5 Tactics to Master Killer Short Story Endings

Killer EndingsI’ve always thought the ‘short story’ was one of those irritating elephants in the room. My particular brand of short story elephant, is made of shiny gold, and spends 100% of his time glaring at me from the corner of the room looking down his extra long trunk nose to make me feel woefully inadequate.

Every author knows they should be able to write a short, but not everyone can.

I can’t.

I’m so inept at writing short stories, I wrote a piece of flash fiction last year and the fucking things turned into 30,000 words of what will be a novel. Apparently I didn’t get the ‘SHORT’ memo.

*shrug*

All I can do is write full length novels, or blink-of-the-eye flash fiction. Something about that smug middle man puts me in a catatonic state of ‘fuck-you-upitus-writersblock.’

However, Esther Newton, is a master of the short. I’ve just finished reading her collection of award-winning short stories: The Siege and like always, I figured I’d share some lessons.

I learnt many, but something I think Esther is spectacular at is a killer ending. Here’s how to master a killer ending for your short stories.

EstherONE – Diametric  stories

By diametric story, I mean that the start of the story is the exact opposite to the ending.

An example in a paragraph:

Let’s say your story starts with you, skirt ripped, hauling yourself out a ditch to do the walk of shame home. You’re still single, still heartbroken and just got used… again. So you promise to be a good girl, starting again…. tomorrow. You spend the majority of the short story not being a good girl and doing, well, everyonething. But, in the process you fall in love. Pinch of conflict, dash of romance and the end of the story has you climbing out of a ditch all over again, only this time a hand reaches out to grab you and pull you out. The hand of your new lover.

The start is the exact opposite to the end.

Opposing the beginning and end of a story is an essential tool for novels but it’s like Oxygen for shorts. The lack of words and depth keep the beginning more salient in a readers mind. Meaning a nice big bang for your ending.

Newton’s third story in the collection is the perfect example of this. Now, I don’t want to ruin all her stories so I will try not to spoil it, but this one is so poetic and emotional it’s the perfect example of this so I HAD no choice.

The story opens: ‘There would be no reading of the last will and testament of Joshua Needham.’

Now, without giving too much away, the story ends with a will of another kind, but the fact there is one makes the ending the exact opposite to the beginning and wonderfully satisfying for the reader.

I asked Esther what the most important factors are in setting up a killer short story ending, she said:

“When I open a story, I like to hook the reader’s interest straight away. The reader starts to think a certain way because of that opening, so I then like to take them elsewhere – often in a completely different direction to the one they first thought the story was going in. It makes the opening all the more effective and by the end the reader feels as if they have been on a real journey. So to answer the question, for me, a killer ending often works because of the opening.

Other important factors –

  • Leaving your reader satisfied. Ultimately you want them to read that last line and think, ‘What a fantastic ending to a great story’.
  • Not going beyond the story’s natural ending e.g. in a horror story, it’s more effective to finish with the girl thinking she’s got away only for the monster to appear right at the end, its jaws drooling, than it is to go into graphic detail about how the monster finished her off, the hours all her friends spent looking for her, how her beloved dog pined for her and so on.
  • Twist endings are good, but many are obvious; think outside the box. What won’t the reader expect?”

TWO – The Set Up

Newton creates every circus performers wet dream; a tightrope so seamless it perfectly joins the beginning of the story to the end. That’s what makes her stories so satisfying: consistency of that thread/theme/phrasing/plot line, throughout the story.

But, if you want to give your readers that goggle eyed ‘I just opened an entire box of chocolates’ feeling, you need to make sure the build up to it is just as watertight.

I will continue to use Joshua’s Will, save spoilers for any of the other stories. In order to make the reading of his ‘alternate will’ so satisfying. Newton does several things:

  1. Make a will or one more moment with Joshua the one thing the characters  want
  2. Make it seem impossible for them to have one more moment, or for Joshua to have a will
  3. Torture the characters 
  4. Torture the characters some more

These factors: making it clear what the characters want, making it impossible for them to get and then torturing them before giving it to them are fundamental to the perfect set up.

I asked Esther what factors she considers when setting up her stories:

“I tend to plot my stories. I find the beginning and ending come to me pretty easily; I then have to work out how the story gets from the beginning to the end. This is when the set-up comes into play. If my ending is a twist, I need to think about how not to give it away, and how to lead the reader away from it. But then neither must I leave the reader feeling cheated and as if the ending has come from nowhere.  

