3 ways to kill a short story (plus, write an awesomely bad ending and win a book)

While working on a short story last night, I was stumped. Everything was written, edited and good to go, except the ending—or, more specifically, the five endings I had written, ranging from the literary drop-off (an esoteric and potentially cheesy musing about losing things) to the genre-style kick (dead body in the piano?).

Which got me thinking more about endings—what works best, and why? Here, courtesy of WD’s Chad Seibert, is an excerpt from the WritersOnlineWorkshops.com course “Focus on the Short Story,” on what definitely doesn’t. (The next course starts March 11; click here to learn more about it.)

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So how does a writer know when and where to end her story? Former STORY editor Whit Burnett says to use “pure instinct”—easier said than done. There are as many ways to end a story as there are to start one. If you want to learn how to end a story, the best thing to do is study examples. But there are at least three basic problems that you’ll want to avoid:

The story that simply stops

You don’t want the ending of your story to send an editor back to the envelope in search of more pages, scratching his head and wondering if he dropped part of the manuscript on the subway that morning.

Usually, when a story seems to “stop” rather than “end,” it’s because the story lacks a sense of resolution, of wholeness. The reader doesn’t feel like she’s “gotten anywhere.” She wonders what the point is.

It’s useful to think of your story as making a set of “promises” to the reader. Have you raised any questions or issues that you’ve failed to answer? A good story does not trick or tease (at least not simply for the sake of tricking and teasing). A good story keeps its promises (which is another way of saying that a good story plays by the rules it establishes for itself).

You, as the author, will have to determine whether or not the logic of your story requires that you answer any particular question or address any particular issue. Unlike the average Hollywood movie, short stories usually aren’t obligated by issues of plot so much as by issues of character.

Too much falling action


“Falling action” (also known as the resolution, or denouement) is the part of a narrative that comes after the climax, after the story’s main problems have been solved—those sometimes leisurely pages where the author ties up any remaining loose strings.

As Rust Hills (Writing in General & the Short Story in Particular) points out in his chapter entitled “Ending,” most short stories (unlike novels) don’t require much detail about what happens “afterward.” Once you’ve done what you need to do, don’t linger. Get out of the story.

Still, sometimes we don’t seem to know when enough is enough. Maybe we become attached to the worlds of our stories and don’t want to leave. Maybe we’re worried the reader hasn’t gotten the point. Or maybe we’re just putting off the daunting task of starting a new story.

Whatever the case, the problem of too much falling action is usually easy to fix. At STORY, we frequently suggested that authors snip a line or a paragraph off the end of their stories, sometimes an entire scene. More often than not, the ending was in there somewhere; it was just buried.

The atomic-bomb ending

Perhaps no part of a story invites melodrama so much as the climax (which, in contemporary stories, usually falls near the end). You want this moment to have the maximum possible impact on your reader, but the line between “maximum impact” and “fatal impact” is sometimes hard to judge.

An ending that’s too “light” (one that doesn’t capitalize on the story’s dramatic and thematic potential) can leave a reader disappointed, not quite satisfied. But an ending that’s too “hard” (melodramatic, over the top) can do even more damage, leaving a reader in disbelief, turned off, disgusted.

Err on the side of restraint. Don’t treat your ending like it’s your last chance to drive home the point of the story. If the rest of your story has been doing its fair share of the work, the ending needn’t detonate a bomb in order to succeed.

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WRITING PROMPT: Self-Destructive Actions

Feel free to take the following prompt home or post your response (funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings. If you’re having trouble with the captcha code sticking, e-mail your story to me at writersdigest@fwmedia.com, with “Promptly” in the subject line, and I’ll make sure it gets up.

Take a short piece you’ve written (or whip up a new one), and hack the ending off. Then, write the most awesomely bad ending you can—and see how easily you can derail the piece. I’ll choose one random commenter to win a copy of The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel and the latest issue of WD magazine.

