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I'm looking to create a few short stories that are in a shared universe of sorts and I'm curious whether or not I need to have a definitive ending to a story. I'm thinking that the "end" would be more of a cliffhanger or something along the lines of the protagonist resolving some situation and moving towards the next conflict/plot point/scene to be picked up in a later story. I'm just not sure if this would take away from the story itself. I don't plan on selling these stories or publish them, just for my own collection. Maybe eventually bundle them together to have the entire universe experience or morph them into a connected novel.

Long winded explanation aside, I'm wondering if short stories need to have a definitive ending and resolution.

Thanks in advance!

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    I don't see why the answer to this is any different from the answer about any story (of any length) needing a conclusion. – Jason Bassford May 21 '18 at 18:19
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I'm a big fan of ambiguous endings, when done well. The key is this: Your story doesn't have to tie up all loose ends, many, perhaps most short stories don't. But if you want people to be happy with your story, you do need to bring it to some kind of satisfying conclusion that doesn't rely on a larger context, something that makes readers feel they did not waste their time reading your story.

Of course, what counts as "satisfying" can vary largely. As with a full-length book, you build a certain "contract" with your reader in the opening of your story that affects what they will accept for an ending. If you begin with "once upon a time," readers will expect you to end "happily ever after" --or to justify why not. If you begin in the middle of the action, readers will be more inclined to let you end there. For many short stories, it's enough to fulfill your contract to show your main character going through some significant shift, or experiencing some memorable triumph or defeat.

One of the best written short stories I know is Murakami's "100% Perfect Girl", which has both a frame story and a story within the story. If you read it carefully, you'll see how explicitly he prepares you for how both stories end, which is part of how a story with such an ambiguous ending can still feel so satisfying.

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    Thanks for the response! I really like this idea of a "contract" with the reader. I think that kind of helps stories in general click in my head a bit better. It's like leading the reader down a path to a maze with the readers intention being that we will lead them out of it. If we don't lead them to the exit, or at least in some way show them the path to the exit, it might leave them feeling betrayed or that they've wasted their time. Thanks again! – Dylan Beck May 21 '18 at 20:20
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Yes, if you want readers to be satisfied with your writing.

You don't have to answer everything, or explain everything, but a story (long or short) has a central unknown that is the reason the reader is reading, and the story isn't over until it is answered.

That central unknown may or may not be explicitly stated, but the MC has a problem that is driving them to actions, and that problem must be resolved in some way by the time the story ends.

"Resolving some situation and moving on to the next" is fine.

A cliffhanger leading to another story is fine too, IF you resolved the central problem of the current story. If you did not, then you don't have a story ending, you have a single multi-installment story (like a two-episode finale for a TV season -- It is one story told in two "parts" or installments).

  • Thanks for the response. I see what you're saying. What I was thinking is something short like a little character introduction, a fight/battle scene (some sort of conflict), questions arise from something that happens (this will be the main plot arch), the fighting/battle ends or is resolved (maybe the characters escape for now), but the mystery remains. This will be picked up in a 2nd part later down the road (when I get to writing it). So the immediate conflict is resolved, but the overall arch isn't. What do you think? Of course, that's a very dumbed down version of what I'll expand upon. – Dylan Beck May 21 '18 at 20:15
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    If the main conflict of the short is the battle, and the battle is resolved (basically ended), then you have a story; preferably it will be uncertain in that story how the battle will be won (or lost). For readers to sustain interest, there must be something up in the air (that lands at the end). Fighting and winning or losing is fine; if in the aftermath a mystery is exposed, that is fine too: Tune in next week! Think like a Detective series: One show introduces, then resolves, a full mystery. but character arcs (setbacks, wins, life changes) may continue across a hundred episodes. – Amadeus May 21 '18 at 20:37
  • I think this is exactly what Im going for! I just finished laying out the basic points in my story for this small battle. Opens with a small fight, seems resolved but something strange is introduced. This leads into questions, then a continuation (larger) of the original battle. They barely escape or win the fight, but the questions still remain. The end will be resolving the battle/fight. The main character is given motivation by this mystery and what he could gain from it (probably monetary as he's kind of a scoundrel). Then I can pick it up in a second story later. Thanks for your response! – Dylan Beck May 21 '18 at 20:55
  • @DylanBeck Then, if you pay attention to chronology, you might turn that into a book of shorts, "The Adventures of [MC]". You may indeed have a villain in mind, but not every book needs a villain. Sometimes the antagonist is the environment, or a compelling mystery. It does not have to be evil at all, we just follow the hero because he becomes driven to overcome or understand something. For a greedy person, it may be as simple as finding their fortune without stealing it, for a scientist, solving a puzzle or curing a disease, for an athlete, setting a record or winning an Olympic Gold Medal. – Amadeus May 24 '18 at 10:33
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No, they don't have to have a definitive ending

There are very few things that you "have" to do in writing. We could spend all day debating what these things are and never come up with a solid answer.

However, I think we can all agree that short stories (or stories of any length, for that matter) do not need definitive endings.

You can end a story however you want, but you do want to be think about how people may react to a cliffhanger with no plans of continuing.

