How To End A Story

 

Quotes From Writers About Ending Stories

A satisfying ending is one that delivers on the promise, providing new insight or comfortable confirmation or vicarious happiness. Even when it’s surprising in some way, the ending feels inevitable, because it fulfills the promise of the story. And—this is important—the ending feels satisfying only because the beginning set up the implicit promise in the first place.

The ending must make use of those same forces and conflicts, with nothing important left out and nothing new suddenly appearing at the last minute.

Mr. Shakespeare: Every character in your story doesn’t need to know how everything works out for everybody as long as your reader knows. These final scenes are unnecessary and they slow down the action at the end because, frankly, we’ve all heard all of this explanation already. Sometimes twice already. So essentially the audience/reader is forced to sit through a summary of the action while all the characters get caught up.

– from The Literary Lab, Loose Endings

 

A successful ending must be tied not only to the author’s implicit promise and the forces dramatized in the middle, but also to the protagonist’s nature. A test for your ending is this question: If my protagonist were a radically different person, would this story still end the same way? The answer should be No.

Finding the right ending sometimes takes time. Once it took me thirteen years.

– Nancy Kress, from Beginnings, Middles and Ends

 

Provide an ending worthy of the beginning.

Often it’s helpful when you start writing a story to have at least a vague sense of what the ending will be. That little bit of knowledge serves as a beacon to guide you as you make choices about the story.

[One] reason an ending may fail to satisfy is that the author is trying to spare the characters some hurt, this time the anguish of confrontation. Remember, you cannot protect your characters—the words protagonist and antagonist have agony built in.

– Schaum’s quick guide to writing great short stories by Margaret Lucke

 

The ending must answer the question you posed at the outset. Does it? Clearly and unequivocally?

– from 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M Bickham

 

Don’t dither. Avoid weak, throat-clearing closes, just as you’d avoid throat-clearing, inconclusive openings. Let the ending be the ending, without waffling afterthoughts.

All the subordinate characters possible should be shuffled offstage, their work done, as the ending approaches, to leave the major characters alone in the central spotlight.

Settle the important things—not everything…Just as good openings start in médias res, with something already in progress, good linear endings don’t wait till every bit of the dust has settled.

Most important of all, though: don’t introduce a new plot. Stay with the main plot.

– Anson Dibell, from Plot: Elements of Fiction Writing

 

A story, like a sentence, can end in only four ways: with a period, an exclamation point, a questionmark, or an ellipsis…

The needs of your story and your attitude may dictate ending with the feeling of a period, an image or line of dialogue flatly making a declarative statement such as “Life goes on.” “Love conquers all.” “Good triumphs over evil.” “That’s the way life is.” “There’s no place like home.”

An ending can give the effect of an exclamation point if the intent of the work is to stir action or create alarm. Science fiction and horror films may end on a note of “We are not alone!” or “Repent or perish!” Stories of social awareness may end with a passionate tone of “Never again!”, “Rise up and throw off chains of oppression!”, or “Something must be done!”

In a more open-ended approach to structure, you may want to end with the effect of a question mark, and the feeling that uncertainties remain. The final image may pose a question such as “Will the hero Return with the Elixir or will it be forgotten?” An open-ended story may also trail off with the feeling of an ellipsis. Unspoken questions may linger in the air or conflicts may remain unresolved with endings that suggest doubt or ambiguity. “The hero can’t decide between two women, and therefore…”, “Love and art are irreconcilable, so…”, “Life goes on…and on… and on…”, or “She proved she’s not a killer, but…”

One way or another, the very ending of a story should announce that it’s all over, like the Warner Bros. cartoon signature line “That’s all, folks”. Oral storytellers in addition to using formulas like “…and they lived happily ever after”, will sometimes end folk tales with a ritual statement like “I’m done, that’s that, and who’ll ease my dry throat with a drink?” Sometimes a final image, such as the hero riding off into the sunset, can sum up the story’s theme in a visual metaphor and let the audience know it’s over. The final image of Unforgiven, a shot of Clint Eastwood’s character leaving his wife’s grave and returning to his house, signals the end of the journey and sums up the story’s theme.