(Image: Danilo Rizzuti)

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6 thoughts on “3 ways to kill a short story (plus, write an awesomely bad ending and win a book)

  1. Martha W

    Mark, I’m glad you had fun! This was hard as hell for me. I don’t know why. But it was. *lol*

    Thanks for the exercise, Zac!!

    #####

    "Who’s birthday is it?" The bartender slid the three Cosmos across the polished mahogany bar.

    Mary’s face lit up. "Mine."

    She heard Lara and Tracy, her two best friends, snicker behind her. She slapped at them under the cover of the bar edge, glared over her shoulder.

    "All right, birthday girl. Let me know when you want the next round."

    "You got it, Joe."

    He smiled and moved down the bar to the next customer.

    Lara leaned in close, whispered, "He would do."

    "No."

    "Yummy. I agree – I think him."

    Mary hung her head. That’s what she got for going out on her thirtieth birthday with these two yahoos. "No."

    "You afraid he’ll say no?" Lara pushed her hair back, took a long sip from the drink. "Cause I think he’ll say yes."

    Tracy leaned her elbow on the bar. "Or is that it? He’ll say yes."

    Her cheeks pinked. They just never let up. So what if she’d lost that bet. She wasn’t picking up just any schmuck. He had to be perfect.

    Like Jim had been.

    Unbidden, his rugged face flickered in her mind like a bad disco ball at one of those cheesy nightclubs. Deep brown eyes, chestnut brown hair, straight nose, perfect lips. Beautiful. She pinched her eyes closed, shut out the image.

    She’d had too much to drink to be thinking about him.

    "Fine. The next guy to walk through those doors, that’s who I’ll hit on." She bit her lip, wished for the words back.

    Tracy slapped her on the back. "That-a girl."

    "Oh, perfect timing. There’s a group of hotties coming through the parking lot. Wonder who the lucky guy is gonna be." Lara hopped onto the stool next to her.

    "Looks like the blond." Tracy added. "No, wait. The brunette."

    Mary stood immobile, stared at the counter. Had it come to this?

    Lara turned her back to the bar and propped her elbows on the edge, leaned back to see Mary’s face. "You wanna just stay in suspense or watch the action?"

    She choked on her answer. "No, your commentary is enough, thanks."

    Both her friends laughed. Didn’t notice she wasn’t laughing too.

    "Oh, here they come." Tracy crowded closer.

    Lara straightened on her stool. "Hhm."

    Mary tensed, swore she heard the door swing open even over the noise of the other customers.

    "Oh my God. Mary, look."

    Lara’s whisper caused more fear than she’d known since Jim left her alone. She pivoted on her heel, determined to get this over with. And froze.

    It couldn’t be. It just wasn’t possible.

    But there he was, and she had no choice.

    "The yummy blond." Lara said.

    Tracy stared at him like she hadn’t eaten in a week.

    Mary couldn’t keep her gaze on him, so she stared at the floor. "Yeah. Yummy."

  2. Dorraine

    Ah, great advice, Zac. I’ve read more than a few books and short stories that didn’t know when to quit and left me feeling cheated, or like I’d just gotten a stiff dose of TMI (too much information). It is tricky business, those endings. The thing is, if not done well, I won’t usually pick up the next book by said author. Sometimes, but not usually.

    Thanks for the info. Sorry I’ve been missing lately. My laptop has been sick with a nasty virus. It will be well on Monday..yeah!

  3. Elijah Cramer

    Ytipidneres

    We’d fought.
    We did that.
    Truly, all we ever did anymore was fight. We fought anytime, and about anything. I know that people say that all the time, but here, it is actually true. We were always fighting about something. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d slept together. We’d still screw occasionally, but I would go back to my spot on the couch when I was done.
    So.
    This morning, we fought again. I was screaming that I hated her, she, in her pajamas screaming right back, neither of us listening both screaming. I screamed that I wished she was dead; I wished she’d have died long ago, that way I would still hate her, but with less fighting, overall. I decided that, if upon my return, gremlins or bogies or oni or something failed to have shown up and done horrible things to her till she died, I’d be most upset. I didn’t say so out loud, it would have sounded silly screaming it. She did scream, however, that she hoped I got into a wreck, and they broke three Jaws of Lifes (Jaws of Lifes? Seriously, does she even have a brain?) before my mangled corpse was given up upon, and I was buried at the wrecking yard, inside a smashed cube of what used to be car. I left for work, slamming the door for good measure.
    I get home, drained, but happy to have been away from the apartment all day. I unlock the door, I go inside, and there is blood on the ceiling.
    White room. White, white white room. I’ve only just noticed.

