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Putting an End To It All -- by Geoffrey Fowler

    In my own struggles with endings the questions that occurred to me were Should I have taken a completely different approach to writing? Was I trying to force the issue? Was the type of ending I envisioned really suited to my story?
    In the course of trying to answer these questions after laying a story aside, I gleaned some insights into what the cause and nature of the problems were and what I might do to avoid them in the future. I organized them into the sections below. The first two are strategies that might be of use for any genre. The rest apply mainly to literary fiction.

Take Vonnegut's Detour

   The most radical strategy for avoiding the ending blues was expounded by Kurt Vonnegut in his usual provocative way: “Start as close to the end as possible,” which is sometimes misquoted as “Start at the end.” The former makes no sense at all, but if the latter is interpreted as meaning “have an ending in mind before you commit yourself to a project,” it is something to take seriously.
   I envy writers who can do this: When I approach what should be the end of what I thought was a promising story, I sometimes feel like a hiker who, although he has started off not knowing his destination and without a compass, has been enjoying the splendor of nature until he lost his way and is beginning to wonder if he can ever find his way back.

Relax And Let Your Subconscious Mind Come Up with A Solution

    There is no reason why beginning without an ending in mind won’t lead to a successful story; it’s just that after writing a decent opening, introducing the main characters, setting the scene and moving along in an entertainingly coherent manner, the forward motion may come to an abrupt halt. In this case the worst thing one can do is search the Web for help; It's not that you won't find people offering it in return for cookie crumbs, it's just that they contradict each other.  
    So, if a writer with a stalled story can’t rely on outside help, What can they do? Outline? Make a list of all possible endings and one-by-one ask what needs to be added to the story to make one of them work? None of these have ever panned out for me. What has always worked, though, is doing nothing, that is putting the story aside and waiting. This may sound strange, but it gives results.
   Consider, for example, the story of the famous mathematician and theoretical physicist Henri Poincaré. He had been working for many months trying to prove a famous conjecture and finally put it aside and turned to something else. Then one day he had been waiting for a train and when he put his foot on the third step to the door, the answer hit him like a bolt of lightning. The same thing happened to me with my doctoral thesis, not on a train but on my way to my office.   This approach is not for those who have a deadline to meet; although the subconscious mind never sleeps, it works slowly, sometimes very slowly — in Poincaré’s case, it didn’t deliver the answer until six months had passed.


How I Learned To Live Without Aristotle

    The Aristotelian ending is based on the resolution of tension or conflict created earlier in the story. In some pieces, this may involve one or several twists before the resolution and the subsequent denouement. This is the type of ending found in detective and other crime novels, science fiction, fantasy, and romance, and just about all works of any genre that could be filmed — nowhere is the ghost of the dead Greek more present than in Hollywood.
    Because this type of ending is so all-pervasive in what is collectively referred to as popular fiction, genre fiction, commercial fiction, and other terms connotative of writing mainly for profit, there is the danger a writer will blindly assume they need one, even if it’s not suited to what they are writing. That would be a pity, because literary fiction, the counterpole to genre fiction, is unburdened by conventional plot considerations and this includes the ending, too. This is both good and bad for writers, good because they have more leeway in finding an end and bad because they don’t have a template to follow. it’s pretty much anything goes.   
    I found the notion that I alone decide how a story begins, progresses, and ends to be liberating. My job was to find a theme, create scenes that brought it to life and write well enough to make the reader enjoy the ride — and to hell with Aristotle.  


   The problem of endings remained, so I looked at some of the newer novels reviewed in The New York Times and short stories that appeared in that icon of literary fiction, The New Yorker Magazine. Among the endings, I found three types that seemed to recur again and again: The Act of Desperation Ending where the author creates an obviously contrived scene or two that allow the main character to make an exit; the This Sums It Up Ending in which a single scene encapsulates the theme of the story; and the Epilogue Ending where a narrator tells the reader what happened to the characters after the story-proper ended.

   I also briefly mention two other endings, Back To Home Base and Outcome Probable But Not Made Explicit

The Act of Desperation Ending 

   I can imagine this type of ending is used by writers who have a deadline to meet. This might have been the case with Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel Eileen, in any event, it smacked of desperation and this was noted by Lily King who reviewed it in The New York Times.
   Eileen is full of self-loathing and, like nearly all of Moshfegh’s characters, unlikable. She lives in a small New England town, works in a prison for juveniles, lives with her alcoholic father and dreams of leaving for New York. The novel doesn’t seem to be going anywhere until Moshfegh suddenly brings in a new character named Rebecca. Then it seems to have gone nowhere permanently — until Moshfegh has Eileen getting in her run-down car and driving off to New York City, and then tacking on an epilogue telling the reader how happy she was there. That was a cheap trick followed by another cheap trick, a real act of desperation, and yet Eileen was a bestseller and received good reviews, probably because Moshfegh being touted by The New York Times as the next big thing in American literature a few years before the novel came out.

