OK, intrepid writers. You’ve got an appropriate hook. You’ve started your story in the right spot. You’ve kept your middle moving. Now it’s time to look at endings. The most obvious element of a good ending is the resolution.
There are two schools of thought regarding resolutions. One says that the resolution of your story should wrap everything up. The other says that stories should leave some things unresolved. I’m going to pause here and tell you to go read what Nick Mamatas had to say on this subject.
O.K. Now, I tend to agree with Mamatas that stories are strongest when they leave the reader wanting more, when issues are still “open.” But I’m going to add one caveat to that: It depends on the market.
If you’re planning to try to sell your story to a publication that believes endings should tie everything up in a nice, little bow, then by all means, do so! They know their readership, and it’s their job to buy stories that their readers will like. If I’m ever foolish enough to become an editor somewhere, I’ll tell you right now that I won’t be one of those markets.
But, likewise, I don’t ever want to see a story that has no resolution. Your story isn’t done without one. That would leave me feeling like the story was lopped off 2/3 of the way through. Though that might work as a one-time gimmick, it’s not a formula for a sustained career as a writer.
So, what’s the trick to writing an ending that both creates a satisfying resolution and leaves the reader wanting more?
Well, one technique is, of course, to create a rich world where readers know they can return for other adventures, even if this story is fully resolved. I’ve experimented with that, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been successful at it.
Another technique is to end at the beginning, wrapping the story around full-circle so readers feel empowered to go back and start again. The classic example of this is the narrator who begins by giving away the ending, and then brings the reader slowly from the beginning to that end. Also, the classic structure of beginning with the hero departing on his/her quest and ending with the return home falls in this category, when it’s done in a way that leaves the hero looking ahead to another quest. You may have noticed that I’m fond of this technique in non-fiction, but it’s not one I’ve heretofore explored much in my fiction.
My personal favorite technique has to do with the structure of the resolution itself. Specifically, my resolution isn’t when all the problems have been solved. The resolution is when those solutions become inevitable.
For example, let’s say you’re telling a story about a woman dealing with her marital problems. You can resolve the story simply by having her realize that she no longer loves her husband and the marriage has actually been over for years. We don’t need to see her go home, pack her things, and write a note to her husband. We don’t need to follow as he pleads and cries hoping she’ll come back. In fact, if you include any of those things, you’re going to bore us, because she has already resolved that the marriage is over. Nothing that happens later on will save it. With that resolution, the story has ended, because there’s no longer any capacity for the new developments to change the outcome of the story. And by not dragging it out past that point, you exit with the reader still engaged and wondering what the repercussions of her choice are going to be.
So your resolution is the point when the change that takes place over the whole arc of the story is complete.
My story “Too Close for Comfort” fits this model. The story ends with Rennie and the others still in their predicament. But that’s not the story arc, no matter how much it seems to overshadow everything else. The story takes place in a simple legal deposition. During that deposition, a major change takes place which will forever alter Rennie’s fate. What came before that deposition isn’t actually part of the story. It’s backstory. What happened after is inevitable, and playing it out for the reader would have just been extended denouement. The story is done exactly where I ended it (whether you like it or not) because a resolution has occurred, making everything that comes later inevitable.
But, of course, this is only my way of doing it. What’s your favorite technique for creating resolutions that both satisfy and leave the reader wanting more?