When I write a short story, I always picture myself in the characters’ shoes; I imagine what it’s like to be them, to experience what they’re going through. I think this helps the storyline to work, as well as for the characters to come to life.”


THREE – Last line

I’ve written about the last lines of YA dystopian fiction before. I looked at the differences in last lines between first and last books in trilogies. There are obvious differences like, the last line of a first book leaves a little something open, final books don’t.  There are other things novel endings do, like foreshadow when there’s another book coming, but they also resolve conflict.

Shorts don’t allow a continuation of the story. They’re one offs, so everything needs to be resolved with a shit-the-dog-up firework of a last line.

In Newton’s story ‘Joshua’s Will’ the ending is symbolic with another will being read but the actual last line is the emotional reaction to it depicting the bittersweet satisfaction of being given the will and giving the reader the same feeling. I cried harder than the terror tot does when I tell him he can’t have a third cookie.

Newton has another wicked cool trick up her sleeve, she creates poetry through the opposing flow of diametric start and end sentences. Newton also uses repetition and symbolism to give her last line some TNT.

I asked Esther how she makes sure her last line counts:

“When I set it up, I have the beginning and ending in mind. I’ll loosely plan the middle, but often it’ll change once I start and sometimes the ending does as well. But I don’t worry about it; I let my mind work at it and sometimes – when I’m doing something mundane like cleaning the loo – the perfect last line comes to mind. For me, a cracking last line is essential. It’s the last thing that’s read and so you want it to stay with your reader.”


FOUR  – No loose ends

Loose plot ends are a no, no, it’s as bad as walking out the work toilets with your dress hooked in your kacks and toilet roll superglued to your stiletto.

I asked Esther how she ties up her loose ends:

“I always think about ensuring the ending is clear to the reader. Does everything make sense? Yes, as the writer, you know exactly what’s going on, but will a reader? So I always look at it from the reader’s viewpoint.

That isn’t to say you have to tie your story up in a nice little bow. Many readers like a story with an open ending so they can finish it for themselves. But it must be clear e.g. it’s no good having a character who’s killed off earlier on in the story suddenly turning up at the end alive and well without any explanation.”


FIVE – Make Use of Your Titles

The title is often forgotten. It’s a hover over the submit button, ‘fuck-it’ realisation. But it shouldn’t be. Short stories are compact, you have a limited amount of words, and usually, the title isn’t included. So use it wisely.

How?

Use it to foreshadow, Give a secret away, or, like Newton, in her last story ‘ A New Beginning’ use it as a repeating line – in title and again as the last line of the story.

I asked Esther how you can make best use of your titles:

“Titles work well in intriguing the reader. Your title could be a play on words; the reader won’t know til they read your story. Or a title can set the mood and atmosphere for a story. So by the time the reader has read the first line, they’re already into the story, and feeling part of it.”


41wHqq2yYqL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Amazon says this about the book

“After launching her short story collection, ‘The Siege and Other Award Winning Stories’, as an ebook, freelance writer and The Writers Bureau tutor, Esther Newton, has received numerous requests to bring out a paperback edition. ‘The Siege and Other Award Winning Stories’ paperback features a further six short stories, as well as the original twelve from the ebook, offering more drama, more tension, more laughs and even more emotion. From the heart-rending story of a young girl who’s never had a friend, to some special letters to Father Christmas, and a woman running away from a violent man, each story will keep you reading on straight into the next. The collection includes prize winning short stories from Writing Magazine, Writers’ News, The Global Short Story and Ouse Valley Writers competitions, amongst others.” 

 

EstherEsther’s Author Biography

I have been working as a freelance writer for sixteen years, regularly writing articles and short stories for magazines and newspapers such as Freelance Market News, Writers’ Forum, The Guardian, The Cat, and The People’s Friend to name a few.

Winner of Writing Magazine, Writers’ News and several other prestigious writing competitions and awards, I have also had the privilege of judging writing competitions. A collection of some of my prize winning stories has been put together in a book, The Siege and Other Award Winning Stories, which is available in e-book format and paperback from Amazon and all other on-line stores.

My children’s series of fiction books for 5-7 year olds, Sophie’s Secret Quest, has been taken on by a publisher and the first in the series is due for launch later this year, you can find out more here.

I volunteer for my local Cats Protection and was delighted when they asked me if I’d take over as editor for their magazine, The Cat Flap. It’s been a bit of a learning curve, but I’m relishing my new role.

As well as working as a freelance writer, I have branched out into the exciting world of copywriting, providing copy for sales letters, brochures, leaflets, slogans and webpages.