The This Sums It Up Ending

   The piece that put Moshfegh on the literary map was a short story in The New Yorker titled The Beach Boy. The piece is about John, a New York dermatologist and his wife Martha who have just returned from a vacation on some exotic South Sea Island infested with young boys who earn money as male prostitutes. John is portrayed as boring and weak.

   To ensure he becomes the main character, Moshfegh has Martha suddenly die from taking a sleeping pill. When John picks up pictures of their vacation at a drugstore he sees something that suggests Martha had betrayed him with one of the beach boys. Obsessed with the idea, John books a flight to the island and takes the urn containing Martha’s ashes with him. John planned on scattering them into the sea and nearly drowns attempting this. Some beach boys watched him as he staggered back onto the beach and debated robing him. The story ends with the narrator saying there was no purpose in trying, he didn’t have any money. Saying John was worthless to the beach boys was Moshfegh’s way of summing up the theme of the story: John was a worthless person, worthless to his wife, worthless as a doctor, and worthless to the beach boys. As endings go, that wasn’t bad.

The Epilogue

   Like a lot of people, I naively thought an epilogue was something at the end of a story beginning with “Epilogue” and describing the lives of the characters, or a the least the main one, or ones, in some after-story-life. But then I saw a story which didn’t so much end as stop and then continued with an exposition that answered open questions. It’s probably the worst way to end a story, but it puts an end to it all.

Back To Home Base

   The last sentence or paragraph makes reference to the title or the opening sentence or paragraph, creating a closure of sorts.

Outcome Probable But Not Made Explicit

   Tension is built up to the point where the reader expects the next sentence will verify their belief something dramatic is about to happen. But perhaps the writer feels since they have made a convincing case that it will;  describing it would therefore be anticlimactic and so the writer simply ends the story. An example, one which I'm using to end a story I'm writing now, is a wife sitting in front of a door with a loaded pistol in her hand waiting for her husband to open the door. If the reader is convinced she is going to shoot him, I felt it would be counterproductive to describe her pulling the trigger, so it was left to the reader to decide what happens.


Posted by Geoffrey Fowler 28 Mar 2019 at 00:55
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Responses to this blog

Louiscribe 1 Apr 2019 at 16:41  
Thanks for the ideas. Iíve been working on a story whose ending Iíve changed at least four or five times. Believe me, Iíve taken so many ď6 month breathersĒ, that the time of working on the novel has stretched to ten years! Iím wondering if I should just send my current manuscript to a Beta reader, get their honest feedback about the ending, or take another 6 month breather. Any thoughts on this?
2 Apr 2019 at 15:24  
Thanks for all these suggestions. However, I think the best one is "Back to Home Base." Its enlightening to be brought back to the title of the book, and where it started, then one can ponder the whole of the story.
Beorckano 2 Apr 2019 at 16:48  
Thanks for the ideas. Iíve been working on a story whose ending Iíve changed at least four or five times. Believe me, Iíve taken so many ď6 month breathersĒ, that the time of working on the novel has stretched to ten years! Iím wondering if I should just send my current manuscript to a Beta reader, get their honest feedback about the ending, or take another 6 month breather. Any thoughts on this?
Beta reader. Definitely a beta reader. Not even a question in my mind.

No great book was ever created in a vacuum. I don't know why we, as authors, so often refuse to show anyone our work. it's like we expect to just slice our fingers open over the paper and bleed perfection in solitude.

It doesn't work like that. Even Michelangelo had a teacher and peers.
Brandon Cornwell, author of the Dynasty of Storms series
The Warrior's Trilogy
Songs of the Northlands

