5 Ways to Give Your Story A Wow Factor Ending
Having organised and helped to judge our short story contest for several years, I can unequivocally say that there is one factor above all others that lets a story down.
Yes, you’ve guessed it: the ending.
Many of the stories we receive have beautiful prose, original plotlines, and excellent characterisation. They start in such a promising way, but when I get to the end, I find myself groaning in despair. Why ruin a good story with a poor ending?
The clue is in the name – short story. All good stories must have a satisfying resolution. It doesn’t mean that you need to dot every i and cross every t, but a good ending makes the reader go 'ahhhh.' The reader should feel pleased rather than frustrated when they read your last line.
Here are five tips to help you get your readers sighing with satisfaction:
1. Make The Reader Feel Something
The stories that leave us groaning in disenchantment are ones that have failed to evoke a gut reaction. Without this catharsis, the reader is forced to wonder, 'Why did I bother to read that?'
By the time a reader reaches the end of your story, they want to feel something – rage, shock, horror, surprise, amusement, pleasure. Something!
That’s what the 'ahhhh' feeling is. It is an instinctive, subconscious and unbidden emotional reaction to your story.
A fantastic example of a short story that creates a powerful emotion in the reader is Winter Break by Hilary Mantel.
In this story, Mantel describes a woman and her husband arriving on holiday. Their taxi driver hits something on the way to their hotel. As the woman has seen plenty of goats on the windy mountain road, she assumes the driver has hit a 'kid' and this is what he puts in the boot. However, the very last line reveals a different truth. Mantel writes:
'What she glimpsed—and in the same moment, refused to see—was not a cloven hoof, but the grubby hand of a human child.'
Powerful stuff! It sends shivers up my spine just thinking about it.
So, how do I do this? I hear you cry. Well, the answer to that brings me onto tip number two.
2. You Need To Feel It Too
If you don’t feel an emotional connection with your own story, your reader won’t either.
I remember a successful author friend of mine telling me she was in floods of tears while writing a chapter for her novel. She had invested in her character and their journey, and when I read her novel, the emotional intensity of the author’s investment was clear in the tears it provoked in me too.
Play around with the ending.
Set the story aside and read it a week later. If you find you are welling up at the end, or smiling, or gasping in horror, then you’ve probably cracked it. If you’re not – go back and see what could be strengthened to create a more impactful finish.
3. Expose Yourself
Before you think I’m proposing you loiter on street corners or in parks just wearing a parka, it’s not that type of exposure I’m referring to. Although the type of exposure I mean does leave you vulnerable to the elements.
To create an emotional experience for your reader you must write not only from the heart, but as if your insides are on show for all to see.
Good fiction captures a truth about human experience, and even if your main protagonist is as different from you as a vegan is to a meat-lover, you both share a common humanity. Reveal yourself and your views to your audience and your fiction will gain a truthfulness that will set it aside from other works.
When people tell me that they’ve read my latest story in Woman or Women’s Weekly, I can’t help but blush and change the subject quickly.
It’s not only from pride that I’m blushing, but also embarrassment too; I’ve given away a part of me that is often undercover, but it is this very fact that led to the story being published in the first place.
4. Universal Truths
Following the excellent advice of short story writer, Della Galton in her book, The Short Story Writer’s Toolshed, I try to link my endings to universal truths.
These are concepts that most of us agree with and find ourselves nodding to when they are mentioned. One example is: Sometimes it’s better to give in than keep going relentlessly. Another could be: It’s okay to fail as long as you keep trying.
Incorporating these universal truths into your story will help increase reader satisfaction as they help readers to relate to your characters and their views on the world.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, a story must have change. In school, we all learn that stories must have a beginning, a middle and an end, but what we often don’t realise is that to have these three key aspects, something must have changed from the beginning to the end.
It could be the character has changed and grown to learn to be different from how they were at the start, or it could be that someone’s circumstances have changed and they have gone from being rich and successful to being a nomad roaming the world in a caravan.
The most successful stories have both – a character arc and a plot arc. When you finish your story, read it through and ask yourself these questions: What has changed? What is different now from the start? If the answers are nothing, then please take my advice - go back and look again.
Good luck with your short stories. Why don’t you write us a comment to let us know how you have got on using these tips?
Jo Cole: In between cooking, cleaning, teaching and homeschooling her three sprogs during the pandemic, Jo Cole writes short stories for women’s magazines. She has an MA in Creative Writing and she is working on her second novel, a dystopian mother-daughter tale.