for a writer, especially if you are feeling connected to the characters. However, I think that part of the appeal to readers is that same need for more; to wonder what the character will do next, or how they would respond in certain situation. In a sense, the readers imagination then gets to share in the writing! I guess this doesn’t really help, but maybe it will help you to know the story and characters are likely living on in the thoughts of others!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I for one have never really had trouble with endings… I actually know the end of the story (or at least have a vague idea) before I even start writing it ha ha. The trouble for me is in the middle areas, when the story starts to lose momentum and you have to figure out a way to get it going again

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  4. I remember when my school teacher instructed us to continue and write the ending of any one of the short story collections in our syllabus as the final project assignment, that year, I chose to continue A Day’s Wait by Ernest Hemingway, but I remember being torn between that and A Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs because I was able to envision so many types of endings for both of them. It was an interesting exercise that helped me figure out that there are endings beyond endings, just as you described.
    Your post helped me remember this, and I thank you for this.
    Endings are hard for me, because I like having an idea about the story arc and it gets confusing with endings unknown.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, those would both be interesting stories to continue! It’s a great exercise in getting writers engaged.

      And I agree that not knowing an ending can make the overall shape of a story very difficult for writers.


  5. It’s interesting how endings have changed. Most of what we now call the Classics, the ones I’ve read anyway, have very hard endings. For example, Dickensian endings are definite happy-ever-afters (although usually ones like the end of Lord Of The Rings, where there’s been a terrible toll on some of the protagonists). The book ends because the something-something has been vanquished. Life carries on, but that’s another story (and the multi-story series seems to be largely a 20th-Century invention, even though Dickens pretty much invented the serialised single story).

    Maybe nowadays, thanks to TV, to those shows that never seem to die and those dramas that always leave us cliffhangering for a year until the next season, maybe we’ve been gently brainwashed into not thinking about endings like we used to.

    I struggle with them too (I’m not an author, but I teach storytelling – spot the obvious gaping hole I need to fill there). My problems with endings have turned me from a pantser into a plotter, more a mechanic than an artist, perhaps, which might be a problem – we shall see when I start releasing my own fiction…

    This is a very very long way of saying “yeah – I hear you.” 🙂 Thanks for this post, Kristen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know, the evolution of endings is an interesting thought. You’re right that in a lot of the older stories, the ending comes when the monster has been defeated or a moral has been discovered. I wonder if some shifts away from that have to do with changes in the types of antagonists. (Internal vs external ones for example.)

      You’ve given me a lot to think about!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. One manuscript I ended too abruptly. The second project I gave a gruesome twist, shocking but unbelievable. Ah, endings.

    I re-wrote both at the suggestions of early readers. As the writer, because I am so invested in my stories I often need the outside input to see what I’ve missed. To understand what the reader needs, I need the reader. In fact, it’s this “conversation” between writer and reader that fuels my writing journey. I just love it.

    I think you’re right that ending stories is a misnomer. Like life, they just go on. But finding the logical stopping point is sometimes a collaboration between the writer that ends the words on the page, and the reader that adds their experience to it.

    Thanks for the post! I enjoyed reading all the comments from others as well. Lots of writers thinking about great endings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You give some great examples of why it is so important to have editors and other eyes on a manuscript before it is published! Sometimes a writer is to close to his/her own work to truly determine what plot points are the right ones.

      And I agree, it is so wonderful to see how other people are thinking of these things.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. All tales, I believe, can have a beginning, middle, and end, as long as we identify the themes. For (a simple) example, “Now for a tale of high adventure on the ocean waves, and how the ingenious son of a poor widow showed his character, and saved the kingdom.”

    When the kingdom is saved from that which endangers it, the tale has found an end.

    I think what you describe is the infinitude of stories itself. Where there’s one story to tell, there are a million. Each with their own origins and destinations, some of which overlap, just to make it even more difficult to extract that one, perfect story for the reader.

