In this edition of Craft Chat, The Masters Review editors talk about a particularly tricky part of writing: nailing the ending. Or, sticking the landing. However you want to conceive of that finale, we talk about what, in our opinion, makes endings successful. (Which unfortunately is also why they’re so hard!)
Cole Meyer: Something that comes up a lot when we’re discussing submissions from the slush—and this seemed especially true when narrowing down our Winter Short Story Award shortlist—are endings that are underwhelming, abrupt, unambitious, or otherwise lackluster. A stellar ending can save a story just as much as a subpar ending can sink one. So what makes an ending “work” for you?
Melissa Hinshaw: The first thing that comes to mind is the end of Inception, with the spinning top in the last scene, and everyone was like WHAT DO YOU THINK HAPPENED, DID THE TOP KEEP SPINNING OR NOT? It was a cool ending for the movie but we see a lot of that same thing done less successfully with short stories.
People love to end on “and another day begins” sort of note, the world keeps turning—I’m super guilty of this in my writing too. There’s a difference between that spinning top and the world that keeps turning. There needs to be something that’s conditional along with that turn. The reader needs to know that another day begins and that means X thing or Y thing or Z thing for A or B or C character. For Inception, the question of the top means everything to the characters—was it all a dream or not? I guess that’s sort of confusing and why people keep trying to do this move in short stories, because it makes us question whether whatever happened to the characters was worth it or not. I guess then my beef here is people need to write stories where enough happens to the characters in the story for an ending like that to be powerful (think: big budget action film like Inception! Even if your story is a quiet small-town marriage story, whatever, it still has to have this sort of blockbuster psychological noise and depth to it somehow. The top can’t spin and the earth can’t turn unless there’s gravity!).
A good rule of thumb for short stories is: Did you answer a question? Did you answer the question you wanted to? Did you answer the question that the reader had? I once had a painting teacher say that painting is just making problems on your canvas and visually solving them until you don’t feel like making any more problems or there aren’t any problems left to solve, and I think they same goes for short stories. You don’t have to answer all the questions, but you do have to include reasons for or signposts as to why you didn’t answer them / why it was okay for them to go unanswered. People use that phrase “The best stories end with a question” (or something like that, do you guys know what I’m talking about?) as a cop-out all the time. I think we get a lot of stories whose endings feel like they’re hanging on a question about like “What is the meaning of life?” or “What does love even mean anyways?” which is LAZY. It is a super important question but did you help us ask it in a new way? Your job as a writer is to do that! We all ask those questions all the time, and good stories help us think about how to even think about answering them, or how to ask a different smaller more particular question that might shine a little bit of light on one of them.
That’s a lot for now…. there’s also that Pixar idea about giving people two plus two and letting them come up with four. What does a good “two plus two” ending look like?
Brandon Williams: I’ve read so many stories that I’ve loved until the final page, or even the final paragraph, and if that conclusion doesn’t hit, I’m all-out on the story. I’m usually willing to roll with places that I kind of bump against in the beginning or middle of a piece, but you hit just the tiniest of wrong notes with that climax or denouement, and it’s like all the rest of the work just sorta crumbles. They have to do so much: wrap up our readerly moment with the world while also making it clear the world itself will still be here without us (hence the gravitating toward “another day now begins,” as Melissa noted), give us some level of a moment that stands on its own and possesses a certain extra layer of beauty, but they also have to connect everything together while not seeming like they’re forcing that connection and I know everybody knows all of that but every time I think of that responsibility I’m amazed any story gets written at all.
I love Melissa’s “did you answer a question” presentation— my version of that is always, has there been an opportunity for change? That doesn’t have to be the character necessarily (our perception of the character can change, or our perception of the world, et cetera), and I’m not looking for that huge epiphanical moment where all is now different, but characters are given important via plot, and plot is given value via motion. So then, have we moved somewhere, have we gotten ourselves to a place where some thing is different, and I think that’s where a lot of the difficulties with conclusions, and with choosing when to conclude a story, come from. Change is such a nebulous concept even as it seems like it’s pretty straightforward, and when we’re working as deeply in the mind as so much fiction does the margins of what exactly change is are razor-thin, and so we’re left with this weird sort of desire to prove that everything has changed and so stay in the story too long or alternately to show that even while some things have changed the world itself isn’t fundamentally altered and so go the repetition route.
