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How do you know when a story is finished?

As it turns out, this might be a bit of a subtle science. The scuttlebutt around the Write Yorkshire watercooler is that knowing when a story is finished might be even trickier than knowing how to get started in the first place. We spend a lot of time working out how to come up with good ideas, how to write killer hooks and openings etc, but how do you know when a story is finished?

I recently listened to a podcast about Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; a one-hundred-and-forty-three-stanza-long poem, about an old sailor who is doomed to wander the earth telling his tale to all who will listen. Apparently, Coleridge spent the rest of his life, long after the poem’s publication, revising his masterpiece. He would even go to friends’ houses, pull the book off the shelf, and scribble in the margins. There are at least eighteen published versions of the poem in existence, and he only really stopped faffing with it when he had to - because he’d died.

I think Coleridge and I might have got on well. (Come to think of it, I’d have probably gotten along okay with the Mariner too. I’d much rather listen to an epic tale of death on the high seas than go to a wedding). Like Coleridge, I honestly don’t think a story is ever finished. There’s always something to refine, change, hone, develop. Even if you love the story and wave it off to the publisher with a proud tear standing in your eye, give it a few years and the context will change, or you will have changed, and you’ll want to hunt every copy down and give it one last tweak. Or shred it. It’s just the way it is.

It’s a bit like being the mum of grown-ups. Your babies are never ‘finished’. They grow up though, and, as much as you would like to protect them forever, and be in charge of all their decisions, and monitor who gets to interact with them, and make sure that whoever does so understands them properly and treats them with the respect they deserve, you can’t. Unless you want to get yourself a reputation as unhinged, and a restraining order to go with it.

There comes a point, as a writer, where you have to say, ‘This story says what I want it to say, in this moment, and says it the best way I can say it at this point in time.’ Then, let it go.

And if you’re anything like me, once it’s published, never, ever read it again.

I don't think I've ever felt finished with any of my writing ever. It's hard not to keep fussing and changing constantly. You'll often find that a writer is a perfectionist about their own work, you pour so much time and love into each piece that it can be impossible to let go and call it a day.

On occasion I've spent so long editing my writing that, by the deadline, I absolutely despise it. It can be difficult not to let that happen, so sometimes you have to set yourself a limit on how many times you can "just do one more read through" or "just change one more thing". It sounds absolutely terrible but for me, it's less that the story is 'finished' and more that I've gotten it to a point where I can cope with the idea of others reading it. I know that sounds like a wishy washy answer, but I think everyone has a different ritual when it comes to finishing (or in my case, stopping). I once had a lecturer tell me that a writer is never truly finished with a piece of work and I have to admit, the more I write, the more I agree.

There's also the little personal niggle I have, which is that I hate for any story to be finished. I love being totally immersed in a world that isn't quite my own, whether that's in reading or in writing so the idea of completely finishing, or ending, a story is a little heart-breaking to me. I think that might be why I sometimes find it so hard to hand over my work for others to read...

Regardless, I think finishing a story is a personal dilemma, one every writer has to figure out for themselves. So I suppose the truest answer is that it's finished when you say it is and it's as simple, and as complicated, as that.

And there it is - the question I've been dreading!

I am a terminal tinkerer. I can't help but continue to tweak and tweak and tweak. The most dreadful and heinous of creatures, who edits as I go, finishes a story and then continues to finesse the language instead of making major plot revisions or doing meaningful structural tuning.

Ironically, for someone who can't stop making little edits, I tend to finish draft one and find myself stumped on what to change for a draft two. I'm making a big effort to be conscientious and really look at my narrative, my characters, my structure. I look for weak bits to trim off and flat bits that need a bit more flare. I foist drafts on my long-suffering cohorts (thanks guys!) and when I can read it, leave it a little while and then read it again, without making any changes larger than a word or two here and there, that's generally when I deem it ready for release into the wild.

I'm also a bit of a repurposer. Something might sit 'finished' on my hard drive for a long time because it doesn't fit anywhere (yet). And then one day an opportunity might come along and instead of writing something from scratch, a lightbulb will go on and I'll pull out one of my orphans. Suddenly I'll know what that story is for! It might need a little bit of a nip tuck or it might need stripping down, reboring and rebuilding.

I love the idea that those random flashes of inspiration which result in several stonking paragraphs and then fizzle out can be put on a shelf in a jar and brought out when the time is right. Those ideas are just a little early, so put them somewhere safe for now.

Sometimes a story is only finished temporarily, so don't be afraid to hang on to something instead of using it immediately - trust your instinct. Three Matches from the recently published Horrifying Tales Anthology via Greenteeth Press was one such story. I'm also currently working on rewriting a short portfolio piece that was done for my midlife crisis Masters, changing the perspective from first to third and moving the setting from an indoor climbing wall to an outdoor rock face. The piece did what I needed it to do at the time but it's not quite ripe for general consumption yet. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a story is forget about it for a while.

So there are two questions here, for me: How do you know it's finished? And then how do you put it down?

I find deadlines really help. If the intention is to web publish, publish or enter it into a competition then get over the umming and ahing and hit the send button (this gets easier). Then close the file and walk away. Ultimately, for me, a story is 'finished' once it's been published or put in the public domain, and I will stop myself from buggering about with it at that point. I have a folder labelled 'Published' and once something has been filed there, I'm not allowed to play with it anymore.

I really believe that knowing when a story is finished is one of the most important and hardest learned skills you can develop as a writer. I don't have it yet, but I'm working on it and in the meantime I have a great support network to help me navigate my blind spots.

Like the rest of the questions we’ve answered, I’m not sure this has a concrete solution.

Stories can go through many stages before they’re finished. Sometimes a story might seem finished at first glance but something isn’t quite right. So, you put it aside, give it some space and when you come back to it later, you realise what was missing. The final piece of the puzzle. Likewise, you might finish a story as soon as you stop typing. I guess that might be less common than editing a story over and over until it feels “finished”, but it happens.

I suppose there is no secret to finishing a story. No checklist to determine when a piece is ready to be released into the world. That’s up to you. If a story doesn’t feel finished, then it isn’t. Do a full rewrite, get your red pen out, ask your peers for feedback. Print it out, grab some scissors and chop it to pieces until it transforms into something new. If none of that works, you’ve got two options:

  1. Abandon it. Put it aside. Your future self might find just the right spark of inspiration to finally finish it.

  2. Let it go. It does us no good to dwell on an unfinished story. Stories can sometimes feel like our babies. No matter what we do, we never feel ready to let them go. That doesn’t mean they aren’t finished. Perhaps we’re just scared of putting them out in the world. Scared of what people will think of them. Don’t worry about all that. You have to cut the cord at some point.

Put simply, a story is finished when you decide it is. It’s your decision. But most importantly, try not to worry about it too much. It’s our job to do the writing. Everything else will follow.


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Cover image by TanteTati via Pixabay


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