The truth is that although everything in any work of fiction should contribute to the whole, the last few paragraphs of a novel are relatively unimportant. A novel is so long that by the time the reader comes to the end, 99 percent of the plot, character development, theme and everything else are over. And since the structure of a novel usually requires a climax followed by a denouement, the very end of a novel is a time of decreasing tension. Noting startling, new or highly emotional is likely to turn up this late in such a lengthy tale. A short story is much different. The climax may be the ending. Even when an additional scene follows the climax, it is likely to carry heavy symbolic significance. And the shorter the story, the more important the last few paragraphs become.

In a certain kind of short story, the last sentence is especially crucial.

— Nancy Kress, from Beginnings, Middles and Ends

Kress makes a distinction between the ‘plotted short story’ and the ‘contemporary literary short story’. The plotted short story basically follows classic story structure (Weakness/Need/Problem, Desire, Opponent, Plan, Battle, Self-revelation, New Equilibrium). What she calls ‘Literary’ short stories work differently and don’t follow those rules. In a literary story, perhaps nothing is resolved. Readers unused to these stories often say, “Nothing happened,” or may think they’re missing the last page, or didn’t ‘get it’. Sometimes the point is that there is no resolution — because life can be like that. These stories are ‘the question minus the answer’. Literary stories make their point via symbolism.

One thing about the short story is that it’s kind of an exotic, hothouse version of the “real” story. It does a little more—there’s more compression, of course, but also a higher expectation of shapeliness and some kind of aesthetic closure—a moment where the wires the writer has filled with current get a chance to really cross.

— George Saunders

 


 

The Dead James Joyce

A primary characteristic of the modern post-Chekhovian short story is that stories that depend on the metaphoric meaning of events and objects can only achieve closure aesthetically rather than phenomenologically. James Joyce’s stories often end with tacit epiphanies, for example, in which a spinster understands but cannot explain the significance of clay or in which a young boy understands but cannot explain the significance of Araby. His most respected short fiction, “The Dead”, is like a textbook case of a story that transforms hard matter into metaphor and that is resolved only aesthetically. Throughout the story the “stuff” described stubbornly remains mere metonymic details; even the snow that is introduced casually into the story on the shoes of the party-goers’ feet is merely the cold white stuff that covers the ground — that is until the end of the story when Gabriel’s recognition transforms it into a metaphor that closes the work by mystically covering over everything.

Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity: Excursions in short story theory and analysis

May goes on to explain that Bernard Malamud is one of the best-known writers within this tradition of stories that end with aesthetic rather than dramatic resolutions. He seems to construct his stories backwards. The meaning of his stories is left to the reader. Irreconcilable forces are resolved aesthetically.

The short story, standing alone, with no life before it or after it, can receive no … comforting merging of the extraordinary with the ordinary [like the novel can]. For example, we might hypothesise that after Miss Brill  has been so emphatically made aware of her role in the park each Sunday, she will still go on with her life, but Katherine Mansfield’s story titled “Miss Brill” gives us no such comforting afterthought based on our confidence that “life goes on”, for it ends with the revelation.

— Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity: Excursions in short story theory and analysis

 


 

All short stories use at least one of five signals of closure: solution of the central problem, natural termination, completion of antithesis, manifestation of a moral, and encapsulation.”

— John Gerlach, Toward the End: Closure and Structure in the American Short Story, 1955

Gerlach’s study is about how the anticipation of the ending of a short story structures the whole.

  1. SOLUTION OF THE CENTRAL PROBLEM: This kind of ending is more common to the short story than to novels. Short stories focus on one problem only. The short story is over when the problem is solved.
  2. NATURAL TERMINATION: “is the completion of an action that has a predictable end.” For example, the day ends, the main character dies. A lot of picturebooks have this kind of ending too, with the beginning of the story coinciding with the main character getting out of bed, and ending when the main character is tucked in at night. Other types of natural terminations are, for instance, a visit being over (because there’s an implied return to point of origin), or a mental state like happiness or bliss suggests the end of some process.
  3. COMPLETION OF ANTITHESIS: Antithesis = any opposition, often characterised by irony, that indicates something has polarised into extremes. In short stories, space is often metaphorical. There’s an emphasis on mental life. When a character sets out on an adventure, that character is actually exploring a set of attitudes towards something. When a story returns to any aspect of the beginning, this is one form of ‘antithesis’. The new territory doesn’t have to be explored because boundaries have been established by the story.
  4. MANIFESTATION OF A MORAL: The reader’s sense that a theme has emerged can give a story a sense of closure.
  5. ENCAPSULATION: “a coda that distances the reader from the story be altering the point of view or summarising the passing of time.”

But in The Art of Brevity: Excursions in short story theory and analysis, Per Winther is keen to point out that this is not an exhaustive list.

Winther’s alternative taxonomy of short story endings:

  1. SOLUTION OF THE CENTRAL PROBLEM
  2. NATURAL TERMINATION
  3. EMOTIONAL AND/OR COGNITIVE MATERIAL
  4. CIRCULARITY
  5. MANIFESTION OF A MORAL
  6. EVALUATION
  7. PERSPECTIVAL SHIFT

Winther renames Gerlach’s last category EVALUATION. Examples of evaluations as closures:

  • I was glad I was not there.
  • I had never met such a bore in my life.

An evaluation as closural marker is often the first-person narrator’s exasperated final comment.

Evaluations often serve as the manifestation of a moral, also.

  • “I guess he loved the man as much as I did the horse because he knew what I knew.”

Modern short stories tend to have a more gradual shift of narrative focus at the story’s end. In these cases there is no change in point of view — the focalizer stays the same, and time is not an essential factor. Still, a notable change of perspective marks that the narrative may now come to a halt. Hence the addition of the seventh category.

 

 

Why is the short story’s resolution often metaphoric? Since the short story cannot reconcile “the tension between the necessity of the everydaymetonymic world and the sacred metaphic world,” [Charles] May finds that “the only resolution possible is an aesthetic one.”…the short story’s brevity “force[s] it to focus not on the whole of experience … but rather on a single experience lifted out of the everyday flow of human actuality.”

Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity: Excursions in short story theory and analysis

 

In a short story, an end does more than complete a pattern and effect closure. The amazing thing about the short story is that beginning and end make a strange loop: beginning is end, and end is also beginning. Epiphany expressed through analogy fuses past, present, and future in a moment of continuous flux. Epiphany encompasses answers to the questions posited by structure, reconciling the contrasries inherent in the differences between appearance and reality, on the one hand, and form and content on the other.

— Mary Rohrberger, The Art Of Brevity

 

 

Related Links

  1. The Three Endings Of Alice Munro’s Story “Corrie” from Reading The Short Story Blog
  2. Ending A Short Story: Some Thoughts from Literary Lab
  3. Write a satisfying story ending from Writing4Success
  4. from The Writing Show: discussion between Melissa Palladino, Randall Brown, and Paula Berinstein about Short Story Endings