Before you start writing your short story, ask yourself, “How does it end?”
Sound strange? Imagine this: You gather your belongings, lock the house, get in the car, start the engine, and…tap the steering wheel with your thumbs, contemplating the fact that you have no place to go.
Why would you have gotten into the car without a destination in mind? Probably for the same reason that some writers write short stories without identifying an end: they want to enjoy a slow and scenic Sunday drive; to bask in the deliciousness of a therapeutic word-dump; to experiment with characters and allow them to direct the story. Here’s the problem: Readers don’t always appreciate being driven in circles, no matter how grand the scenery.
We’ve all been there: you want to write something great, have chosen a subject and researched it, concocted some interesting characters, can visualize the scene, have an engaging first line, and have no clue about how the story will end — but start to write anyway. This doesn’t usually end well (literally). Your readers will quickly get the sense that they’re being driven by a driver who has no idea where he or she is going. The reader won’t be taken up by the story. Instead, a lack of focus will intrude and the ending will feel disjointed (whether aliens descend upon 18th Century France and vaporize everyone or not).
Your vehicle doesn’t need a digital sign on the roof declaring its destination; however, the driver does need to know where he’s going. When you have the end of your short story in mind, every action, every piece of dialogue, every twist of the plot, and every character trait will work to lead your readers to an ending that fits. Even surprise endings should be accompanied by readers’ fruitful retrospection (things that once didn’t make sense suddenly fall into place).
Before you write the beginning or the middle of your short story, decide on the end. Then drive (write) with that destination in mind. Your passengers (readers) are sure to value both the “getting” and the “there.”