5 for Friday: Knowing when a Novel or Story is Finished


I often struggle with knowing when a story is finished. Rarely am I completely confident that the line I’ve just written is the last one. It happens once in a while. You write a killer line and you just know it’s the story’s finale. But that doesn’t mean the story is done, finished… it may still need filling in, a paragraph here, more dialogue there. Finishing means that the story is as good as it is going to be, or rather—as good as you can make it. It’s hard to let stories go… Sometimes we have to make the choice, decide, and just stop.  Sometimes, even though the story isn’t perfect, we have nothing left to say.

How do you know when you’re finished? When a story or novel is done?

Here are 5 writers’ thoughts on finishing…

1.      Depending on the genre you’re writing in, there are different ways of establishing what we call closure. For instance, if you’re writing a very short piece, such as a poem or prose poem with a “miniature narrative,” you can actually print out variants of the work and have two or three or more endings. And you can read through them quickly and live with them for a few days or weeks and see, in a kind of dispassionate way, what seems best.

       –Joyce Carol Oates


2.      There are two points of exhilaration for me when I’m writing. There’s the point when I think, I’ve got something here and can keep going. And then there’s the point when I write the final word and, I say, “Okay, that’s done.” I once heard William Gaddis say he wrote long books because he didn’t like them to end.  And I can understand that.  The satisfaction of writing a book lasts longer than the satisfaction of finishing a book.

–Joanna Scott



3.      I often describe my way of writing as using a divining rod. I mentally picture the fork-shaped branch and just try and let go and let it guide me. I think the story is off in one direction and then it will suddenly veer left and hit a spot I wouldn’t have expected. My endings come this way as well, driven by the emotion of the piece, and often sooner than I planned for.  The hard part is going back and making the changes to the text so that it all bends properly in the right way—intersecting road signs, basically—so that when the end appears, the readers feel that they’ve arrived at the right place.

Hannah Tinti


4.      As Evan Connell is reputed to have said, “I’m done when I start to put back the commas I’ve just taken out.” In my own case, I’m finished with a book when I can’t think of a single thing more to do to it, or for it, or with it.

 –Charles Baxter



5.      In a very traditional way, I want an end to be dramatic in a localized sense, and I want it to be in some ways conclusive of the major concerns of the book that I just wrote. Knowing whether or not I’ve done that is also very intuitive. There is a sense to an ending in my practice that feels very full.  I feel like all of the things that have been in the book up to now have sort of, in a sense, been fully terminated.

Richard Ford


From Off the Page, Writers Talk about Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between

 edited by Carole Burns

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0 thoughts on “5 for Friday: Knowing when a Novel or Story is Finished

  1. Kate

    So true, Kristan. We often get pummeled in workshops for tying it up with a bow, but often the actual readers want some sort of wrapping up, some sort of conclusion of sorts. I had a mentor who once told me– the best endings open to new beginnings… and that doesn’t always mean they are completely open ended. They are satisfying, yet one knows there is something more, something greater the story opens up to. I really like Jhumpa Lahiri, too.

  2. Kristan

    Very interesting to read what these writers have to say about endings. One thing I realized sometime over the last year or two is that literary short story endings can be… tricky. There is a tendency (at least in contemporary shorts) to end on a "strong image" — and this can work REALLY well — but I think, when done inexpertly, can also be REALLY unsatisfying. We talk about not wanting to wrap everything up too neatly, and I agree with that, but I think wrapping things up a BIT is okay too. Yet so few people seem to do that anymore…

    Someone who I think walks that line really well is Jhumpa Lahiri.