Let's acknowledge that wrapping up a short story is difficult. You've got to find a way to tie up all of these loose ends and to essentially give the reader a picture of your central character's life trajectory as it moves forward off the page. You have to figure out if she can resolve whatever conflict you've created over the course of the story; basically, you have to decide if it's going to end well or if it's going to end badly. Yes, that's hard, but it can also be very satisfying to find just the right note to end on-maybe one that gives a nod to the beginning, or one that creates further complications-but there are several traps you can get caught in if you're not careful.
Here are five ways you can ruin a perfectly good story by ending it badly.
1. Killing Off Your Main Character
Don't do it. I know where this impulse originates. You've written a story where one bad thing after another keeps occurring, and your character is at his wits end-he can't take one more messed up print job or one more chewing out by his boss and so he runs out into the street and gets hit by a trolley (the same trolley he rode in on!). The writer then wipes her brow and types "the end" on the manuscript (aside: don't ever do this either. Adding "the end" to a writing submission is the equivalent of referencing how much your mom likes your work in a cover letter. It shows you don't understand that submission process). Killing off your character is the writer taking the easy way out. Instead of making a decision about how to resolve the conflict, the writer has thrown up her hands and said, I don't know what happens! I don't know where all of this has been going!
In this instance, it may help to go back into your story and start taking out one or two or five of those horrible things that have happened to your character. Then, give him one or two or five good things-give him a brand new tailored suit or a funny co-worker. That way, you can restore some balance of the story and give the main character a fighting chance to survive the ending.
2. Surprise! It's a Dog, not a Guy!
This happened in one of my graduate school workshops. The story was about this seemingly jerky guy who went around sniffing women and saying things like, That bitch was hot! In the last sentence of the story, we discovered that, duh, the main character was a German Shepherd. These trick endings don't make the reader think you're clever; they make the reader mad at you, because you've tricked them. No reader wants to feel stupid at the end of the story. And, past the seventh grade and reading Choose Your Own Adventure books, most don't read short fiction to be shocked by the ending; we want the conclusion to reveal something important about the world.
3. Blowing Up the World
Similar to killing off your main character, this is where the story descends into utter chaos-the train goes off the tracks, a nuclear explosion happens, the earth stops rotating. Whatever the event happens to be it often occurs unexpectedly, and so also contains inklings of the "ah-ha" ending above.
4. And the Lesson Is...
Outside of an Aesop fable, stories ending with a moral message grate rather than educate. The character who drinks ten vodka tonics and then gets behind the wheel of the school bus isn't interesting or complicated. We know we're not supposed to drink and drive when driving school buses. We know that it's wrong to cut in line at the carnival, but that doesn't mean your character's child should fall out of the Ferris Wheel as a result. Instead of giving us a story that ends with a lesson about how to behave in the world, write an ending that illuminates something vivid and specific about the human experience.
5. It Was All a Dream
You wouldn't think of doing that, right? You saw that movie in the 80s starring Christopher Atkins of Blue Lagoon fame and Kristy McNichol where the whole thing turned out to be a dream? Don't know who Christopher Atkins and Kristie McNichol are? That's because after that debacle, they never worked again.
Bad endings happen because the writer doesn't yet know what the story is about. So, if you find yourself up against a wall---your fingers itching for bloodshed and mayhem- spend more time figuring out where the heart of the story lies. Think about what your character wants most in the world, and try your hardest to write a story that shows her struggling to get it. She'll either succeed or fail, but either way, if you stay true to letting your character determine the outcome based on who she is and how she behaves, you will discover an ending that resonates, not one that irritates.
About The Author
Aimee LaBrie is an award-winning author and teaches a fiction workshop for Philadelphia Stories.