Getting Unstuck: Endings
Endings are hard! Endings are so hard. Writers know this. Editors know this. But still the perfect ending can seem like magic, inevitable and effortless. But this effortlessness is, of course, an illusion. In this month’s Getting Unstuck, assistant editor Jen Dupree offers a few resources that try to lift the veil on writing the right endings.
Endings are hard. I usually start writing a story or essay without any clear idea of where it’s going and then, halfway through, I’m gripped by the fear of either having to figure out an ending or abandon the project. I want the ending to feel surprising yet inevitable, but it’s hard to know how to do that without throwing in a weird twist. Conversely, an ending can feel too expected, too neat, too convenient. If you, like me, need some help with endings, here are a few podcasts that might be just the thing to get you unstuck.
In this episode of Writescast, R.R. Campbell and Sione Aeschliman offer some advice on what makes for a satisfying ending. They suggest an ending has to come from the expectations set at the beginning of the book or story. The ending doesn’t have to be what the reader hoped for in order for it to feel satisfying (think Romeo and Juliet), but it has to feel like it has followed through on what was initially laid out. That said, both Campbell and Aeschliman agree that a satisfying ending often leaves “room for questions and imagination so the reader can carry the story past the final page,” meaning that things don’t have to be wrapped up too precisely. I love when stories leave room for me to keep imagining, to come back to the characters, to mull over the possibilities. That kind of interactive, engaged reading can’t happen if the ending is too neat, too wrapped up. Campbell goes on to say that he wants an ending to answer “the central question that is posed earlier in the book” but he doesn’t want the story to go on much beyond that. We come across a lot of stories in our submissions pool that would benefit from losing their last paragraph or even the last page. While a writer might feel like it’s better to write too much than too little, often mis-ended stories leave us not quite trusting that the author knows their story.
Similarly, in this episode of Between the Covers, David Naimon and Jai Chakrabarti discuss Chakrabarti’s short story collection, A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness. Chakrabarti says, “the ending points you in the direction but isn’t itself the complete resolution…Very similar to this concept of the ineffable in poetry, if you can’t fully express it on the page, then you shouldn’t really try to go there all the way, that you should maybe point some arrows in that direction but then allow the reader the ability to enjoy and construct that final moment in their own imagination.” Again, this comes back to the idea that endings don’t have to land on a lover walking out the door, a baby being born, a new day dawning. I often find the endings I like the best to be the ones that end with a feeling. In “Lilavati’s Fire,” the piece ends with the protagonist looking at the plane she’s built and having a moment of interiority that she wouldn’t have had at the beginning of the story. It’s a very subtle shift and, for me, that’s what makes it so good.
This episode of Writing Excuses takes an entirely different approach. Author V.E. Schwab says she starts with her ending: “It is part of the fundamental questions I am asking myself when I begin to have an idea and when I begin to ask what kind of story I’m telling. I really treat the ending as the opportunity for the absolute collision of all of the ideas that I have, of all of the places that I want to end…So, really, it comes down to who’s alive, who’s dead, where are they at physically and psychologically, and then, from there, I begin to rewind their last moments in order to figure out what is the thing that leads them there, and I rewind from there all the way until I get to the beginning and figure out who the characters are when we first meet them.” Personally, I’ve never written a story knowing the ending, although I do revise once I get to the end so that the beginning and middle make sense and so that the ending comes out of that, which is a somewhat less organized version of Schwab’s approach. Schwab says, “This comes back, again and again, to promises…versus expectation, to finding a way to surprise people even when they know what they want. Because that’s essentially the bargain that you’re trying to strike here…a reader reads and, if you have a cohesive narrative, they have an idea of how they expect it to end and how they want it to end. You, somehow, have to find ways to surprise them, and not be predictable, while still fulfilling the general promise…They can’t be betrayed by the ending.” Again: the beginning of the book or story sets up expectations or promises and, while you can and should surprise the reader, those surprises still need to feel like they belong. They need to emerge from the characters, from the tone, from the plot—all the foundations you’ve been laying down from the beginning. If not, the reader will feel like you didn’t hold up your end of the bargain.
Endings are hard, and if you want more advice/commiseration/support, check out this blog post I wrote a few years ago and this Craft Chat in which Cole, Brandon and Melissa talk about what makes a good ending.
by Jen Dupree