“Did I tell you about the time I killed my wife?”
How often do we read stories that open with impact, but close with a whimper?
“Of course, I didn’t kill her. But I was tempted…” Yawn.
An analysis of around 3500 stories entered in the Writers’ Village short fiction contest reveal that 27% were marked down because they closed badly or not at all.
Here are three simple ways to end a story so the reader feels rewarded rather than cheated.
1. Close on an ambiguous note – deliberately.
Told cleverly, a story can end upon a note of deliberate vagueness or ambiguity. The reader shakes the kaleidoscope and sees a different story.
Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw closes with a maddening question: Has the protagonist killed a child? Or did the ghosts do it? Or has the whole tale been a fraud, the hallucination of a deranged woman?
Whichever interpretation we choose, the tale works.
In another short story, a racist woman tortures a young negro child. The last line of the story has the woman saying: “I wonder how that child felt.”
At first, it reads like a malicious chuckle. Then we shake the kaleidoscope. Has the bigot finally discovered compassion? And become horror-struck by her own cruelty? Either way, the story works.
To succeed with a story like that, it’s best to write the last line first. Then you know where your story is heading, even if the reader doesn’t!
2. Introduce a twist that the reader didn’t expect.
Another way to shake the kaleidoscope is to close with a twist that the reader could not see coming.
For example, a man jilts his bride on their wedding day. Why? He has fallen for the bride’s mother. That’s a twist but it’s a cliché. The reader can see it coming.
Suppose instead the tale ends with the mother and daughter happily drinking the wedding champagne and laughing. The mother has saved her daughter from a doomed marriage to a brutal man – by seducing him. Now she has dumped the man in her turn. Duly enlightened, the daughter is grateful. The mother is entertained by her romantic weekends – and by organizing the spoof wedding!
The reader thinks ‘That’s clever. I didn’t see it coming at all.’
Michael Cordy shakes the kaleidoscope in a similar way. At the end of The Crime Code, the hero marries the heroine after predictably saving the world. Jubilation! Then in his last line, Cordy reveals that, uh, they have not saved the world after all…
3. Echo the first paragraph in the close.
Perhaps the most popular form of closure is the ‘echo’.
The kaleidoscope returns to the pattern it showed at the start, but meanwhile, everything has been shaken. The simplest way is to do this is to present a strong theme, emblem or phrase in the very first paragraph and then repeat it in the closing lines, perhaps with a new ironic meaning.
For example, a story might open with an elderly gentleman skating on a village pond. He is ‘very good on the blades’. The tale closes with his arrest as a brutal killer. In the closing line, a detective remarks with unconscious irony: ‘he was very good on the blades’.
Once again, the easiest way to structure an ‘echo’ story is to write the last paragraph first. Then embody some aspect of it in the first paragraph. At once, the story acquires a satisfying sense of form.
Adapt any of these three kinds of closure creatively in your fiction writing, and you will have a powerful close – that stays with your readers and keeps them coming back to you.
What kinds of closure have you found effective in the stories you read or write? Which closures just don’t work for you? Share your thoughts in the comments!