– from The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

 

A satisfying ending is one that delivers on the promise, providing new insight or comfortable confirmation or vicarious happiness. Even when it’s surprising in some way, the ending feels inevitable, because it fulfills the promise of the story. And—this is important—the ending feels satisfying only because the beginning set up the implicit promise in the first place.

The ending must make use of those same forces and conflicts, with nothing important left out and nothing new suddenly appearing at the last minute.

Mr. Shakespeare: Every character in your story doesn’t need to know how everything works out for everybody as long as your reader knows. These final scenes are unnecessary and they slow down the action at the end because, frankly, we’ve all heard all of this explanation already. Sometimes twice already. So essentially the audience/reader is forced to sit through a summary of the action while all the characters get caught up.

– from The Literary Lab, Loose Endings

 

A successful ending must be tied not only to the author’s implicit promise and the forces dramatized in the middle, but also to the protagonist’s nature. A test for your ending is this question: If my protagonist were a radically different person, would this story still end the same way? The answer should be No.

Finding the right ending sometimes takes time. Once it took me thirteen years.

– Nancy Kress, from Beginnings, Middles and Ends

 

Provide an ending worthy of the beginning.

Often it’s helpful when you start writing a story to have at least a vague sense of what the ending will be. That little bit of knowledge serves as a beacon to guide you as you make choices about the story.

[One] reason an ending may fail to satisfy is that the author is trying to spare the characters some hurt, this time the anguish of confrontation. Remember, you cannot protect your characters—the words protagonist and antagonist have agony built in.

– Schaum’s quick guide to writing great short stories by Margaret Lucke

 

The ending must answer the question you posed at the outset. Does it? Clearly and unequivocally?

– from 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M Bickham

Twist Endings

The Return may have a twist to it. This is another case of misdirection: You lead the audience to believe one thing, and then reveal at the last moment a quite different reality.No Way Out flips you a totally different perception of the hero in the last ten seconds of the film. Basic Instinct makes you suspect Sharon Stone’s character of murder for the first two acts, convinces you she is innocent in the climax, then leaps back to doubt again in an unexpected final shot.

There is usually an ironic or cynical tone to such Returns, as if they mean to say “Ha, fooled ya!” You are caught foolishly thinking that human beings are decent or that good does triumph over evil. A less sardonic version of a twist Return can be found in the work of writers like O. Henry, who sometimes used the twist to show the positive side of human nature, as in his short story “The Gift of the Magi”. A poor young husband and wife make sacrifices to surprise each other with Christmas presents. They discover that the husband has sold his valuable watch to buy his wife a clip for her beautiful long hair, and the wife has cut off and sold her lovely locks to buy him a fob for his beloved watch. The gifts and sacrifices cancel each other out but the couple is left with a treasure of love.

– from The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

 

My mother hates watching magic shows. She feels she’s being tricked. Of course, she is right. Other people love being tricked. They love magic shows and marvel at the magician’s skill.

I also know readers who hate stories with twists in the tale. They feel they’ve been strung along, manipulated and then lured into a trap as an author’s prey. Other readers marvel at the skill of a tricky writer. These are the readers who can enjoy a tricky ending.

Which kind of reader are you?

When I read a story I always seem to begin playing “Guess the Ending” about two-thirds of the way through. If I’m very lucky, I lose. There’s a disappointment about winning, and delicious fun in being faked out.

-Dennis Whitcomb, The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing

Some Classic Films With Twist Endings

Thrillers, horror and mystery seem especially suited to the twist. How many of these do you know and remember? How many did you see coming? Which ones did you like?

  • Sixth Sense
  • Seven
  • The Others
  • Signs
  • Saw
  • The Stepford Wives
  • Terminator 3
  • Flightplan

Here are some more. Do you agree with the list?

Some masters of story-telling trickery:

  1. Agatha Christie (by setting up false villains. The twist ending is almost mandatory in a good mystery.)
  2. Roald Dahl (in numerous ways, especially in his short stories.)
  3. Michael Crichton (e.g. Prey)

Whatever your enjoyment of twist endings (a.k.a. switch endings, the subverted trope), there is much skill involved in doing it well. First of all,inexperienced writers (or readers) may think they are twisting the ending when they’re falling into cliche.

