I have trouble with endings.
I once asked a writer friend for feedback on a story which had a surprise ending. “I took a left turn,” I said, meaning I threw in a twist. “Left turn?” she said. “You got in a different car!”
Most writers have heard that endings are supposed to surprise the reader and at the same time feel inevitable. But, how does that translate to the page? If the ending comes as too much of a surprise, it feels abrupt and out of context and the reader ends up feeling tricked or betrayed. If the ending takes the inevitable route, it feels like a letdown, like the ending wasn’t earned. How, then, do writers find that sweet middle ground?
Recently, I saw Lauren Groff, author of the novels Monsters of Templeton, Acadia, and Fates and Furies and the short story collections Delicate Edible Birds and Florida at a local bookstore. When she opened the room to questions, I asked Groff how she approaches her endings. She offered three metaphors which I’ll explore here.
- Like a window opening: I picture going into a dark room, moving past the furniture or kids’ toys or boxes stacked chest-high, groping my way across wallpapered walls, dusty tables, lamps that flicker on and off when I grab for the string. I imagine lifting a window all the way to let in a blast of cold air, curtains billowing out, an owl hooting. A literal opening into something else. But, I don’t go out the window. This is just a hint that there’s something beyond this room.
- Like a rope fraying: I picture a rope hanging from a clean white ceiling. The end is knotted, and below the knot, fringe. That fringe might be all the ways the story’s conclusion could be interpreted—the holding back where you want to over-explain. Let there be loose ends. Don’t make everything too perfect, too wrapped-up. Leave some things undone.
- Like color deepening or fading: This one really captured my imagination and informed my writing. Groff said she pictures an overall color when she’s writing—not consciously inserting shades of green, for example, but more as a feeling, an overall hue to the world she’s painting with her words. As the story draws to a close, Groff said she visualizes the color deepening to a more vibrant shade or fading to a paler shade. So, if the story has been purple in her mind, the ending might be lavender or plum. Again, this isn’t overt or even intentional. It’s just something to hold in your mind. Like wearing tinted sunglasses.
In Groff’s “The Midnight Zone,” a moderately competent mother is left alone in a cabin with her two young boys when her husband is called away on an emergency. The first day passes without incident, the second day does not. The mother takes a bad fall and, with no way to get help, she and the boys muddle through.
This is a quiet story, made all the more terrifying for its quiet. Throughout the story there’s an undercurrent of fear: of a lurking panther, of motherhood, of dying, of failure. The mother, with her bloodied head, waits through the night and most of the next day for her husband to return. When he does, she notes “…the thing I read in his face was the worst, it was fear, and it was vast, it was elemental, like the wind itself, like the cold sun I would soon feel on the silk of my pelt.”
The mother is in bed, the husband hovers near her. They don’t speak. She observes his body language and her mind does a funny tripping thing where she becomes the feared panther itself. Groff leaves the story there. There’s possibility here, and not-neatness.
I recently wrote a story about a woman with an eating disorder who goes on a cruise with her husband and step-daughter. While I wrote, I colored every scene blue in my mind (an obvious choice for a story set on the water—I’m not sure Groff uses this color idea so literally, but it made sense to me). As I neared the end, I started to envision navy. I think the idea of the color influenced my decision to set the final scene outside in the dense Bermuda night. And when I placed my characters outside and made them walk a great distance in the moonless humidity, the rest of the ending kind of fell in line.
A window, the end of a rope, a variation in color. All three are subtle changes that simultaneously end one thing and introduce the possibility of another. None are abrupt and all are part of the original thing.
No left turns.