Some stories have fantastical endings. Matthew Vollmer’s forthcoming Gateway to Paradise, a smart collection of short stories, begins with “Downtime,” wherein a dentist named Ted Barber is haunted by the loss of his wife, Tavey, who drowned on their honeymoon. He flew back to Valleytown, North Carolina, knowing that his wife’s body was stowed in the cargo bay of the plane he is on. He is now having a hot affair with his assistant, who is formidably competent and would be a great wife, but images and reminiscences of Tavey keep pulling him away from Allison. He has weird imaginings, weird dreams, or perhaps they are hallucinations. They are certainly hallucinatory. He swims with Tavey off the coast of Mexico and, after trying to shake her off — her dimly lit, sketchy, almost transparent body — he gives up. She hangs in and he finds himself giving into her. He allows her to find places in his body where she can hold onto him. He knows this is slightly insane, but he finally decides both women will be with him: one in the real world, one in another world. As odd or weird as this sounds, it is simply a metaphor for how a man whose wife has died must accommodate both the memory and the reality, the woman lost and the woman he needs now. At the same time, the image of the husband taking his dead wife’s corpse into his own body makes a striking impression. It is not unrelated to Franz Kafka’s insect in the Metamorphosis. And if you have not read the Metamorphosis, you must put down this essay right now and go straight there. Then read “Downtime.”
Humorous endings are almost always hits, unless you end with a pun. Then the reader makes a snarly face, sighs deeply, as if all is lost, and throws the book across the room. Nevertheless, a pun now and then in the course of description or dialogue is doable.
An ending may be as quiet as a ghost. Or as loud as a poltergeist were there poltergeists. Some endings are explanatory, which is risky — how many readers want the story explained after the fact? — but writers have pulled it off. More often, and usually more successfully, an ending will show — not tell — how the resolution has been reached and/or what the resolution is. Always remember that a story begins in conflict and ends in resolution (or let’s simply say satisfaction, as “resolution” sounds like hard work still to be done when the reader just wants to feel good about the book, that it was a good book). The conflict must be clear, and the resolution (or let’s simply say “ending”) must be relevant, pertinent, to the conflict. And don’t forget the middle, that region you traveled through for a while there. The ending should also lend some resonance to the middle.
Then again, novelist and story writer Ann Beattie has said there is no real ending to a story, only this moment or that which may be good points at which to stop. And of course, this is true. And yet we still want endings. Isn’t literature amazing?
Cherry on Style
- On Style…
- …And How To Get It
- Everybody Wants More Than Just One Thing
- Desire is Complicated
- Whatever Happens, Happens Somewhere
- A Gun in the First Act
- The Shortest Distance Between Two Points Is a Metaphor
- The Head and the Heart
- Put the Pedal to the Metal
- In the Middle of Things
- Daydreams in Dresses
- Menacing Middles
- Cut the Cord
It is amazing.
An ending may be a non-ending, changing perspective or just letting go.
A story may end with a question or questions.
An ending may be a summary if it is not repetitious.
An ending may leave us horrified and frightened.
An ending may leave us in peace, calm and comforted.
With all these kinds of endings, you have one task: Pick the right one.
How do you know if it is the right one?
It comes to you in a flash of brilliance, and you write it before you know it.
Or you try out all the endings you can think of that might be workable, consider them, reconsider them, try them out on your writing friends and your spouse, pull work back out of the trashcan and reread it, flip a quarter, toss a dart at the dartboard, pray if you are religious, pray even if you’re not, and decide.
Nothing to it.
Don’t worry. The more you write, the surer you will be about what ending you want. A lot of learning to write is simply writing. You will develop instincts. You will know when you have latched onto the best detail, the best sentence, the shape of the story. Norman Mailer used to say it required only the writing of — how many words? A hundred thousand? Something like that. Plus there are those annoying writers who seem to know how to write from page one, although they are not exactly as common as the daffodils in the field. Meanwhile, the daffodils in the field are not busily writing.