I love writing but I also enjoy helping others, which I achieve in my role as tutor for The Writers Bureau. In addition to tutoring I have a blog, designed to provide writers with support, market information and advice here. I also have my own guidance and advice service, which I set up to offer writers support in any way I can, find out more here.


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100 comments

  1. Haha… got ya with the 30000 words… lol! That’s what challenges me with my quotes… lol! The last line – that is also something that I am making a huge effort in my Monday Post. Here we go again: the title! All 5 points very well explained Sacha, and Esther really knows about writing. Great post, Sacha!!!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Hiya, I don’t take beta reading requests anymore I’m afraid as I get too many and I can’t read everyone’s work. But thank you for sharing your story I appreciate it. I have left the link in the comments and hopefully someone else will pop over and review your story. All the best.

        Like

      1. It tightens up the beginning and end, AND gave me an idea for a thematic pun into the bargain! Which is great, but does make me worry about the “right” prodding for these cells😉

        Like

      1. not bad at all, just a few stabbing twinges which will pass, they tell me. The fatigue will take a bit longer, so not up to speed yet, but so glad to be home and finished with it all…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Your lessons as reviews are really something, Sacha. Unique. maybe you should be up for a book review award… at least an HM. Must try E’s collection as she’s just edited mine (i haven’t dared look at her comments yet while I try and finish something else but this wisdom will no doubt have rubbished my efforts – quite rightly). And your analogies are amazing – the dress in the kacks etc is a visual I will be stuck with all day like some grotesque eyeworm

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Now just you listen here Geoffle Pard, you be careful paying me a complement, or I’ll be in danger of actually thinking I’m good at something.

      What’s a HM?!

      ha, I am sure she hasn’t. She’s lovely, and provides wonderful feedback, I should know.

      Ahaha, that kacks one gave me a right giggle. Hope the eye ones gone!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent analysis, Sacha. In my limited experience, short stories are quite different from novels, obviously, but what I mean is that they take a whole different mindset. I can’t write short stories without switching gears in a big way. Then I’d have to switch back, and it’s not easy. I like writing short stories, but can’t do both, so my short story collection is minuscule. My guess is that you can write short stories if you set aside novel writing for a while. The question is…do you want to?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head, some of the themes of shorts are the same – ie telling a good story, using well written sentences, BUT. Like you say changing mindset is bloody hard, I have no idea why I write novels, by my nature I should be a sprinter and a short story writer but I’m not. And when I try for too long I forget how to write novels! And no, I want to write novels, but I do like what flash does for me, it definitely teaches me efficiency of words. Clean writing. Useful for YA genre too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Flash is different from both, and I think it meshes with novel writing because it happens…in a flash. And you are so right, Sacha, that it’s a great exercise in conciseness. On the other hand, it takes me a good two weeks to write a polished short story, which makes it tough to switch back into writing a novel. Interesting discussion🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Actually I am inclined to agree – flash does feel different to a short story, oddly, I feel like its more flexible, like you can get away with more which to me, makes it easier! Although I am sure some would find the lack of rules harder! I think I am going to have to think about this some more – thanks for the chat🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Esther is a master of the short story and flash… I will have to get a copy of this book. Enjoyed the way you broke it down into a lesson, too. I find shorts very hard, personally, which is why I rarely write them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. GAH!! I am so jealous! wish I could write shorts. Hey – we’re going to go to the crime museum soon – it closes in April, and after your amazing review I figured I’d find loads of inspiration there.

      Like

      1. I did thanks, I’m going to have to keep up with your blog, you have a gift of writing some great posts.

        I saw in one of your comments that you would like to be able to write short stories, I regularly take part in a short story ‘blog battle’ if you’re interested maybe you should have a go?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Aww thank you hearing that has made my day 💖

        I have heard of the blog battle – is that Rachel? I do a weekly flash challenge here. I can do flash anything under 500 I’d say, it’s 1000 upwards I struggle! But you’re not the first to mention the blog battle. I think I will give it a go once I finish editing my current script 😊 thanks for the heads up 😍

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Hi, yes it’s Rachaels blog battle and it’s typically 1000 words. It would be good to see you take part. I can imagine your editing is taking up a fair bit of time!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. What a fab post Sach. I love the dissection and breakdown from Esther on short story writing, brilliant!
    Oh, and don’t beat yourself up about not being able to be a short story writer. We all have our own niches. This doesn’t make you any less of a writer.🙂❤

    Liked by 1 person

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