I read a piece of flash recently that grabbed my interest from the first line. It was a magical realism piece with a strong character and an unusual voice and odd events and images, and I kept reading to see how the author would tie all these strands together. And then the story ended with the character waking up and the narrator saying, “It was all just a dream.”
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I’m not sure I can adequately express how disappointing it is to read a story – particularly and interesting and well-written one – only for it to end with the character waking up from a dream. Realizing the entire story was just a dream makes me think, “So what?” If all the reader knows about the character is the character’s dream without any context, then readers really don’t know anything about the character or what’s at stake for her. It’s an anecdote, not a story.
When I wrote about opening sentences, I cautioned against starting a story with a character waking up. Now, I’m giving the same words of caution about writing a conclusion. If the entire story is a dream and then the character wakes up at the end, it shows that the writer needs to keep working and pushing a little harder to find a better way to conclude the story.
But what is a better way to conclude?
Melanie Faith has some great ideas in her book, In a Flash!: Writing & Publishing Dynamic Flash Prose, about concluding pieces of flash. One, a common ending type for many types of writing, is the circular ending, which includes circling back to a character, image, quote, or other symbol from the beginning of the story. This helps the reader to see the character or symbol or situation from a new perspective or see how it has changed since the beginning.
Melanie also suggests ending flash stories at the height of the action: “Since flashes are snapshots of conflict or vignettes of place and character, you can conclude at the high point of tension.”
Honing in on a symbol or concluding with a meaningful piece of dialogue, Melanie says, are both appropriate ways to end a piece of flash. Both options can highlight the story’s theme.
Let’s look at WOW’s Fall 2021 Flash Fiction Contest winners’ stories for other conclusion ideas:
- In “Breaking Silence,” Jean Li Spence concludes with a quote from a haiku that summarized the character’s experience.
- Jeanninne Escallier Kato returns to a word she uses in her introduction to give the word new meaning after the events in her story “Milagro.”
- Teresa Boardman ends with some action, and a bit of a cliff hanger, in her story “Martian.”
Writing a conclusion can be tricky, particularly in a first draft, but they’re so important because they’re the last impression the reader has of your story, and you want to leave a lasting impression.
Do you have any other types of endings that you like to use? Or any that you wish writers would avoid?
Tips brought to you by Anne Greenawalt, who keeps a blog of journal entries, memoir snippets, interviews, training logs, book reviews, and profiles of writers and competitive sportswomen. She is a writer for WOW! Women on Writing, Trail Sisters, and Story Terrace. She has a master's degree in Creative Writing: Prose from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England and a doctorate in Adult Education from Penn State University. She is also a competitive swimmer, a trail adventurer, a dog lover, and a new mom. Tweets at @dr_greenawalt.