Give yourself time. It will, of course, eventually run out, but for now you have nothing but time, at least when you’re not working three jobs (I worked three jobs in New York City), reading (you must read, whatever the circumstances), and possibly socializing (though socializing must sometimes take a back seat to everything else). And oh yes, you must allow time for thinking and daydreaming. Thinking and daydreaming are crucial and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. If you are not Bolivian, how else will you write a book about Bolivia without reading, thinking, and daydreaming? If you want to write science fiction, daydream, and also read up on bots and droids. If you want to write a historical novel, read, research, and daydream. Daydreaming is how we traverse the distance between here and there, between one century and another, and between oneself and one’s character. Put your feet up, relax, and think about place, time, and character. One of the things that may turn up as a result is the right ending.
Daydreaming is imagining, and imagination is what sets your words on fire. Or turns them glacially cold with austerity and integrity. Or sends them spinning into space, where words mix almost chemically with new ideas that explode on your pages.
The last half-sentence in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is “each in its ordered place.” It is said in the third-person omniscient and is grave and sobering.
The last line of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is “‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’”
Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She is in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both. — Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White.
The last five sentences of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: her protagonist, Edna Pontellier, an ur-feminist who, in her struggle for independence, has had an affair, walks into the Gulf intending to drown herself.
She looked into the distance, and the old terror flamed up for an instant, then sank again. Edna heard her father’s voice and her sister Margaret’s. She heard the barking of an old dog that was chained to the sycamore tree. The spurs of the cavalry officer clanged as he walked across the porch. There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air.
Edna Pontellier leaves us with her memories, sensory perceptions, and the world around her alive with combustion and event. Our response can only be a complex one: we grieve for her, possibly we are angry with her choice, we admire her boldness, we are rent between the world we love and the character we love.
The last sentence of War and Peace obliges us to read it over and over in search of its meaning and its relevance to various political systems. Here it is: “In the present case it is similarly necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist and to recognise a dependence of which we are not personally conscious.” Or was he speaking of God?
In high school, I read Melville’s Moby-Dick and breathlessly copied down the last sentence in a spiral notebook (I love spiral notebooks). See if it doesn’t take your breath away: “Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” But this paragraph is followed by an epilogue, and the last paragraph to that is this:
Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirgelike main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.
Magnificent words, bound to entrance a reader of 15 or 16. Yet today I probably prefer the last line of The Great Gatsby because it tells me more in fewer words: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” I’ll never forget how my heart banged and fluttered when I came to the end of Moby-Dick, but time changes us, and that is a great reason to reread when we can. My husband rereads with enthusiasm and frequency, but I find it hard to go back, as there are many well-known books I’ve not got to and new books, often by friends, keep cropping up. I must do better, and so must you.
As for more endings: I have a flash fiction piece that ends in the middle of a sentence.
A friend, not a poet, recently described a night sky scene like this: “The moon escaped from a bed of dark clouds.” I call that poetry. It could also be an ending.
“You must go on.”
“I can’t go on.”
“I’ll go on,” wrote Samuel Beckett in The Unnamable.
Or as Françoise Sagan put it, “Bonjour Tristesse.”
And now we return to that cord you cut. You have produced and nurtured a piece of writing. Poem or story or essay or a group of poems or stories or essays. Perhaps a book of chapters, the whole being a novel. This piece of writing has filled out, has stretched itself to its full size from the baby toe of the left foot to the forefinger of the right hand to the top of its brainy head. It has been born, having been borne. If this natal or parturitional description of what you’ve developed makes you queasy, we’ll restate it:
You have typed or written by hand (people still do that) a poem or story or essay, etc. The act of doing that has required of you clear-sightedness, tenderness, frustration, exhaustion, elation, and tiredness. Now you are done. All is completed. You can rest and take delight in your accomplishment.
As for me, I told my husband I had run out of things to say about endings. Said he: “That’s your ending.” •