The Wire

John Yorke explains that a ‘twist’ might simply be a refusal to follow the usual story structure — what he refers to as ‘archetypal’ story structure:

Archetypal endings can … be twisted to great effect. The Wire found an extremely clever way of subverting the normal character arc — by brutally cutting it off at an arbitrary point. The death of Omar Little at the hands of a complete stranger works precisely because it’s so narratively wrong; it undercuts the classic hero’s journey by employing all its conventions up to the point of sudden, tawdry and unexpected death. Effectively saying this is a world where such codes don’t operate, such subversion also has the added bonus of telling us just how the cruel and godless world of Baltimore drug-dealing really works.

Into The Woods by John Yorke

If you’re not sure what is meant by archetypal story structure, see here.

HOW TO STUFF IT UP

1. The viewpoint character wakes up and it’s all a dream. (Didn’t you do this as a kid, at least once? I did, when time ran out in class.) Similar to this: the VP character is actually crazy and it never happened after all. In fact, any ending in which the reader learns ‘It never happened at all’. This is a disappointment because there is no usually no epiphany, nothing to be learned and the reader feels they have wasted their time.

2. The viewpoint character is already dead. (Okay, I recently wrote a story like this but I had to be very careful to make it different.)

3. Introduce something random, out of left field, something obviously contrived and tacked on. Storytelling is like writing a transactional essay in this respect: Never introduce anything new in a conclusion. You’ll end up with classic plot holes.

4. The Shock Value Ending. Someone gets killed off for no good reason. Or similar.

5. Unnecessary Complexity. Some post-modern story-tellers expect an audience to read/watch something more than once, and carefully, before making any sense of it. If this is your style, you’ll attract a specific sort of audience. Many people would rather not put in all that work.

RULE OF THUMB

If you’re going to use a twist ending, have the twist affect someone other than the reader. The twist must affect a character.

DON’T WRITE ABSURDISM

Absurdism was more popular with earlier audiences. Done well, everything does connect, but avoid the bad kind of absurdism where one weird thing happens after another. This is one way to create an unpredictable plot, but unpredictable doesn’t go far enough. Endings have to feel both surprising and inevitable.

It turns out that people don’t actually want to say, “I had no idea that was going to happen!” In fact, they’re often delighted to say, “I knew that was going to happen!” People love to get to know characters, and they feel clever when they can predict those characters’ reactions.

Defying expectations is easy. Creating expectations is hard. To create expectations, you have to write consistent, believable, well-defined characters.

— The Secrets Of Story, Matt Bird

AN ALTERNATIVE POINT OF VIEW

Twists are overrated. Predictable isn’t as bad as you think it is. Audiences don’t need a twist in everything, or even in most things, so don’t manoeuvre one in to be tricky.

storytelling twist

HOW TO PUT A GREAT SWITCH IN AN ENDING

1. Engender empathy in a character then expose that character for what they really are.

Bad characters are actually good. Good characters are actually bad. Such endings can make us question our own quickness to judge. It encourages us to see shades of grey in character, and this is its own epiphany. The trick-ending has a special kind of ‘epiphanic moment’, known as the ‘anagnorisis’ (discovery) – the protagonist’s sudden recognition of their own or another character’s true identity or nature.

2. Foreshadow without telegraphing.

In a good twisted tale, you can read the story again and see hints at what’s coming. You can enjoy the tale a second time in a completely new way. ‘Telegraphing’ is basically ‘stuffing up an attempt at foreshadowing’ by dropping such heavy-handed hints that any audience with half a wit knows exactly what’s coming at the end. Aim to foreshadow. Avoid the telegraph. At the end of the tale we should see how certain inconsistencies become logical.