    Mainly cause of the contrast, is the thing. The blood. All over the ceiling. I ponder this for a minute. Not a coat, like paint. It’s spattered all over. Layers upon layers -Jackson, eat your heart out- but only on the ceiling. I don’t think I can stay in here; I’ll search the rest of the apartment.
    Well, searching reveals nothing. No horrid remains, anywhere. No bathtub full of carmine viscera, no body folded like clothing, tucked behind the ironing board, no Mason jar in the fridge full of I aint sure what, but I do know it aint pickles. Nothing. Well, nothing but the blood on the ceiling. Broad swoops and strokes.
    The only place I haven’t searched is the bedroom. I go to check…
    and in it, I find the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. "We took care of your problem" says Leonardo. "And now you owe us something" follows Don. So they dressed in trench coats, and I took them out for Pizza. "Cowabunga" said Mike.
    Cowabunga.

  4. Mark James

    Zac, this was a good exercise. I had to figure out where the ending started before I could hack it off. And . . . it was fun just going over the top and ruining something . . . you know?

    They say you gotta be faithful, gotta believe, but I didn’t; couldn’t. I wanted her here, and I didn’t give a damn if she was going to a better place.

    “Why didn’t you tell me it would be like this?”

    Sitting in the circle I’d used to capture her, she looked like salvation, like she could save me from what I’d done. She raised her eyes to mine, and for a second, a heartbeat, I believed she was a virgin and her son was dead and – –

    “Would it have made a difference?” she said.

    I felt the rage swell inside me, wanted to wrap my fingers around her throat, fling her back to the pit I’d called her from.

    “Yes.” She lifted her arms out to her sides, palms up, dropped her head. “Come. Rest with me.”

    “She didn’t come back like you said.”

    “I promised you would hold her again, have her with you forever.”

    When Lissy’s body started eating her alive, I dragged her to every doctor on every continent. But I was losing the race. Lissy, she just went with me, listened to the doctors tell us how her body was eating itself, and how, in a couple months, the pain would be so bad, they’d need Morphine just to keep her from screaming.

    I found other ways, older ways, darker ways. “Send her back,” I said.

    She brought her hands together in front of her face, like she was praying, bowed her head. “I will need a further boon.”

    “Like what? I already went all the way through Hell. You stole a year from me.”

    The demon shook off the Mary mother of God act like it was too old for little kid jokes. It jumped to its feet, quick as a snake. “You still have your soul, human. Feed me. And I will do as you wish.”

    “What about your son? Was he a demon too?” I couldn’t believe I was baiting the thing in the circle, like I thought it would make a mistake.

    “We are all demons when we cannot walk beside the still waters,” it said.

    On the floor behind me, Lissy let out a low groan of pain. I turned to her. “What did I do?”

    Her face was only half there, the rest was eaten away. I could see her teeth through the mesh of bone and muscle.

    “She is immortal,” the thing behind me said. “Her pain is like nothing your mortal mind can imagine.”

    Lissy rolled over, bared her teeth, snarled at me. “Look what you did,” she said.

    I backed away, my hands out. “I wanted you back.”

    “It was always about you Michael.” She got to her feet, turned around in a small circle, showed me her grotesque, emaciated body. “Do you like it? Why didn’t you just dig me up and prop me in bed next to you?”

    Behind us, the demon in the circle laughed.

    “I went through Hell and back for you,” I said.

    “I went through Hell living with you, and now you bring me back? For what? Why? Could it be because Death is the ultimate control freak and you couldn’t let him win?”

    Just like always, she’d found a way to make my happy ending her personal martyrdom.

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