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The Short Story Ending

Leo Tolstoy by Mikhail Nesterov, 1906

Writing short stories poses unique challenges. How do you tell a story that is engaging, in fewer words, with less room for character development?

One of the key elements to writing a great short story is ending the story with an impact, a punch, something that brings it home as to what the story is all about. In other words, a moral to the story, an answer to a dramatic question, or a dramatic question that will leave the reader thinking. Give the reader a strong line or phrase in the end to remember the story and what you wanted to say.

I always like the example of Leo Tolstoy’s short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need.” Basically, this story is about a peasant, Pahom, who overhears a conversation and starts to think about what it would mean to be
a landowner.

“It is perfectly true,” thought he. “Busy as we are from childhood tilling Mother Earth, we peasants have no time to let any nonsense settle in our heads. Our only trouble is that we haven’t land enough. If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!”

The devil hears Pahom and decides to give him the opportunity to get land and through the getting, to show the peasant how his desire to be in control of his destiny will be his downfall.

“All right,” thought the Devil. “We will have a tussle. I’ll give you land enough; and by means of that land I will get you into my power.”

Incrementally Pahom acquires more and more land and at any point could say that this is enough. Finally through a competition, Pahom can own as much land as he can circle before sundown. He starts out thinking it through logically, but then gets greedy. In the end, he finds out how much land a man needs when he dies upon finishing the competition. The final line circles back around to the title and answers the question, while informing us about life and avarice and power. Tolstoy gives us a universal truth.

His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.

By the end of the story you realize Tolstoy is talking about a larger issue: How much is enough? His moral might be: greed is never satisfied or greed leads to downfall.

While looking at this story simply, it is easy to say that the end answers the question in the title very cleverly, and that’s all that’s needed to tell the story, however, it is the rich, yet simple way that Tolstoy develops the story that gives the ending an even stronger impact.

In these few paragraphs I cannot do this story justice. This is a great teaching story and if you are a short story writer, take some time to read through it and learn how Tolstoy pulls together the title, the theme, the dramatic question, and a great statement about humanity and life, all in a single punch line at the end.

[You can find the story online at]

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