The most-asked question when someone describes a novel, movie or short story to a friend probably is, “How does it end?”

Endings carry tremendous weight with readers; if they don’t like the ending, chances are they’ll say they didn’t like the work. Failed endings are also the most common problems editors have with submitted works.

Making your ending a success involves two things. The first is content; the events of the ending must satisfy everything that has gone before. There’s no easy way to tell anyone how to do this; it depends entirely on what the work has seemed to promise the reader. Whatever that was must be delivered.

Easier to discuss, and just as important, is how you tell your ending. You have five choices, each with its advantages, drawbacks and optimum uses.

The Barely There Ending

This ending is extremely brief and somewhat inconclusive, hinting at what the character will do next, but leaving most of the interpretation for the reader.Raymond Carver was a master of this subtle ending. His classic short story “Fat” consists of six pages of a waitress serving a very fat man, their conversation, her thoughts about his size, and the mean-spirited mockery by her co-workers. Afterward, the waitress goes home and retells the incident to her best friend, who is baffled by why it matters to the waitress. This is the story’s ending:

She sits there waiting, her
dainty fingers poking her hair.
Waiting for what? I’d like to know.
It is August.
My life is going to change. I feel it.

How is the protagonist’s life going to change? Why? What does it have to do with serving the fat man? None of this is explicitly stated. The ending leaves the answers, and the links between them, to the reader, whose imagination fills in what is missing.

Sometimes the brief ending is even more inconclusive, balancing two possible courses of action evenly, and then giving no clue as to which the character chooses. “The Meeting,” a science-fiction story by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, concerns the father of a 9-year-old, severely disturbed child who may be a danger to himself and others. The father, Harry Vladek, is presented with a possibility that will allow the family to retain custody: agree to a brain transplant—put the brain of a normal child who has just died in an accident into the body of his son. The story ends with the Vladeks in the boy’s bedroom:

The two of them stood next to the outsize crib that held their son, looking in the night light at the long fair lashes against the chubby cheeks and the pouted lips around the thumb. Reading. Model airplanes. Riding a bike. Against the quick sketch of a face and the occasional, cherished, tempestuous, bruising flurry of kisses.

Vladek stayed there the full half hour and then, as he had promised, went back to the kitchen, picked up the phone, and began to dial.

Does Harry agree to the brain transplant or not? By not so much as hinting at the answer, the authors force the reader to choose. What would you do? The story becomes part narrative, part participatory moral question.

Obviously, the barely-there ending will not work for every piece of fiction. Use it when:

Your Story is Brief

The more time we spend with characters and events, the greater right we feel we have to find out what happens to them. Your story is built around quiet events. In both of these examples, characters are wrestling with decisions within themselves. That conflict may be extreme, but the events that personify it are mundane. If your fiction includes dramatic James Bond-type chases, murders, plane crashes and the like, you are going to need a much more definite, forceful ending to match the forceful events you’re portraying. Your readership is sophisticated. Where do you want to publish? The subtle, elusive ending is a literary ending, relying on allusion and metaphor, and many readers will object to it as “having no ending at all!” Know your markets if you write these type of endings.

The Real-Life Ending

This, too, is usually a literary ending. A bit more explicit than the barely-there ending, it does clearly indicate what will happen to the characters. But like the barely-there ending, what will happen is naturalistic, real-life, even mundane. The ending is essentially the same as what’s happened all along, just slightly more definite.

Jhumpa Lahiri, winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for her short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies, uses the real-life ending in her story “A Temporary Matter.” Shoba and Shukumar have been drifting apart ever since their first child was born dead. During a temporary power crisis in which they have no light for several evenings, they tell each other hurtful things they had previously concealed. At the end of the story, Shoba announces she’s leaving Shukumar. He tells her one last, supremely hurtful secret, and then comes the last paragraph:

Shukumar stood up and stacked his plate on top of hers. He carried the plates to the sink, but instead of running the tap he looked out the window. Outside the evening was still warm, and the Bradfords were still walking arm in arm. As he watched the couple the room went dark and he spun around. Shoba had turned the lights off. She came back to the table and sat down, and after a moment Shukumar joined her. They wept together, for things they now knew.

This ending is full of mundane details, and it in no way reverses or changes what has been happening throughout the story. Instead, it just confirms and fulfills previous events in a way that seems very much like real life. This sort of ending also works best when the readership is sophisticated and the story is concerned with quiet, real-life dilemmas.

However, it can also be used with longer lengths, provided the novel is not expected to be highly commercial, with wide mass appeal.

The Surprise Ending

The surprise, or twist, ending is just the opposite. The whole point is that the ending is not more of the same, and that the reader does not anticipate what happens. The classic master of this ending was O. Henry. In his Christmas story “The Gift of the Magi,” Jim sells his watch to buy a hair ornament for his wife. We learn at the end, that she has sold her hair to buy a watch fob for him—an unexpected twist.

O. Henry’s stories may seem a bit dated but the surprise ending is alive and well in some science fiction and almost all mysteries. It depends on a writerly balancing act, in that to be successful a twist must be an ending the reader did not see coming, but also logical and plausible once it happens. Surprise endings work best when:

The story is commercial intended for a readership that likes puzzles. The author carefully sets up clues— hinting that these characters might act this way, but also using misdirection to indicate a different ending. The surprise is genuinely a surprise. If this is the main thing the story has going for it, the ending has to be unexpected. Otherwise, the piece will probably fall flat. You may not startle every single reader, but you need to surprise a majority.

The Classic Denouement

This is what Mark Twain called “the marryin’ and the buryin.'” In both novels and short stories, this is a section of prose that occurs right after the climax. It explains what happened to the major characters as a result of the climax and also wraps up any loose plot lines.

Your fiction is very likely to contain a denouement. For maximum effectiveness:

Be Proportionate to the Work

A brief short story may require only a few paragraphs after the climax. On the other hand, in his massive novel The World According to Garp, John Irving’s denouement consisted of 10 separate sections, each devoted to an individual character’s fate and each almost a story in itself. Avoid being anticlimactic. This is not easy with a long denouement. Your climax should have reached a pitch of excitement and satisfactory resolution, and you don’t want to dilute that with too much exposition. Have a few readers look at your denouement to tell you if it’s a letdown. If so, shorten it as much as possible. Tell us everything we want to know. A denouement that leaves us asking, “But what happened to Aunt Lucy? Did she survive, and anyway how did she get into that locked room?” needs to be rewritten.

The Epilogue

A true epilogue is removed from the story in time or space. That’s the reason it is called an “Epilogue”; the label serves to alert the reader that the story itself is over, but we are going to now see a distant result or consequence of that story. For example, the epilogue in my recent novel Probability Sun takes place more than a year after the story proper ends and on a different planet. Some guidelines:

Be Proportionate

Like a denouement, a good epilogue is proportional to the work. Relocate. It should be set at a different time and/or place than the last scene of the story. For this reason, epilogues work best for fiction that covers a lot of one or the other. Offer something new. Since the epilogue usually follows a classic denouement, the novel in effect has two endings. They should be very different from each other so it doesn’t feel as if the same thing has been stated twice. The epilogue should add something different, an extra value: an insight, a consequence, a different perspective on the story’s events.

You have considerable choice in how you end your fiction. For all stories, the basic rule is the same: Choose the type of ending that best suits what’s gone before.

Nancy Kress‘ most recent book is Crossfire (Tor/St.Martin’s).