The ending of a short story can stay in the story after the reader puts it down, or it can follow the reader for years to come. As writers, we want the second one. The end of a written piece should feel like a satisfying culmination of the story, whether it leaves readers feeling hopeful, optimistic, unsettled, happy, sad, or anything else. No matter the result, it should be intentional, and it should feel earned. Here are some tips for writing a strong ending for your short story.
Ways To End a Short Story
Here are some specific strategies for ending your short story.
1. Connect it to the beginning.
In brief story formats, making the narrative feel like it “has a point” can be somewhat tricky. One great way to make things feel like they “click” for a reader is to connect the end of the story to the beginning. This might be referencing an image we got in the opener, an echo of an earlier line, or even a nod at the title, but coming full circle in a narrative gives the tangible feeling of completion.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, we’re left with this line:
In another Poe story, The Tell-Tale Heart, we get another click to the beginning. After murdering a man, hiding his body under the floor, and feeling quite pleased with himself for getting away with it, the murderer imagines he hears his victim’s heart beating, and he shouts to the police:
In the end, the heart did not tell the tale at all. The man was driven mad (and already mad) by his own actions, and he told on himself.
2. Make it a gut punch.
The gut punch ending is something you’ll see a lot in memorable short stories. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman is presented as the journal entries of a woman locked in her attic in the late 1800s. In this story, the audience knows a great deal more about her situation than the character does. She suffers from presumably post-partum depression, and her husband and other Male Professionals insist that she “rest” in a locked room with nothing to do. This drives her from what could have been a manageable phase of mental unwellness into full psychosis. She imagines there are women trapped in the yellow wallpaper of her room, and we come to understand the women are her. By the end of the story, she rips the wallpaper down, thrilled to have “freed” herself from the cage.
Her husband finds her crawling around the room, fastened by a rope.
This is a softer, slower gut punch ending, since we see her losing her grip on reality throughout the piece, but the image of her crawling over her unconscious husband settles it all into place, leaving the readers with a deep sense of unease.
A gut punch ending makes the reader feel something.
3. Reveal something.
In the flash fiction What Remains from Little Birds, the protagonist spends the beginning of the story collecting roadkill. We don’t get an explanation for this. When she arrives home, she buries the roadkill and gives them their own headstones–we see that her entire yard is a dedicated roadkill cemetery. We still don’t get an explanation.
Then she goes inside, and the point of the story is revealed when she looks at a picture of a newborn baby:
The audience isn’t directly told, but we all understand that she’s burying animals because she never got to bury her child after his body burned. A short story can act as a little mystery until right at the end, when it all makes sense.
4. Clarify the theme.
Your last paragraph or line might be some type of realization, but it could simply be an emphatic repetition of the story’s theme.
Your last line is kind of like the punchline, but instead of being funny, it can be thought-provoking, shocking, or existentially devastating. For example, in the short story St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell, a pack of children raised by their werewolf parents go through an education to teach them how to behave like humans. At the end of the story, they return to the den to greet their wolf family. Here’s the last line:
This ending hits the audience with a feeling of displacement. The character no longer belongs with her family. She has fully assimilated into human life and can never go back to her childhood home, which is a deeply relatable sentiment for most people. While the themes of displacement, alienation, and assimilation are strong throughout the story, the last line acts almost like a summary paragraph of an academic essay: It’s repeating the thesis.
Tips for writing the end of a short story
Here are some bonus tips to help you nail your short story’s conclusion.
1. Try out a few!
The first choice isn’t always the best choice. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different ways to end your story. You might be quite extreme while experimenting, by writing a happy ending, a devastating ending, a cliffhanger or ambiguous ending–try them all, because you never know what will end up working best.
2. Think of how you want the audience to feel.
The last sentence, paragraph, or scene is often what sticks with readers the most. What do you want them to take away from your story? Does the ending properly accomplish that goal? Is there a more effective way to emphasize it?
3. Consider writing past it.
Sometimes we try to end our stories prematurely. If you’re struggling to wrap it up, maybe you haven’t quite finished telling the story yet.
4. To plan or not to plan.
Every writer is different, and really, every story is different. Pantsers and plotters alike, no storytelling process is going to follow the same route. Sometimes it can be helpful to know where you want the story to end up, but it doesn’t always happen the way we think it will. If your predetermined ending isn’t landing the way you expected it to, consider changing things up! Outlining can be a very helpful tool, but never be afraid to shake it up and surprise yourself.
How to know when a short story is finished
Even more difficult than writing an ending is knowing when your story is properly finished. And well, no one can decide that but you! Here are a few things to consider when making the decision to toss your little birdie out the nest for public derision.
1. Let the girl rest.
The first thing your story needs is a break. She has been being written her whole life and has never experienced rest. Shh. Turn off the lights, leave a crack in the door, and work on something else for a bit.
When you go back to the piece with fresh eyes, you’ll likely be able to form a more accurate opinion of where it’s at. When we’re still in Writing mode, we can be blinded to mistakes and shortcoming in the piece, or we might think it’s complete trash just because we’re bitter from wrestling with it for so long.
So give your eyes a chance to recover before you give it another look-over.
2. Do ya feel it in yer bones?
Writer’s instinct is real! If you feel like your story is ready, it probably is. If you feel strongly that it needs more work, give yourself time for that. But be sure you’re listening to a writer instinct, not your clinical anxiety disorder.
3. Let someone else read it.
An outside opinion can shed new light on your story. Ask a few friends to look it over and tell you what they think. Be selective with whom you ask. I think we all know which of our friends will not critique us at all and which friends might be too tough with their feedback and ultimately discourage us from finishing the story. Go for those mild, kind, and honest pals to give you opinions.
4. Give it a shot, then revaluate.
Truth be told, we can revise and edit a story into eternity. At a certain point, you mess with something so much that it ends up worse. Don’t let that happen to you! Get to a place where you’re at least moderately happy with the story, then ship her out. If you’re traditionally publishing, send the story to a few publications and see if you get any bites. After enough rejections, you might give it another look, especially if any of those editor rejections offered feedback.
Writing an effective ending to a short story is an art of balancing a satisfying conclusion with an impactful image or concept to stick with your audience long after they’ve finished reading it. Keep at it!
Read next: How To Start a Short Story