Sometimes foreshadowing is done by making use of a ‘plant’ – an object that is ‘planted’ earlier but doesn’t become important until later. The plant is useful in any kind of storytelling, even if there’s no particular twist. e.g. in Six Feet Under, Brenda is writing a novel about the sexual exploits of a fictional character. The audience knows that she is not writing fiction; we’ve seen enough scenes where she has sex with a random stranger, confesses to her prostitute friend then types away on her laptop. One day, she writes a scene about a guy wearing a certain baseball cap. Nate reads her work. Then, while sitting on the veranda with Brenda, the guy turns up, wearing the planted baseball cap. This leads to the end of their first engagement.

Where something – be it an object, situation or character – is introduced early in a story for use much later, this is known as Chekhov’s Gun. Anton Chekhov himself, said that everything mentioned in a short story must have a use. Do not include a gun unless there is some use for the gun.

When the author makes use of false foreshadowing, it’s then called a Red Herring. This is most acceptable in mystery and detective stories. Readers of other genres may have little time for this technique.

SEE ALSO: Types Of Literary Shadowing

3. Irony

For example, after a long hard struggle, we learn the struggle wasn’t necessary. (e.g. Office Space, the movie.)

Or, what a baddie gains wasn’t worth the sacrifice. Can you think of an example?

SEE ALSO: This post on irony

TWIST ENDINGS AND CERTAIN LITERARY TECHNIQUES

1. Flashback

Flashback, or analepsis, comes in useful for a variety of reasons, not least to provide a reader with backstory. In a trick ending, the flashback is used to suddenly reveal information/vital memories which provide the missing information needed to complete the puzzle.

2. The Unreliable Narrator

e.g. Notes on a Scandal (Zoe Heller), Je Ne Parle Pas Francais (Katherine Mansfield).

The reader is told a story through the eyes of a certain character who doesn’t quite have the story right. We eventually work out for ourselves that we haven’t been told the whole truth. We meet unreliable narrators in real life, too. Have you ever started a new school or workplace and been told, on your very first day, to avoid certain people in the playground or workplace because they’re idiots or whatever? Eventually, you work out the true balance of power and you realise the person who tried to get you onside on your very first day was the very person who needs friends most, because that’s the person who is ostracised.

3. The Cliffhanger

The ending is unresolved. The characters are left in the lurch.

Some readers really hate cliffhangers. So why would you do this to your readers, who’ve loyally followed you all the way to the end? Maybe to recreate the Zeigarnik effect, in which frustrating and unresolved emotions are those best remembered.

Cliffhangers are best used at the end of a series, and only when another series follows. This will keep the audience coming back for more, without letting them down.

4. Reverse Chronology

The story opens after some pivotal event and works backwards via flashbacks or scenes which are dated and timed. Amnesia stories often work like this: A character wakes up and has no idea who he is. He works it out little by little.

5. Non-linear Narration

Readers have to work hard to get these stories, because we are given a series of random scenes and expected to piece the story together ourselves. Lost makes use of this technique and I, for one, can’t be bothered. Quentin Tarantino does it better in Pulp Fiction. The story may begin in medias res (in the middle of things), jump backwards for say, two thirds of the story, then exist in the present for the final third, after the cliffhanger. These stories are also non-linear, but audiences can grasp these kind more easily.

Remember, when matching wits with the reader, that your readers will be on the lookout for the twist in the tale. Especially readers of short stories, who tend to be the most widely read group of people of the lot.

comic from Poorly Drawn Lines

Related Links

Spoilers don’t ruin stories after all

Tara Maya talks in terms of the ‘plunge’ ending versus the ‘twist’

30 Films With Twist Endings from TF

A Goodreads list of books with twist endings

Twist and Shout? – The literary twist considered from Sulci Collective

When Your Surprise Ending Is Not A Surprise from Tracy Marchini

 

Open Endings

Storytellers have thought of many ways to create a circular feeling of completion or closure, basically by addressing the dramatic questions raised in Act One. However once in awhile a few loose ends are desirable. Some storytellers prefer an open-ended Return. In the open-ended point of view, the story-telling goes on after the story is over; it continues in the minds and hearts of the audience, in the conversations and even arguments people have in coffee shops after seeing a movie or reading a book.

Writers of the open-ended persuasion prefer to leave moral conclusions for the reader or viewer. Some questions have no answers, some have many. Some stories end, not by answering questions or solving riddles but by posing new questions that resonate in the audience long after the story is over.

