Don’t think that crafting the perfect ending is a cinch. There are a variety of endings an author can choose, depending upon the audience, but choosing carefully is a must. For this blog, I will concentrate on endings in literary short stories.
Remember we are not writing a script for Disney, or even a Bollywood movie. Movies are a different art form. What a scriptwriter can get away with in movies may not be believable in fiction. Movies take people for a ride, often through the land of impossible. If you see it, you believe it. But in fiction—not so. Writers must create characters, scenes, plots and stories that are believable. Processing stories in the mind is a far cry from being receptive to visual images.
Have you ever read a story and you’re not quite sure what’s missing, but something doesn’t feel right? Perhaps you have the same response that you’d after watching a flaky horror movie. You can’t believe anything you’ve seen. You want something more. You quickly forget the entire movie. There’s nothing left to contemplate.
What if I tell you that often less is more in fiction, that to cut the fairy tale ending expands the story in readers’ minds?
Ask yourself—what makes a story true-to-life? A short story often takes place in a short time—minutes or hours, sometimes slows to milliseconds (like Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”)—and a short story must end somewhere. That somewhere doesn’t have to feel like a brick wall or expand into a world seen through rose-coloured glasses where everyone lives happily ever after.
Is life really that way—happy all the time?
Maybe in Bollywood or Hollywood or Chicken Soup stories, we expect formulaic endings from some entertainment sources and we want a feel-good experience, hopeful, perhaps. But in literature, particularly in contemporary form, readers are not convinced by flippant tellings. Readers in this era are skeptical. They know what they don’t know and the last thing contemporary readers want is to be told a lie.
One day the pendulum may swing back to fairy tale endings, but for now we need to keep it real.
Readers can also spot a hurried ending. The writer worked hard on the piece, but couldn’t quite work out a solid ending. The result—a quick wrap up that translates into – They fell in love and lived happily ever after.
Before submitting your story, ask yourself if your ending gives this impression. Since short stories tend to cover short periods of time and are often character-driven, how much sense does it make—in most cases—to expand time in the last paragraph summing up the entire remainder of a character’s existence as happily ever after?
Instead, give the reader a sense that he or she is right there with the character. The character may, at the end of the story, have changed, be on the cusp of change or may not have changed. Either way, the character is left within a moment in time when the story ends. Why not leave the reader in this moment as well?
By leaving readers suspended in a specific moment along with a story’s character, the story is open in the same way as the character experiences life. What the character decides next may be what a particular reader decides he would do next. In literature readers want real endings. They do not want to be told everything is a cliché from hereafter.
When I say “leave readers suspended”, I do not mean cut the ending short like you would hack a coconut in two with a machete. Although, some stories, when handled well, deliberately end in a punch, there is a difference between surprise punch and dropping a bowling ball on the reader’s foot.
Read the story aloud. Does the story feel incomplete? Then it probably is. But incomplete doesn’t mean write more, necessarily. The feeling may come from the ending being trite, cliché or irrelevant. The ending may be weak, perhaps not matching up to the drumbeats readers heard throughout the body of the work. Or, perhaps the story should end a few paragraphs sooner, or even a page sooner.
Details. A short story must be examined under the author’s microscope. With a short story everything is tight. We are not writing a novel here. If we keep getting something that reads like a novel, or we can’t keep our short stories short, then perhaps we are good at writing novels or need more practice crafting short stories and must be patient with ourselves, confront tough questions about our writing and practice more.
A blog written by Kelsie Hahn, “Five Short Stories that End with Grace”, at Puerto Del Sol – A Journal of New Literature, contains several fine examples of contemporary short story endings. What do these endings leave you with? Take a look at something you’ve written. What does your ending leave readers with?
- Is it a surprise ending, a twist that’s shocking, yet believable?
- Open ended? Does this ending work for the story?
- Have you tied up loose ends?
- Does the story ramble on unnecessarily once the climactic moment has occurred?
- The character has an epiphany—is it written believably so that the reader feels on the same page as the character, or do you tell the reader? Never mention in a short story that a character “realizes” something. That’s a no-no.
- Emotional ending. Can the ending be a mixture of emotion—neither too sad, nor too gleeful? A contemplative ending.
- Is the character given every opportunity to change his/her life, but at the last moment chooses to revert to old ways?
- Does the ending tie in with the story? Does the ending make sense? Is it logical to readers? Will readers believe it?
- Is the ending cliché? Was the ending a dream, a happily ever after tale or a tale of love or heroics where the main character dives into thought about his/her success? These are endings to avoid.
- Does the short story end by pulling a moment from earlier on and rehashing it? Sometimes this works well.
Any way you look at it, short story endings are important. In fact, there is no element in a short story that isn’t important, that doesn’t deserve utmost attention from its author. The ending is what readers are left contemplating. Beginnings grab readers, interest them to read further, and middles must keep up, but endings leave an aftertaste.
What aftertaste does your story leave?
(Picture credit: Shanti Perez)