A few weeks back, I wrote an article about where to begin your short story or novel. The article asked you to visualize your story as a party. My point was that you can create the most amazing shindig ever—full of awesome character arcs, strong tension, and engaging dialogue—but if you don’t invite anyone, no one’s ever going to read it.
But just as you must invite the reader, so too should you be a gracious fiction host and thank the reader for their time.
So, let’s assume your invitation works, and the reader comes to your fiction fiesta. You’ve given them a hell of a good story, and they’re on their way out the door. As their host, it is now your job to send them a thank-you note—a way of extending your gratitude for reading.
This is the job of your story’s ending: to thank the reader. It’s the pay-off. Now please don’t confuse this with a happy ending. I’m not saying that your readers should walk away with a big dumb smile on their face. Not at all. But a solid story ending will satisfy the reader in other more substantial ways if it has, in most cases, three elements:
1) Transformation. Your protagonist has faced whatever conflict you introduced in your opening paragraphs and in the course of that struggle she has been forever altered. Since that conflict was rooted in some character flaw, ideally she also overcomes or resolves that flaw. Maybe she swears learns that she doesn’t really need peanut butter cups to be happy.
2) Victory and defeat. Let your ending be a mixed mag. Life offers us very few solid wins. Likewise, neither should our fiction. Most readers understand this on a primal level. So, if your hero triumphs, make sure she also loses something vital. Or if she loses, make sure she walks away all the better for it. Maybe she gets all the chocolate in the world, but learns that she has an allergy to peanut butter.
3) The final lines are rooted in sensory details. Don’t leave the reader swimming in the depths of your protagonist’s head. Give them a solid image—a concrete thing—to visualize at story’s end. Maybe it’s the smooth center and crinkled edges of an uneaten peanut butter cup.
Do these three things, and your readers are almost guaranteed to come clamoring back for more. So, be a gracious host. Invite your readers to the story with a strong beginning and thank them afterward with a satisfying ending. And if all else fails, bribe them with peanut butter cups.