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What I Wish I’d Known is a regular series where we ask some of our favourite writers to reflect on their writing and publishing journey, and share some of the unexpected and useful things they’ve learned along the way. In this instalment, writers reflect on what it means to end a story.

A vintage photograph, colour-washed in yellow and green, of several men straining to cross the finish line in a running race.

Image: Wikimedia Commons (CC0)

Else Fitzgerald, Everything Feels Like the End of the World

Coming to the end of writing a short story collection was a strange arrival, in that I didn’t know I’d arrived for the longest time. I’d felt for so long that I would never be done, that there would always be one more story to write, one more perspective to include, one more future to imagine.

I wish I’d known what to expect when I finally realised I’d reached the end of writing the manuscript (even though it wasn’t really the end of the work, as thankfully there were many edits to come!) because it wasn’t at all like what I’d thought it would be. I remember the feeling of sitting blinking in front of my laptop and thinking “that might be it” and how it wasn’t as momentous as I’d thought it would be to reach that point, more a feeling of quiet surprise and relief.

I’m not sure what this means if I were to try to offer it as any kind of advice, except maybe that endings can be slippery things. And there might not be fireworks or any huge fanfare to it but when you realise you’ve got to where you wanted to get to, after the surprise and relief, you will feel very proud to have made it.

Tom Pitts, Electric and Mad and Brave

It took me three and half years to complete a first draft of my book. When I was done, I learned what an inciting incident was, and how it ought to inform the end of a story. I also learned that I didn’t have an inciting incident, that many scenes in my novel had nothing to do with the story, and that the story actually began 30,000 words into the manuscript. Every moment leads to the ending, every scene informs the ending, every character turn enriches it. I wished I’d known that—would have saved me a lot of time.

Allee Richards, Small Joys of Real Life

Don’t send a book proof to print with an ending that needs work. Every time I see someone share that they’ve read my book and it’s the advance reader copy, I die a little, knowing we improved the final line a lot after I hit send on that version. (When people ask me to sign one of those copies, I cross out and rewrite the final lines for them.) The odd typo or clunky sentence is fine to be memorialised, but endings are more important.

Jock Serong, The Settlement

What I wish I’d known about endings is that they’re not fixed points. You’re on a tram, headed in a general direction, and you can see the destination approaching but the tram doesn’t necessarily stop there, and you have to make a decision about prising the door open and jumping off—otherwise you just rattle off into the night. The story keeps going in its own direction—as indeed it started somewhere out of sight—and the reader and writer must part ways with it eventually. An ending is the end of our time with the story, but not the end of the story.

Rebecca Giggs, Fathoms: The World in the Whale

An ending can: conclude (tie a neat bow on your core finding/storyline); leave a ragged edge and point off in the direction of a different piece (perhaps one you will yet write); put what you’ve learnt in the biggest possible context (the longest time-frame, the largest ramification); reduce what you’ve learnt to the smallest, most modest, most private take-away; linger on an objective correlative (a physical thing that symbolically gestures to the work’s closing mood or idea); add in a coda or aftermath from left-field; reveal something about your writing process throughout that is surprising; repeat an existing line from higher in the piece with new reverberation; describe the inciting incident for the piece (very likely, something about your own attachment to the subject); rewind a scene and look at it from another angle; answer the question: what future does this make possible that wasn’t possible before the piece was written or read—for the author, the reader, or the world?

Unusual words are best kept for body text—the ending is not a place to ask your reader to pull out the dictionary. The ending of a first chapter/preface of a narrative nonfiction book should ask open questions that move towards being closed by the epilogue. Other chapter-endings need to give momentum to what comes next. Notice your habitual endings and try to change them up. If you grant the last line of your book or essay to another person—a quote from a source or an interview subject—it really doesn’t matter what they say, you will be taken to be on their side most of all. The end is a place of maximum sympathy.

Mark Brandi, The Others

A good ending is only partly about the ending itself—it’s more about the early, difficult work setting up the story and developing characters. When that’s done well, the ending can become a kind of gateway, beyond which characters exist and linger in the reader’s imagination.

Gary Nunn, The Psychic Tests

My book was about psychics and I began the journey a complete sceptic, to the point I was almost dismissive of them. The beautiful thing I learnt about endings was that they can land you in a place of less certainty than when you started out—and that you don’t have to provide your reader with an answer for everything. You can trust their intelligence!

Laura Elvery, Ordinary Matter

A manuscript going to the printer feels like the real end of control for me. The night before Ordinary Matter was due to be printed, I woke up at 1am and wrote a panicked email to my editor listing all the ways my book needed fixing in the next twelve hours. Bless her, Cathy, she rang me the next morning. In the daylight, I’d already wondered if my middle-of-the-night email was a little over the top. There was nothing more to be done, Cathy said gently, and the book was good, and it was time to let it go.

I’m working on my novel right now, in fits and starts. But I’ve written the last page, the final lines of dialogue and image for the reader. There’s comfort in returning to that image when I can’t see the way through the draft. I like my instinct for endings in short stories—that I can see how the pieces have fallen and that I admire where they’ve landed. I tend to trust the voice in my head that asks ‘Can you do better?’ or ‘Is that really what these characters, after all this, are going to do?’

Chloe Wilson, Hold Your Fire

An ending is not the same as a resolution. Things don’t have to be tidy; questions do not require answers. The best endings sound like endings—they have that weight, that cadence, that resonance.

Ronnie Scott, Shirley (Feb 2023)

There’s a temptation with endings to imbue them with special terrors, separate from the rest of the writing process, but a novel gets ‘solved’ not by the ending but sort of on its way there—so problems with endings, unfortunately, tend to be really the inherent problems in writing a whole book, problems of understanding that can only be solved with experimentation and time. In both of my novels, the ending has turned out to be a chance to bring out some buried aspect of the novel, like a base note—they were nice places to ask questions about characters, or to draw out something about the story’s overall attitude. No good can come from putting too much pressure on an ending. The answer—like with everything—is just to spend enough time with it that you can try a few things out.

Ashley Goldberg, Abomination

For the most part, I know the ending of a story before I begin writing. For my novel, Abomination, that was definitely the case, and the ending I’d planned on was the one that stuck. But when I’m writing short fiction that isn’t always the case. I’ll have the ending mapped out but often when I get there I find that something’s changed along the way and what I’d intended is no longer quite right. I often say that a short story is the length it needs to be, and I think the same may be true for how a piece of short fiction ends—you’ll know when it feels right.

Want to learn more about the ins and outs of the publishing process? Check out Getting Published with Rebecca Starford and Hannah Kent, or any other of our Online Writing Courses, available to complete in your own time, at your own pace.

Check out the previous entry in the series, on what writers wish they’d known about studying creative writing.