Hollywood films are often criticized for pat, fairy tale endings in which all problems are solved and the cultural assumptions of the audience are left undisturbed. By contrast the open-ended approach views the world as an ambiguous, imperfect place. For more sophisticated stories with hard or realistic edges, the open-ended form may be more appropriate.

from The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

 

Michael Connelly On Tidy Endings

michael-connelly-books

In an interview  at The Bestseller Experiment podcast, bestselling crime writer Michael Connelly says that he doesn’t tidy everything up in his novels. Connelly has a background as a crime journalist, and in his real world earlier career many, many crimes were never tidied up. When he left to become a full time novelist he left many files open-ended. This was a reminder to him that real life is vastly different from fiction. He tidies his book endings up a lot more than is done in real life, but refuses to tidy absolutely everything.

A Brief History Of Open Endings

A number of significant changes took place as a result of the Industrial Revolution in the way we tell stories – endings are just as likely now to consist of an ‘open ending’, partly to add an air of uncertainty and partly because in a godless universe death doesn’t mean what it once did. As Shakespearean scholar Jan Kott noted before him, ‘Ancient Tragedy is loss of life, modern Tragedy is loss of purpose’. Characters nowadays are just as likely to drift into meaningless oblivion as to die.

Into The Woods by John Yorke

Links About Ending Stories

 

Short Story Endings and Extrapolation

two doors side by side with the words get in, get out

I have encapsulated everything I know about story endings elsewhere. Almost all narrative ends with a Anagnorisis followed by a hint at the main character’s New Situation, though sometimes writers leave off the New Situation for the audience to extrapolate. The Wrestler is an excellent film example of Extrapolation.

In this regard, The Wrestler feels like a short story in tone. If you like to read short stories, you probably fall into the category of audience who enjoys piecing things together, imagining the outcome for yourself.

Another film which does this is Ghost World. In his review of Ghost World, Roger Ebert points to a trope more reminiscent of short stories than of film:

The movie sidesteps the happy ending Hollywood executives think lobotomized audiences need as an all-clear to leave the theater. Clowes and Zwigoff find an ending that is more poetic, more true to the tradition of the classic short story, in which a minor character finds closure that symbolizes the next step for everyone. “Ghost World” is smart enough to know that Enid and Seymour can’t solve their lives in a week or two. But their meeting has blasted them out of lethargy, and now movement is possible. Who says that isn’t a happy ending?

Roger Ebert

Yep, there is such a thing as a ‘short story ending’ even if the story is not a short story. Even if it’s a film. We might instead call it a ‘lyrical’ ending.

“Get in, get out” is a maxim you’ll have heard before when it comes to writing short stories. In this post, I collect various interpretations on the “Get Out” part of that old chestnut. What does it mean, exactly, to Get Out?

The last collaborator is your audience…when the audience comes in, it changes the temperature of what you’ve written. Things that seem to work well — work in a sense of carry the story forward and be integral to the piece — suddenly become a little less relevant or a little less functional or a little overlong or a little overweight or a little whatever. And so you start reshaping from an audience.

Stephen Sondheim

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN NOVEL AND SHORT STORY ENDINGS

Using different terminology Nancy Kress is saying the same thing: The New Situation is often left off. She goes even further in fact, saying even the Anagnorisis can be left off, with a short story concluding right after the Battle (ie. climax).

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. Nothing 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

PLOTTED VERSUS LITERARY

Kress does make a careful distinction between the ‘plotted short story’ and the ‘contemporary literary short story’. The plotted short story follows classic story structure (Shortcoming/Need/Problem, Desire, Opponent, Plan, Battle, Anagnorisis, New Situation). Stephen King and Jeffrey Archer write plotted short stories. They are enjoyed by a wider audience, who come to them via novels.