Many stories have ending with cliffhangers or that don't answer everything. A few examples that come to mind are The Foundation Series and Till We Have Faces. Neither one is a short story, but the same idea can be applied to short stories. While does not end it on a cliffhanger, the short story "Where Have You Been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?" doesn't answer all of your questions, and that is one of the main reasons why I love it so much.

  • Thanks for the response. I'm pretty new to putting pen to paper (keyboard to google drive?) and getting my stories out so I'm not sure if there's a wrong way to do things. I appreciate you responding. I'll take this into consideration. I think I'll just write the story and see where I think it should leave off! Thanks! – Dylan Beck May 21 '18 at 19:00
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Some of my favourite short stories have no definitive ending

Most of them are in Dubliners by James Joyce. They typically don't really have a start either, and consist of a window of time in the protagonists' lives in which something changes; be it a progression from social climber to social disaster, or from innocence to a greater understanding of one's true identity.

My very favourite is An Encounter (this link is to a synopsis that I would recommend not reading if you ever intend to read the short story itself). The ending (of the 'story' as written) is very much a beginning to a more complex and difficult period of life, the content of which we are left to imagine for ourselves.

The full text of The Encounter is here.

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Ah. GO WITH YOUR GUT!

That paper is your world and you are holding the pencil. You are the creator, You know your story better than anyone. If you believe in your idea and it gives you passion; I know it does I read it in your post.

Lord of the Rings; one of the greatest trilogies of all time had cliffhangers that made the audience angry, dissapointed at the unresolved. But they came back for more and more. Look at it's success.

Suspense.... Such a seductress.

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Many novels (especially those in a series) don't have a definitive ending. Oh sure they wrap up some lines of plot but they don't answer them all. Lord of the Rings can just as easily be read as one extremely large novel as it can be three separate ones. Harry Potter ended each book after a year but it isn't until the end that the overall arc actually gets wrapped up. So why not apply the same logic to short stories?

The story is over when it feels it's over, no other criteria. Most of my short stories end in ambiguous ways intentionally. But most of what I write it intended to make the reader think rather just tell of the events of someone's day.

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Short answer: no, a short story does not need a definitive ending (for suitable definitions of the term definitive ending.)

Longer answer: Short stories can be classified and analyzed and grouped in all sorts of different ways but they can be loosely divided into literary and genre stories (with lots of caveats and disagreements and gray areas.) This division may also loosely correlate with character driven and plot driven stories.

Examples of literary stories are works like Hemmingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Singer's Gimpel the Fool and Bierce's An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. (You can likely find all of these available online if you're not familiar with them.) They often do not have a definitive ending, and it may be difficult to articulate their plot in terms of conflict and resolution. Some people (particularly long-suffering high school students forced to analyze them for a graded essay) may claim they don't have a plot at all. Their intent is generally not to tell a recognizable story. Their purpose is "... that the reader shall come away with the satisfactory feeling that a particular insight into human character has been gained, or that his (or her) knowledge of life has been deepened, or that pity, love or sympathy for a human being is awakened." Lin Yutang

Genre stories, on the other hand, tend to be more traditional tales. They may be detective stories or romances or fantasies or any of the dozens of other genres that we use to distinguish between types of books. And like any other work of a given type, they have tropes and expectations that go along with the genre. For most if not all of these, the reader expects a definitive ending. They expect a conflict and a resolution. If you present your story as a genre story and then fail to meet the reader's expectations, you will generally engender frustration and dislike. That doesn't mean you can't do it but it does mean that it is much more difficult to make your story successful in the reader's eyes. If, as you suggest, you're writing more for your own amusement than any expectation of commercial or external success, then of course you can do anything you like.

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Need implies no rational argument exists by witch you can have a short story without a definitive ending. Lady and The Tiger exists, therefor short stories do not need a definitive ending. QED

Perhaps at a greater philosophical level no story needs to have a definitive end. And there's a whole thought process that goes into saying stories can't end, can't begin as they're always being told. The players and cast change overtime, but time continues in both directions without exception.

Stories are usually a little more concise than all that. So, what you're looking for, really, is whether the primary point of conflict being dealt with is resolved. Even in lady and the tiger the primary point of conflict is resolved, we just don't know how.

You're not asking if something can have an ambiguous ending, so much as whether you can tell a smaller part of a story. Let's flip the question on its head; because you can obviously write whatever you want and rephrase it:

Will readers read a collection of short tales that are part of a larger scheme and don't resolve a grand conflict?

Yes, and they do all of the time. The trick is to give people a bite that is both interesting and satisfactory. Successful short stories tend to arrive at a point where its clear things have changed, but they often do not resolve everything. They can't, there's not enough space. As long as its clear that the current events have caused a change and that change is very interesting the text can serve as a short story. People will still want to have enough information to feel like there's progression of a sort, but unlike a novel you can never deliver everything.

I would caution you to not have "cliff-hangers", as in sudden reveals with a "find out next time". If you're doing that, you're writing serial fiction, which means you are committed to writing more. Which is fine, but that's not telling a short story. A short story should be like a course in a meal. It should feel complete unto itself, but part of something larger all the same. It may leave the diner hungry for more or cleanse their palet; but it should serve a purpose and do it satisfactorily, automatically even if it a part of a larger tale that is richer when viewed as a whole.

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