I don’t feel like I said anything valuable here. Endings are hard. I suppose I will say: We see a lot of stories that end at the same place in a narrative, like the moment of quiet reflection staring at some beautiful nature or the morning after when it all starts over or ending right at the start of the event that the character’s been concerned with the whole time. There’s nothing wrong with that choice, of course, but in the same way that the shape of every plot and the individual details of every character should be built around the singular concern of the piece, so too should our ending find a way to pitch itself as unique in shape or argument or image.
Cole: Endings are hard! They’re so incredibly hard! That’s why I’m always so impressed when a story completely nails an ending. Those endings that make you go, Oh my god, yes! You’re always told an ending should be both surprising and inevitable, which seems like a completely impossible task while you’re writing, but then you’re caught off guard when you find that ending that’s just right. The ending of one of my favorite stories of all time, Robert Olen Butler’s “JEALOUS HUSBAND RETURNS IN FORM OF PARROT” is one of those perfect endings: surprising, inevitable, painful, change-in-progress, and yet the first line of the story telegraphs the final: “I can never quite say as much as I know,” where the story ends with the narrator-in-parrot-form speaking the few phrases he knows as he hurls himself toward bird-icide, “Pretty bird. Bad bird. Good night.”
A professor I had in undergrad talked about “false endings” from time to time, a place in the narrative, near the end, where the writer could’ve taken the easy way out, with all the boxes checked off, and wiped their hands of the story. And they “work” in the sense that the story is more or less concluded, but the smart writer takes it a step farther, introduces a new wrinkle to the conclusion, some new potential. I look for these from time to time in my own writing. Have I taken the easy way out? What comes next for these characters, in this story? Is there something still left unsaid? As an example, I mentioned false endings in a workshop recently in a conversation about Jenny Zhang’s “Why Were They Throwing Bricks?” The entire story, until the last page, is told chronologically. On the penultimate page, the narrator’s manipulative grandmother leaves for the airport, a natural concluding point in the narrative. But Zhang makes a risky choice, risky and successful, to break the chronology, to step back in time and leave us with a much more powerful concluding image: The grandmother, sleepwalking, bouncing on a trampoline in the middle of the night, crying out, confessing: “‘Mother, I let you down… Mother, I would have died with you, but you told me to go. I should not have gone.'”
There’s a risk in writing past your ending, of course, and wearing out your welcome with your reader. But you won’t know until you’ve written it out.
Melissa: Yes and yes and yes. As much as we’re crapping on endings over here, Cole’s totally right— a good ending can completely save a piece. I always thing of Anna Karenina— 780 pages of whatever and then 20 or 30 that just made you cry and sob and believe in everything. Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome from reading so much, or maybe it successfully resolved and answered all these conflicts and questions we’re talking about. I also like that idea of false endings— it’s so easy to cut overwriting in the editing process, but we often see writers stopping just before the final action instead of pushing through. We don’t accept the latter type of story because it would involve us making up what we think the ending should be during edits, and it’s the writer’s job to come up with that themselves. I think I’m often saying on stories we accept, “YES but cut the last paragraph / last 2 lines,” something to that effect. When you finally start doing those final starts of action you have all this momentum and energy and it’s natural (and good!) to overdo it!
This might be a side tangent, but what do you guys thing of endings with regards to morals or values? Why do we value the sort of resolution we’re talking about? How can more experimental or less traditional pieces challenge our assumptions about endings? What’s the line between a piece whose ending challenges these assumptions and a piece that’s just not doing the work? Why is my assumption that a piece should be doing that work?
Brandon: For me, this all comes back to the why question; I’m completely onboard with pieces challenging my expectation of how they should end, or where or when, but I need to be able to come to some logical argument/conclusion as to why it’s doing that. I’m thinking of one story from our contest last year, that was super crazy awesome experimental (actually, there were two of them, now that I think about it, but I’m thinking of the epistolary piece), and that I really wanted to see do something absolutely crazy with its ending— it had set me up so completely to expect weirdness and strange, and had handled it so incredibly well up to that point, that stopping at something close to a traditional endpoint became the most frustrating conclusion I could’ve imagined. I think with experimental pieces, or stories that upend the expected in whatever way (hello Game of Thrones unhappiness), endings are even harder than the extreme difficulty we’re already talking about, because the natural expectations of a conclusion pretty much immediately destroy an experimental piece, but we’ve been trained as readers to expect these things and so exactly as Melissa says it can read like laziness or emptiness when something new is tried.
Cole: Man, that seems like such an impossible task—you’re already taking a huge risk experimenting with form, and on top of that, you need an ending that not only lives up to that risk, but even surpasses it. But maybe that’s what we’re asking of all endings.