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

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE QUESTION, NOT THE ANSWER

Describing a short story by Amy Tan, the following is from J. T. Busnell, about the issues his students sometimes have when studying short stories which end abruptly:

And then comes the final line: “I closed my eyes and pondered my next move.” My students often complain that this ending seems abrupt, unfinished. In the anthology we use, it comes at the very bottom of the page, and students often admit to having flipped to the next page, expecting the story to continue. Usually I avoid telling them that it does continue in the collection of linked stories, because doing so allows students to dismiss the ending as a concession to the larger narrative or as something other than an ending. Instead, I direct them to the letter by Chekhov in which he famously instructs A.S. Suvorin, “You are right in demanding that an artist approach his work consciously, but you are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct formulation of a problem. Only the second is required of the artist.” In other words, the writer’s job is, first, to write about questions complex enough that they avoid simplistic answers or easy moralizing and, second, to demonstrate such questions with precision and accuracy. The writer’s job is not, however, to answer them. Answers are not only reductive, they’re also political, prescriptive, moralistic, and this undermines the efforts of such realists to be “visible nowhere.”

This is exactly what Tan’s ending accomplishes. To show Waverly’s “next move” would provide an answer, and, as Chekhov says, that’s not her job.

Right, so if we’re writing a literary short story we’re onto a winner if we are able to articulate a good question.

A COMMON PROBLEM WITH SHORT STORY ENDINGS

Here’s what it doesn’t mean: Chopping off the last two stages of the seven step structure. At The Masters Review, editors have seen this in their submissions. They are well placed to describe literary endings done badly:

We regularly reject stories where we feel the endings aren’t fully earned. I can best summarize this to mean, that for me, when I read a story where I feel the writer is working toward an end but the rest of the piece isn’t supporting that conclusion, whether it be emotionally, on a plot level, or thematically, that ending isn’t fully earned. […]

A story’s ending is most powerful when it feels like the culmination of everything that has been bubbling throughout it — the character’s motivations and actions, the preoccupations of the prose. I know that, in the past, incredibly strong stories that end with a seemingly random disaster have been hotly debated. We get upset when we come to the end of a carefully crafted story and a character who we’re invested in suddenly dies, or is injured, or it turns out (please, no!) has been dreaming this whole time — with no clear reason, we’re often left wondering what the author’s intention was. For example, one of our honorable mentions (which, overall, we really enjoyed) for this last contest ends with a shot being fired (though it’s not clear that any harm is done by it), and neither one of us was sure why. Though this sort of violence is built to more thoroughly in this story than others, here it seemed to take the place of a deeper reflection or significance.

Of course, there are degrees to this. I think that story endings can often be strengthened. One of the most common edits I make to pieces we do accept is to change the ending. Take, for example, “Family, Family,” our second-place Fall Fiction Contest winner. (Read it now to prevent any spoilers.) Though the original ending felt natural enough, all of our editors thought that it was lacking power and that it could have had a clearer “takeaway,” so I flat-out asked the author what she meant by it. Her answer was clear: she wanted to convey the desire of a first-grader who has been ridiculed by his peers to return to the safety of his nursery school classroom, to go backwards in time rather than face the challenges of growing up. We ended up changing the ending image entirely, so that the little boy literally climbs into a pine doll cradle, for which he is (of course) too big. This resonates instantly.

Even when editing pieces with quite a bit of narrative distance … I’ll often push the author to give a little more (even a sentence!) at the end. I never want the ending of a story to be too “neat,” but at the same time I want to finish it feeling satiated.

The Masters Review

This advice is echoed by David Jauss, who wrote a book called On Writing Fiction. In his chapter called Some Epiphanies About Epiphanies, Jauss writes:

there are indeed far too many epiphanies in American fiction these days, and […] most of them are unearned or unconvincing, the literary equivalent of faked orgasms.

Jauss thinks most of the problem with epiphanies is that they happen at the end of the story. He offers examples of stories which do not put the epiphany at the end of the story, but play with expected structure by placing it elsewhere.

I’ve noticed myself that short story writers can play with placement of the epiphany by first giving the reader their epiphany, and holding onto the character’s epiphany until after they’re done. (The sex metaphors keep on coming.) Examples of authors who play around with the placement of the epiphany (or Anagnorisis):

  • Charles Baxter
  • Sheila Schwartz
  • Alice Munro
  • John Updike

Oftentimes, and we have to remember this, the character experiences an epiphany OFF THE PAGE (or screen), and we only know they’ve had one because of the plans they make next.