Jsadams 2 Apr 2019 at 17:25  
The "this sums it up," and the "probable outcome" endings leave me feeling cruelly unsatisfied. I don't think I could ever bring myself to bring that same suffering upon the eager spirit of anyone so kind as to spend their time reading my silly scribblings. Giving something a break for me is akin to neglect. This is perhaps my most injuring defect as a writer- I write things to death; I'm always conjuring up resolutions which only raise new questions. Perhaps simply employing the use of the word "epilogue" would be enough to shift my focus to succinct conclusion.
Vicky555 6 Apr 2019 at 15:11  
I'm a fan of the 'back to home base' ending. I call it a circular ending - it has a very pleasing symmetry. I also like the idea of 'start as close to the end as possible', although I think it can be taken more literally than just 'having an ending in mind'. The opening paragraph of your story reports events close to the chronological end, so when you reach the final paragraph of your story, the reader experiences a kind of 'deja vu'...then you go a bit further to reveal (in your closing sentences)the chronological and actual end. That probably sounded unnecessarily complicated!
Finally, I agree with the idea of letting your subconcsious mind sort out a solution. Sometimes it's overnight, or it can take much longer (and may involve tweeking earlier events). But I always (usually) get there in the end!
Aesposito 11 Apr 2019 at 14:57  
I can appreciate the conversation about how to end a story in general terms. That's what a blog is for. And writers have to talk about something, I suppose. But, really, if a writer is flummoxed over how to end "their" story and considers referring to an index of possible ending "styles" (a dubious list, at that), then, I think the writer has probably engaged the wrong story in the first place. Vonnegut's advice is really telling you to make sure the story you are telling means something important to you. That it comes from the gut. Only then will you be sure to take it to its end. Whether or not that ending grabs the reader in the same way it does you is another matter.
Geoff 12 Apr 2019 at 12:12  
I'm not sure what point you are trying to make. I wrote that the biggest mistake a writer who is struggling with an ending could make would be to research all possible endings. My purpose was not to create a compendium, but rather to show there are great variety of ways to end a story, and that even acclaimed authors like Ottessa Moshfegh have come up some pretty miserable ones.

It seems you are telling us you know what Kurt Vonnegut was saying better he himself did, and, moreover, the problem with those of us who find endings difficult is that we are not writing from the gut. I suggest you consider submitting somethingó you haven't done that yet ó so we can see what "writing from the gut" looks like.
Jeffmoore 12 Apr 2019 at 13:26  
Really thoughtful and detailed piece. I appreciate your work in presenting this for discussion. I am a big fan of another prolific writer (referring to Vonegut) Elmore Leonard. He said he fully imagines his characters first, then puts them in a room together and sees what happens. In other words he does not have an ending in mind when he begins, he has the characters.

And Leonard is renowned for his characters, his novels are character driven. When I pick up an Elmore Leonard novel my only thoughts about the ending are that it came too soon. On the other hand, if I am reading Tom Clancy I expect soft characters but a dynamic plot with impressive twists and an ending that puts everything right.

The other thought I had reading this is that many authors are writing trilogies or serial novels in which case the ending can be simply an entrance ramp to the next work.

I guess what I am saying is the ending depends more on what you are writing than on some style preference. In my case I had very negative, (but fair) feedback on the ending to my first novel. I grumbled a year or two before finally coming to the conclusion that the criticisms were fair and that my ending left the reader feeling cheated. So I rewrote the ending and put out a second edition.

In my case, the test of the ending came down to this "Did it satisfy the reader?" Which is why its so helpful to have a site like this one.

Glad to throw my two bits in. Again I appreciate the research and work that went into this post.
Attaree 12 Apr 2019 at 14:38  
I wrote a book from the gut and it was a stack of trash. I had some good sentences, and some fair paragraphs, and even some chapters with a few substantial bones to work with, along with an ending that shouted "Fail!" So much for the quality of my personal gut work, not saying anyone else would get the same result.

I feel called upon to mention the book was a lifelong thought for 60 years before I tackled it and the writing was a cathartic experience that left me shaken, literally taken apart down to my core, so yeah, from the gut. Insert the blade low, jerk upward, and bleed on the page.

We need a skill set to write well. That's a separate issue from the story we tell. How to craft an ending that satisfies the reader is part of that skill set that lets us write a book that will be read. If we're only writing for ourselves and not to share, we don't need to worry about skill set. If we expect to hook and hold a reader, every part of the book, including the ending, is critical.

Any one of Geoff's suggested endings would would been an enormous improvement, so, Thanks, Geoff, for your blog entry.
Geoff 12 Apr 2019 at 21:19  
Author's Addenda:

In the course of working on the ending of a story Iím still writing, I was considering killing off one of my main characters as a climax, but soon realized itís easier to kill someone in real life than a character: in real life, I would be a murderer and would go to prison, but as a writer I would be killing my story with an anticlimax and would be an object of scorn.

When I think of stories in which the main character dies, the first one to come to mind is Fitzgeraldís The Great Gatsby, which ends with Gatsby being murdered because of mistaken identity. Since whatever tension existed was resolved with his death, when that happened the plot had come to an end and yet ending the story there would have been anticlimactic.

Virtually all plot diagrams end with falling tension culminating in a final resolution of tension, and normally that is taken to mean the story has ended. But since itís clear The Great Gatsby had to go on without Gatsby, an additional plot element was needed ó a denouement. In the case of The Great Gatsby this took the form of a funeral which was attended by, among others, Gatsbyís father and some of Gatsbyís crooked business associates. The denouement ran to twenty or so pages and contained the best writing in entire novel. Gatsby the character died, but the story moved along splendidly without him.

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