    The greatest writers seem to have a genius for knowing when their stories have reached their conclusion. Pride and Prejudice, for example, has to end when Lizzy and Mr.Darcy get hitched, the themes have been exhausted, and the outcome discovered.

    (There are clearly more stories to tell about their lives after, but maybe we’ve heard the interesting bit.)

    Maybe in this I’ve found my real theme: we want to tell the interesting stories, the ones that shine out from the rest. When the truly interesting, unique elements have reached an end, so too has the story?

    On the flip side, poor Robert Jordan lost sight of the end, and never reached it.

    Fascinating words to think on indeed though, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It can be a case of too much goodness and make you undecided to when you should stop a particular story. Maybe you could alternate endings, having your brain not knowing when to stop seeing more and more paths, can be remediated by deciding before you start that the story will have an upbeat ending and just go from there. Then the next story you can switch, focus your mind to stop as soon as your ending can be seen as an unhappy or sad one.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Endings don’t exist. Thank you. I could never understand why finding a place to end my stories was so hard. Even after the denouement, the characters still go on with their lives. How much further should I follow them? I’ll still struggle with this, but knowing why I do makes so mich sense.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. So glad I found this blog! I had to screenshot the first paragraph because it resonated with me: even when I read books, I refuse to admit the story’s actually ended. That’s why we have sequels! To pick up where the story left off- as you said, we’re simply putting a stop to narrating the story, but not the events in the story itself.

    Because of this, when I write short stories myself, it’s difficult for me to detach myself from the characters. Even when I know I can always pick up the story again: it feels like I really am “ending” the story, and everything I built up with these characters.

    Thanks for sharing! This was an interesting read- also looking forward to more of your material.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry for such a delayed response to your message, but I’m so pleased that this post spoke to you.

      I love that you write short stories. Those always are the most difficult for me because the length means that each word must be chosen with such delicious care.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. So true about endings and authors! I feel as thought (despite their success, following and acclaim) novelists like J.K Rowling and Rick Riordan need to come up with something more creative than a spin off/rip off of the original works that gave them their literary names. I suppose they simply can’t put their characters to bed?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I definitely agree with you. Writing endings to my works is a painful process. I’ve read so many books on narrative progression and the way endings should go. So far, it hasn’t made much difference to me. I always reach a point where there’s more to tell, but it just has to end.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very true. Books on writing are fascinating to me because they often contain the similar ideas, but at the end of the day, an individual’s writing process takes precedence.

      Or maybe I’m just bad at following directions. 😉


  13. I know how you feel. I sometimes know the entire story that I am about to write and sometimes only pieces of it and patch it as I go. I write short stories mostly and so I must choose a point to end a story. I find it hard and sometimes very tough to even decide how exactly should the story end. Luckily, so far I was able to tailor good endings at climaxes or right after. If I don’t know what to write at the end, I will put the story aside for a bit and come later, read it again and it usually does it. I obviously come back several times to sort of fix it here and there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your method sounds like a great way of dealing with these issues. The endings for short always require a great deal of care because there is simply less space to wrap them up. Those few paragraphs make the endings all the more powerful.


  14. I’ve been writing and thinking about writing for a long time but never considered endings in these terms. Especially a large story, say, written from the third person and focused on numerous lead characters, there is definitely no real ending. The story doesn’t end, but rather it stops. With existence itself it’s hard to understand things in terms of beginning and end, these ideas seem like somewhat arbitrary designations in a way. Anyway, I thought your post was very thoughtful. Thank you for giving me some new things to consider.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad the post gave you something to consider. You’ve made a great point that the more characters there are the more difficult it is to have a “true” ending. There are too many threads to follow, too many stories that carry on.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I love your honesty. I think Harper Lee had one of the best endings I ever experienced in “To Kill A Mockingbird”. You’re right! There is so much emotion in our creations. My first novel was 160,000 words. I had to cut it down to 120,000 which then left me with 40,000 words that I couldn’t give up. The answer, for me, was a sequel, which I’m now working on, figuring I could come up with another 40,000 or so words. It’s one way around the ending issue.

    Liked by 1 person

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