Of course, this is exactly what you want people to do with your stories. You want those final words to hold onto people and force them to start conversations. But how is this done? Here are a few things to try:
- Delicious ambiguity - Spoiler alert for Inception. This movie ends with a spinning top that might be on the verge of falling - or might never fall. The sense of the entire story depends on what happens next, and the director does not let you see what happens. Which has led to endless discussions.
- An image - I think first here of the freeze frame that ended Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as they rushed to take on what looked like the entire Bolivian army. That shot was much imitated (diminishing its punch), but I think it worked because it showed action, but did not complete it. The audience could imagine the likely (hamburger heroes) or the unlikely, one more daring escape. I read The Grapes of Wrath decades ago, and I still can see the image of Rosasharn trying to save a starving man with the milk meant for her stillborn child.
- A mixed ending - One of my teachers called these bittersweet. The hero wins the race, but he loses his love. This is somewhat expected and isn't guaranteed to stay with readers, but it beats a pure happy ending.
- If only - Somehow a tragedy that happens only because nineteen things go wrong can get its hooks into you. You keep going back to see if one of those wrong turns might have been avoided. Were they all inevitable? Were some less inevitable? What would have happened if any of them went the other way?
- A good joke - This is a dangerous one because it can trivialize the whole story. Caper movies use this approach, and I think immediately of the ending of The Sting (I must be in a Newman/Redford mood) where the trick is turned. (Interestingly, Ocean's Eleven turns its trick, but has a powerful image ending - the almost religious assembly at the fountain.)
- A revelation - This may be the most powerful and difficult. If you can have an ending that reveals how society works, how people work - how WE work - in an elegant and satisfying way, people will hold onto that ending with both hands. To Kill a Mockingbird does this for me.
Also of Interest: