Putting an End To It All
The opening was alluring; the formulations scintillating; the characters fascinating; the dialog sparkling. Oh, this is going to be a great story, you thought. And then came time for the ending, and days of head scratching followed by despair.
I’ve been there, which is why I’ve spent some time researching the kind of endings one finds in the real world. The results surprised me. Perhaps they will surprise you, too.
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.
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.
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