02 March 2011

How Do You Know When Your Story Is Finished?

by P.J. Kaiser

This question has been weighing on my mind so I thought I'd do a post about it in hopes of getting some input from others. How many times have you written what you think is a complete short story only to have readers comment that you should consider writing a longer piece. This has happened to me a lot and I am never quite sure how to take this feedback. This could, in my mind, mean either ...

Author P. J. Kaiser
The characters and/or setting are so engaging the readers are indicating they'd like to immerse themselves further in this world and get to know the characters even better.

- or -

The ending of the story was utterly unsatisfying to the readers and so by encouraging me to write on, they're actually just begging me to finish the story.

And sometimes it seems to happen so often to me that I wonder if the reader even knows. Or maybe it's even a mixture of both. Bottom line is it has left the reader wanting more. Possibly in the way that once you have a taste of a giant drippy chocolate sundae you want MORE. Or possibly in the way that if you hear a bad song by a band that you like it leaves you wanting MORE because you know it can be better.

All of this has left me wondering how do you know when a story is finished? I decided to do some research and see what some writing experts think about the issue.

K.M. Weiland has this post entitled “What a Mouse Can Teach You About Story Arc.” The post is more geared towards novels, but it seems that stories can and should follow the same idea of having a definite beginning, middle and end. This post emphasizes that in the end of the story, the obstacles presented in the middle need to be overcome and the main character achieves their goal in the end. This can be one formula for success, but in terms of short stories, there are many other ways of handling an ending. At a minimum, we need to consider that a story may have an unhappy ending or might actually have an unresolved ending. Regardless, this definitely presents one potential way of knowing when your story is finished.

Let’s see what Victoria Mixon has to say on the topic. She has this post entitled “Five Ways to Make Your Novel Unforgettable.” She discusses similar ideas in terms of story arc in a more generic way using the concept of “fuses” and the eventual “climax” that wraps up all the loose ends (i.e., fuses), and is both surprising and inevitable.

So, let’s consider what we’ve learned from these two insightful posts. If you’re busily writing along and you’re not sure whether to continue the story or not, then it seems to me that consideration of the story arc and whether you have a recognizable beginning, middle and end is relevant. The exception may be with extremely short flash fiction. In some cases, flash fiction skips the beginning entirely and drops the reader into the middle.

I’ve come up with a list of things to consider about the end of your story to help you determine whether you should, in fact, end your story here or continue:

• Has the ending resolved the obstacles presented in the middle, either happily or unhappily?

• Has your main character achieved their goal that has been plaguing them throughout the story?

• If the ending has been resolved unhappily, do you intend to leave your reader in a state of depression or is there a glimmer of hope to be found somewhere in the resolution?

• Have all the fuses – i.e., loose ends - been resolved? If not, your reader may be left unsatisfied by your ending.

• If you have stopped your story with an unresolved ending, has your reader had enough background to envision what the possible outcomes are? If the reader can envision what would happen with a potential “yes” answer and a potential “no” answer, then leaving it to the reader might be okay, especially in shorter fiction.

So what do you think about my list? Do you agree that these are the right question? Are there other questions or possibilities to consider? Do you think the concept of story arc only applies to novels? If it applies to short stories also, what tweaks, if any, need to be made to the idea? Please share your thoughts on how to figure out if your story is over.

P.J. Kaiser stays at home with her two young children and finds time to write – generally in thirty-second increments. She writes mostly flash fiction and serial stories in a variety of genres. Her work has appeared in anthologies such as “Best of Friday Flash Volume 1,” “50 Stories for Pakistan,”the forthcoming “100 Stories for Queensland,” and, most recently, “Nothing But Flowers: Tales of Post-Apocalyptic Love.” She can usually be found hanging around at her blog “Inspired by Real Life.” P.J. is also the co-moderator of “Tuesday Serial,” a weekly collection of links to the latest installments of some of the web’s best online serials. P.J. lives with her family in Hoboken, New Jersey. Her personal blog can be found at inspired by real life.


  1. This is exactly where I am right now with a few short stories. You have given me too many choices. So I'm still debating.I will need to digest it more these options. Wonderful post. Thank you, right up my alley so to speak right now. I'm going to sleep on it.I shall come back and take it in again.

    Q. Has your main character achieved their goal that has been plaguing them throughout the story? A. could well take one into a longer version.

    A. some hope ...

    have all loose ends been resolved....Hmm!

    The first one I'm still thinking about....concerning the middle issues resolved by the end happily or unhappily- that depends how one looks at it...

  2. Great post. Thanks so much for sharing my article about the mouse. I get such a chuckle out of that cheese commercial every single time I watch it! And I agree, it's definitely just as pertinent (if not more so) to short stories as it is to novels.

  3. Jacqueline - Thanks for your comment - Mission accomplished - my hope was to get readers to mull these questions over in their minds :-)

  4. KM - Thanks for stopping by - Yes, the mouse video is a great visual image when struggling with a storyline ;-) Thanks for weighing in!

  5. I've had many of the same questions myself, but because I write more novels than shorter works and often in a series... I think the need for a hanging end is paramount.

    Some of my favorite works have left the most unexpressed answers to the questions that they posed. That in itself may be why they've left the impression on me that they have.

  6. Carrie - that's a great point ... and I think one additional perspective is the need to consider the genre. My mom enjoys reading mysteries and would stage a revolt if a book has an open-ending. The same is perhaps true with romance. And I agree with you, Carrie, that leaving it to the reader to fill in their interpretation for the ending is often very satisfying.

  7. I think as a storyteller,the story is never finished. I know my mind works in episodes, and while each short story I write has a beginning middle and end, often the entire work could be the beginning of something greater. With that said, I have written a few flash fiction pieces that I felt were underdeveloped with regard to character on the first draft and are just begging to be revamped into longer works.

    I think you know you are done when you've given the reader just enough to strike an emotional response but not too much as to make that response prescriptive. It's a delicate balance.

  8. Neil Gaiman suggested (in the intro to "Stories: All-New Tales") that fiction is worthy if reading it makes the reader ask "And then what happened?". I think you're done at the point where the reader asks that question with the least insistence. I suppose, realistically, you've also reached that point when you can only answer "not much". You probably haven't reached that point if there are still any bullets left in Checkov's revolver...

  9. GP and Stephen - Those are both terrific ways to look at it - thanks for the comments!

  10. Edward Marsh5/10/2012 1:30 AM

    I love writing small stories in class and I never stop, I've been thinking of writing a book and this site has really helped me THANKS!