On Finishing Stories


Anonymous asked: “I never got to finish a story I wrote. I always write a lot of chapters, but I don’t know why I just can’t finish them. Do you have tips on how to end a story?”

Finishing a story, or a novel or a draft or whatever you’re working on takes a lot of time and endurance. I don’t think there’s any kind of worthwhile list or bunch of resources that I could give you on endings you can just plug into your story and make it work, but instead, I’m going to talk about how the ending should be rooted in the story from the beginning. 

Okay, that sounds like something of a wild claim, trust me, it’s not so wild. The conflict in the end should be somewhat known to the reader from early on. Basically, the majority of plots can be broken down to two questions: 1) What does the character want? 2) Do they get it? Other conflict comes up as obstacles get in their way. The ending is where the character confronts the problem that’s been there all along – in some cases it’s a person or a thing, other times it might be some kind of award or accomplishment, or maybe even something abstract and conceptual. 

This may sound overly basic, and it is, but in a sense this is how plots work. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo gets a complicated ring that he knows he must go destroy. In the end, he destroys the ring. Sure a lot more happens along the way, but the end has been there since the beginning. Let’s look at a more complicated example now – The Great Gatsby. This is not a simple book. Its plot is messier and the way its told – through Nick Carraway – is a lot more interesting and unique. But we can still answer those questions. What did Gatsby want? Daisy Buchanan. And after you know that to be true, you can see how the ending all wraps around Daisy. She was at fault for the crime that Gatsby was later murdered for. The plot here is less simple, but really, it still has a lot of similar components. The ending, though never given away, is still known and overshadows Nick’s storytelling from the beginning. 

Another thing – beginning in some cases, especially classics, is a loose term. In contemporary fiction, I think you can mostly tell the what the conflict will be in the first 30 pages. Classics though, because of their age, don’t play by the rules. You can get fifty pages of just day-to-day events before the plot kicks off in a classic. Most of the time though if you’re unsure of what the ending of your story will be, I think there’s a good chance you’re just too close to it. Sometimes it will mean taking a step back to see where the wants and desires of the protagonist are going to take you. 

The strategy I like to use is plotting by summary. I take out a notebook and I begin to summarize my story so far. The fewer sentences the better. Try to keep it as concise as possible.  Ask yourself:  1) What does the protagonist want? This question can be so hard to answer. There’s going to be an answer though. It may take some soul-searching and serious thought, but you’ll get there. That is what the whole book is about. The end will reflect that. 

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