A powerful story ending is both inevitable and surprising.
Most fiction writers are familiar with this bit of wisdom. But how to pull it off—that sense of an ending that the reader never quite saw coming, even as it seems clear it’s the only way the story could have ended?
As with any move in story-writing, it’s good advice both not to rush it and not to overthink it. The perfect ending might take many drafts. Or it might occur to you suddenly, while you were supposedly thinking about something else.
More concretely, try all or any of the following approaches:
1. End with a mysteriously resonant image.
There is something inherently surprising about the narrative lens veering from a dramatic interaction between characters to focus on an image. Of course, the image can’t be randomly chosen; it must correlate to some incident that was visible earlier in the story. At the same time, to preserve the element of surprise, it shouldn’t be an image that was already heavily foregrounded earlier in the story.
Raymond Carver was a master of this sort of ending. In the last lines of “A Small, Good Thing,” the bereaved parents sit with the baker who has previously wronged them:
They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.
Dark bread becomes daylight, as night becomes “high, pale” morning. Now we remember that the whole story has been structured according to barely sensed shifts between day and night; at the end of the story, these become foregrounded in a dawning of light that acknowledges that the parents have found a true friend in the midst of terrible sorrow.
Another especially gorgeous example is James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”:
…after a while I saw the girl put a Scotch and milk on top of the piano for Sonny. He didn’t seem to notice it, but just before they started playing again, he sipped from it and looked toward me, and nodded. Then he put it back on top of the piano. For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling.
Milk has not been an especially prominent symbol in the story before then, but it is a fitting ending image for many reasons. There is the fact that it is mixed with Scotch, touching on Sonny’s old narcotics addiction. There is the association with “the milk of human kindness,” which the narrator has now found himself able to show to his brother Sonny. And there is the reference to the Book of Isaiah, in which God removes suffering from his people by taking from their hand “the cup of trembling.” Sonny’s shaky recovery from a life of addiction and crime are summed up in that cup, its “trembling” coming literally from the vibrations of the piano as Sonny plays the music of an inextricable braiding of beauty and pain.
2. End with a narrator’s statement about a decision the main character undertook
He would go over to the schoolyard and watch Helen play indoor baseball.
—Ernest Hemingway, “Soldier’s Home”
The apparently simple plan covers an underlying ambiguity: Does it show the disaffected war veteran Krebs as being willing to take the first steps toward connecting with loved ones again, or does the very smallness of the action show that he’s as apathetic as ever?
Or, end with a statement or line of dialogue that says the opposite of what had seemed to be true earlier in the story, as when Flannery O’Connor has the Misfit say at the end of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”:
“Shut up, Bobby Lee…. It’s no real pleasure in life.”
3. Use image or statement or dialogue to provide the answer to a question that the reader only just now realizes was asked
….”She’s only a girl,” he said.
I didn’t protest that, even in my heart. Maybe it was true.
–Alice Munro, “Boys and Girls”
Or Eudora Welty’s racist assassin in “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” at last ceasing to brag:
So I reach me down my old guitar off the nail in the wall…. and I set in my chair, with nobody home but me, and I start to play, and sing a-Down. And sing a-down, down, down, down. Sing a-down, down, down, down. Down.
For me, part of the magic that can happen in fiction workshop is when you as the writer come to understand what underlying question your story was asking. Once you know that, you can craft an ending that answers it—or one that keeps asking the right questions.
Want to learn more? Join me for Fiction III, a ten-week workshop starting Thursday, April 18.
Cara Diaconoff is the author of Unmarriageable Daughters: Stories (Lewis-Clark Press) and a novel, I’ll Be a Stranger to You (Outpost19 e-books). She teaches writing and literature at Bellevue College.