THE INFLUENCE OF CHEKHOV

A word for the literary short story which leaves the reader to extrapolate is Post-Chekhovian, because Anton Chekhov is kind of famous for starting this trend. James Joyce also wrote like this, ending with ‘tacit’ epiphanies rather than clear anagnorises.

DRAMATIC VS AESTHETIC CLOSURE

Whereas Nancy Kress makes a distinction between ‘plotted’ and ‘literary’, critic Charles May draws a distinction between stories that are resolved dramatically and stories that are resolved aesthetically. I think this is a different way of saying the same thing.

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

TAXONOMIES OF SHORT STORY ENDINGS

Ah, my favourite. Taxonomies. Pick your fave and go with it.

GERLACH

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 that one 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 picture books 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 refers to 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 by altering the point of view or summarising the passing of time.”
WINTHER

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. MANIFESTATION OF A MORAL
  6. EVALUATION
  7. PERSPECTIVAL SHIFT
EVALUATION

Winther renames Gerlach’s last category of Encapsulation 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.”
MORE ON WINTHER’S ‘PERSPECTIVAL SHIFT’

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 Winther’s seventh category.

METONYMIC VS METAPHORIC

Charles May thinks in terms of metonymic vs metaphoric. This is where my head starts to hurt.

  • Metaphor substitutes a concept with another; metonymy selects a related term.
  • Metaphor is based on similarity; metonymy is based on contiguity.
  • Metaphor suppresses an idea; metonymy combines ideas.

Why is the short story’s resolution often metaphoric? Since the short story cannot reconcile “the tension between the necessity of the everyday metonymic world and the sacred metaphoric 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

THE STRANGE TIME-WARPY LOOPINESS OF SHORT STORY ENDINGS

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 contraries 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

In other words, a common plot shape for a short story is the circle, if only metaphorically.

RELATED RESOURCES

  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

Picturebook Endings

Picture book endings are their own beast, due to the fact that picture books more than any other story are written for repeat reads.

picturebook endings

Picture books without a twist at the end aren’t as much fun as those with a surprise ending that moves the story beyond the book.

@taralazar

The so-called “open ending” that is gradually gaining more and more acceptance — first in young adult novels and then also in books for younger children — should be viewed as a modification of the linear code (in which a character goes on a journey, changes, then returns home).

Maria Nikolajeva

For examples of contemporary picture books with open endings, see This Is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.

The great challenge of picturebooks — which is also true of other stories but less so — is the need to create a story which stands up to not only being read twice,  but 100 times. Much of the re-readability of a picturebook comes from its conclusion.

There is a growing tendency for picture book endings to be left open, and more often than not, they pose questions to which there is no easy answer. Often the themes are what Egoff calls ‘the darker side of human experience’, as if authors wish to insist that the security of childhood be shattered as soon as possible, or maybe inferring that it is fiction anyhow.

Clare Scott-Mitchell, Give Them Wings, 1988

THE IDEOLOGY OF PICTUREBOOK ENDINGS

How a narrative resolves, ‘ties up’ or ‘untangles’ (both metaphors are widespread), the complications of story is a recurrent concern among theorists, but is of special interest with children’s fiction. Here, the desire for closure, both in the specific sense of an achieved satisfying ending and in the more general sense of a final order and coherent significance, is characteristically a desire for fixed meanings, and is apparent in the socializing, didactic purposes of much children’s literature. There is an idea that young children require (that is both ‘demand’ and ‘need’) certainties about life rather than indeterminacies or uncertainties or unfixed boundaries. Even a genre such as fantasy, which might be expected to offer a site for a play of meanings and for resistances to fixed meanings, usually shows a strong impulse towards closure. … As readers we learn to look for some sense of completeness, both aesthetic and thematic, over and above the bringing of a series of events to a close. Aesthetic completeness is achieved in children’s literature through representation of symmetries, or movements from states of lack to states of plenitude.

Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature by John Stephens

See also Natascha Biebow’s post on picture book endings, with a list of specific things you can do to create a sense of closure. Good if you’re currently stuck!