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How to know when it is Finished

Ivor Slipper

I guess virtually everyone knows that when you start a story you have a couple of sentences, or perhaps if you are lucky, a couple of paragraphs in which to grab the reader's attention. That is certainly true if you are a new author, probably if you are established, readers will give you a little more leeway before they quit.

So, that part is easy - except for actually writing it! - but the end of a story, is I believe almost as important. It is also important to differentiate between the end of a chapter and the end of a story. You can leave your reader with a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter and there is a good chance that they will be waiting eagerly for the next one to appear to find out what happened. That though is definitely not the way to end a story.

One of the sad things about reading stories at story sites on the Internet is to find how many just end in the middle of nowhere as if the driver has run out of petrol. If you buy a book you can be sure it will have an end. The ending might not be one you like or agree with, but it will be a conclusion. Perhaps it is a price you have to pay for being able to read stories for free. But, it is really frustrating when you have invested your time in perhaps reading many chapters to then find there is no more, but the story leaves you dangling while wanting more.

Having said that some authors will end a story without tying up all the loose ends. This is an intentional act on their part as opposed to, say, their just having lost interest in it. They want to leave the reader to draw their own conclusion from the facts they have provided. There is some logic to this type of ending, but I think there is also a degree of dissatisfaction for the reader. The author has spent time developing the characters and telling you about them and what has happened to them and you have accepted what he has said. Is it then right you should be left to take the story to a conclusion yourself? You could end up with a totally different one to what the author had in mind!

The alternative is for the author to present you with his ending. Sometimes when an author starts a story he will already have the end point in mind. At others the ending will occur to him as the story develops. Indeed it may even be changed as the story progresses. No doubt some authors draft out a story from start to finish before they begin to actually write it. Others will have a concept and the story develops and grows as it is being written.

It is also fair to say that the end of a story may not be the actual end of it. Sometimes, as for example with 'Challenge' stories here, there is a complete single chapter story written that fits the challenge set. However, the author may like the characters created and decide to write more about them. In that case the story becomes a serial and eventually another ending is needed!

The 'finish' can be one in which the author makes it evident to the reader what is going to happen next without the need to actually describe subsequent events. On other occasions the author will choose to describe those events before ending. Both have equal merit.

Finally, it is a good idea to try and finish the story with a 'good' line or sentence - one that might stick in the reader's mind or make them smile. Not easy to achieve, but if the reader finishes happy at the ending you have created they are more likely to look kindly on your next offering.

Perhaps I can illustrate what I mean by reference to a couple of stories of my own.

'I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside' was originally written as a single chapter 'Challenge' entry. I liked the characters I'd created and wanted to write more about them. When the story concluded in Chapter 7 it was evident what was going to happen next and no description of that was needed. Admittedly a further chapter has recently been added in which that description appears, but this chapter is really an epilogue.

Compare that to 'Unbeaten', also originally written as a single chapter story. I decided to expand it because, again, I liked the characters and wanted to know more about them. Here though the end point was set in my mind from the time I started to expand the story, but I considered it needed to be described to fit in with what had been said by the characters in the previous chapters.

So, both of these originally had what I considered to be reasonable endings as single chapter stories, but both left room for expansion into serials.


Ending or Extending a Short Story

Ivor mentions the short story that turns into a novel, or perhaps to a three or four chapter piece. Can every short story be extended?

To decide whether it can you need to look at the ending of the short. Does it round everything off, or is there room to go forwards? More important than that, even if everything is not rounded off, should it go forwards?

Looking at one of mine, Face at the Window, I am certain that it should have stayed at a short story. Others disagreed, and one wrote a second chapter. My ending was "Oh SHIT!", and purposely so.

Ending a book

Ivor has it right, in my view.

Some people write with a story plan. That means they can draw to a close precisely how they want to. Others, of which I am one, write to inspiration and allow the characters to take charge.

That gives us some problems:

Being Unable To finish

I am disappointed for my readers that I was wholly unable to finish the third book of Chris and Nigel. I tried very hard to bring it to a conclusion, but my characters fought me all the way. We got to a point where, to try to bring it to a conclusion, the plot turned to poo, and the characters started to say and do things that they would never have done. So I took a break and never finished it except to write a banal epilogue of what I had hoped to achieve. Better than nothing. So should I have started Book Three?

Knowing When to Stop
  1. What if you just can't write the story any longer? That was me with Chris and Nigel.
  2. What if inspiration goes on for so long that you get an enormous number of chapters?
  3. What if you want to finish, but can't make it work?

Some of these are easy to answer.

Number one? You've stopped already. Perhaps your audience deserves an explanatory note since you are publishing online. But, were it a book, that book would simply not have appeared on the store's shelves.

Number two? Split it into volumes. Remember that the start of a volume is a very brief synopsis of what has gone before, because the volume must stand alone. You need this to be neither too short nor too long. Rick Beck is a good exponent of volumes.

Number three? Who is in control here? Go back to the tale, edit it so that you can draw it to a close, and close it.

Ending a Chapter

Chapters can be short or long. They are intended to contain a single theme, an idea, a topic, that runs through the chapter and has then run its course. The chapter should end when that element ends, though needs to end tidily, and needs to encourage the reader to turn the page and start the next chapter

Your homework is to look at multi-chapter stories and to decide how well they do that. Then you model your chapters on the best examples you find.

I Can't Stop Writing Chapters

A paperback novel is somewhere between 80,000 and 120,000 words.

If your magnum opus starts to approach 120,000 words you need to do one of two things:

  1. Bring it to a close
  2. Bring this volume to a close

Ending a Volume

The skill to writing volumes is almost the same as the skill of writing chapters. Each volume needs to stand alone, and be capable of being read as an entity in its own right. That means that the end of the volume must be the same as the end of a book, with one exception.

It must leave the way open for the next volume

Ending a book, or Ending a Set of Volumes

Decided what you want to leave unsaid and what needs to be said. Say only that which needs to be said, then, leaving the heroes at a useful place, stop.


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