Students struggle with endings for a number of reasons. For many, it’s that they run out of time, and write things like ‘NOT FINISHED! SORRY SIR!’, others have no idea how to end something and a fair few have no plan whatsoever so an ending is a happy accident if it occurs. I find that some of the best writing from students can be ruined-or the impact lessened- if the ending is poor or nonexistent so in this post I’m looking at strategies to make endings much more satisfying. The ideas can be thought of in two ways: 1) strategies to allow for sophisticated, controlled endings and 2) quick wins for students struggling with endings. I’m focusing on fiction here, although it will hopefully be useful for other types of writing.
Start with the end…
Before starting to write, students should at least think about the end. Even better, they should write it. That way, everything builds towards that. Not every novel builds to a satisfying sentence or paragraph but for me the ones which do linger longer in the memory. In some cases, such as Stoner by John Williams, the ending can even elevate the whole text.
One simple way for students to think of story planning is in terms of conflict and resolution. If students have a clear idea of the resolution then they are essentially building their story towards this. This won’t always help them with specific ways to end writing but it will ensure that there is an end! I’d always recommend simplicity in narrative writing: one main story(conflict), a couple of characters, one setting and a small period of time in which everything occurs. This will help students to have focused endings too.
…end with the start
Look at how Charles Dickens does this in A Tale of Two Cities:
Opening: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
Ending: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
It is satisfying the way that the language of the ending echoes the language of the opening. There is a link with the development of best into better. Also, the balance of the sentences is repeated and anaphora is used in both. And because the last line is describing his death in positive terms, it is the best and worse of times! To what extent these connections are always noticeable in a novel, I don’t know, but it would be very clear in a short story written by a student.
For students who are the master of their craft, this is a lovely way to structure writing. It can be designed right from the start. For students who are struggling, it’s a simple way to round off their work. If they struggle with an ending you can just say ‘link it to your opening’.
Another interesting way to end might be to use the title in the ending. This can even be reverse engineered by students struggling at the end who can use something from their ending as the title, offering that satisfying resolution and a sense of control.
Simply repeating the opening sentence would work or repeating a variation of the opening sentence e.g. asking a question in the opening that is answered in the ending.
Students can illustrate some sort of change from opening to ending. For example, if they started by describing the rain pelting against windows then they can end with the sun appearing from behind the clouds.
I don’t think this only applies to endings, but deliberately using some complex rhetorical techniques gives a satisfying, structured ending which feels controlled. I have spent whole lessons on antithesis (the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas in balanced phrases or sentences), anaphora (the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses) and epistrophe (the repetition of a word at the end of successive clauses or sentences).
For example, after studying epistrophe, one of my students wrote this, although they eventually reworked it as an opening:
I’d asked my mum, almost my whole childhood,”Where’s daddy gone?” and everytime, my mum would say the same things: “He’s gone away but he’s not coming back”; “He loves you but he’s not coming back.”; “He’s a bad man, and he’s not coming back.” But that was before it all started. That fateful day, when he came back.
I like the way that the epistrophe highlights the phrase ‘he’s not coming back’ before the twist at the end. This ending from another student ties together all sorts of ideas and feels deeply satisfying:
As the snow began to fall into the trenches, it became unbearable. As the rain began to plummet into the trenches, it became hate. As the sun began to shine into the trenches it became heaven.
End on a thought
The end of a piece of writing can be conceived as a final thought which can be described in a word and then expanded into a sentence. If you can get students to encapsulate the ideas of their writing in one sentence then that can become the ending sentence of their writing. Look at the end of Frankenstein:
He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.
The one sentence fully encapsulates the bleakness of that story. It is hugely satisfying for the reader too. It’s exactly the sort of sentence that students can read, play around with, construct their own. They could rewrite it, changing the tone:
He was soon whisked away by the waves and lost in shouts of joy.
It was soon hidden away by time and lost in memory and imagination.
Share and discuss examples
I use mentor mats which start with a complete mentor text and then include example openings and endings. Like anything, the more high quality examples students see, the better they will become. For instance, here is an interesting document with one list of the ‘100 best last lines from novels‘. I’m not sure all of them work out of context, mind you, but they are useful for discussion. It doesn’t take much extra effort to draw attention to the endings of texts studied in class either. Of Mice and Men is great to discuss, ending as it does with, “Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?” which is often met with ‘eh?’ in my classroom! I’d even recommend looking at the last stanzas and lines from poems to get a real sense of well-crafted endings where every word counts.
Impose length restrictions
Some students will write and write, often creating a whole novel if you let them. If you impose a limit then they have to plan things carefully and have time to craft consciously. Exam boards do this and in the WJEC English exam they have an hour to write two pieces so learning to be concise but effective is essential.
Hopefully, those ideas will help improve students’ endings – there’s nothing worse than
(SORRY NOT FINISHED!)