A couple of years ago, I wrote a tips piece for The Writers’ Bureau’s on-line magazine, ‘E-Zee Writer’ about how to grab your readers’ attention in the opening to your story:
Having hooked that interest, you need to keep it there and then finish the story on a high, leaving readers feeling as if they’ve had a compelling and entertaining read. Here are some ideas for how to bring your story to a satisfying climax:
1. Don’t rush your ending. Some writers can see the end in sight and grab it – too soon e.g. in a romance story, you have gradually built up the will they/won’t they scenario. Your readers are right there with the characters, willing them to get together only for you to gallop towards the ending:
Zoe couldn’t bear to be without Sam. She dashed to the airport, took him in her arms and confessed her undying love. Two months later they walked down the aisle.
After connecting with readers emotionally all the way through the story, you sever the connection and leave them feeling disappointed.
2. Don’t over-explain your ending e.g. in a crime story, when you reveal who killed the victim, don’t feel as if you have to explain exactly why he/she is the murderer. If you have written your story well, your readers should be able to make all the connections to the clues you’ve woven into the story themselves. A short explanation to underline the revelation is fine, but a lengthy explanation will ruin your story.
3. Whatever you do, don’t end your story, ‘It was all a dream’. This ending has been done to death and is something guaranteed to make an editor or judge cringe.
4. Finishing your story with a cunning twist can make for a very effective ending and leave your readers admiring your brilliance. However, a lot of magazine editors and competition judges complain that they see the same twist endings again and again. Ones to avoid include the main character turning out to be a dog or a cat, a spouse’s strange behaviour leading their other half to think they’re having an affair when really they’re organising a surprise party, or a person who is seen at a time and place they couldn’t possibly have been turning out to have a twin. These are just a few among a very long list.
5. Not all endings have to be happy – depending on the publication. A story aimed at ‘The People’s Friend’, for instance, must have a happy ending. But a story written for a small press market or as a competition entry doesn’t necessarily have to. An ending that shocks or is poignant ensures your story will stay with your readers for some time.
6. Don’t go beyond your story’s natural ending e.g. in a horror story, it’s more effective to finish with the girl thinking she’s got away only for the monster to appear right at the end, its jaws drooling, than it is to go into graphic detail about how the monster finished her off, the hours all her friends spent looking for her, how her beloved dog pined for her and so on. There’s no need. Your readers will know exactly what’s going to happen to her and will be able to imagine it for themselves in their minds.
7. Don’t feel as though you have to tie your story up in a nice little bow. Many readers like a story with an open ending so they can finish it for themselves e.g. in a science fiction story, all the aliens could have left Earth after a fierce battle and your last sentence could reveal that one has been left behind. Your readers may decide that the spaceship comes back for their lost member, or perhaps it’s all part of their plan to conquer earth, or another scenario is that the alien goes on a killing spree. With an open ending, there’s plenty of ways for your readers to unleash their imagination and finish your story.
8. No matter your ending, it must be clear e.g. it’s no good having a character who’s killed off earlier on in the story suddenly turning up at the end alive and well without any explanation. As the writer, you know exactly what’s gone on but your readers need to as well. If you don’t tie up all the loose ends, you leave them feeling confused and let down.
9. Ensure your ending fits in with the rest of your story. Some writers create an incredible last line which is great, except if it has no relevance to the rest of the story. This will result in your readers feeling cheated.
10. Finally, the mark of a good story and successful ending is if you leave your readers feeling satisfied. Ultimately you want them to read that last line and think, ‘What a fantastic ending to a great story’. If an editor or judge is thinking that, then your story is likely to be published or be placed on the short list for winning a competition.