Please don't shorten your answers on our account; I learn so much from them. I particularly liked the story about the anthology, how the set up makes the ending feel inevitable. That's the way I think about it in my stories. The ending is right when it feels like it answers the question the story is asking.

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George, thank you for this, especially for generously letting us in on how you ended Victory Lap. It’s always nice to know that our writing gurus struggle, too. That none of this comes easily for anyone. As far as writing shorter Thursday posts—I just hope you don’t burn out on all of this. We, your biggest fans, love your posts and always (selfishly) hope for more. But if it gets to be too much, that makes perfect sense, too.

Here are my own rambling thoughts on endings. Maybe off base…? But here you go:

I don’t know—is it considered old fashioned to talk about plot when talking about endings? I’m obviously not an expert, but I think sometimes the problem with an ending has to do with plotting. Also with understanding what your story is about—what you’re trying to tell yourself when writing your story. If your story arc isn’t working properly (and I mean more than escalation here—I mean escalation that leads to something happening, something crucial—all of George’s stories that I’ve read have this, usually a character must make a character-defining decision after all the escalation) and if you don’t know what your story is about (on both surface and deeper levels), then your ending is probably going to fail. As George says, a third act problem is a first act problem, and I know from experience just how true that is. The seed for your ending appears in your beginning (because, well, it has to!), so if you get to the end and you can’t bring things to a satisfactory close—if you can’t reach a new equilibrium after all the commotion of your plot—then you have to go back to the start and see where you went wrong. Maybe your ending is the ending to a different story—the one you didn’t write! It’s kind of a technical thing, even though writers like to write in that dreamy state, that half-conscious place, words funneling through the mind’s ether and onto the page. At a certain point, you’ve got to get real. Does this ending satisfy? Does it bring everything to a close? Does it point back to the beginning? Does it point to the heart of the story—the question the story has been asking the whole time? A story only asks one question. If your ending isn’t somehow related to that one question, then you have to go back in and see where you went wrong. If everything DOES point to the heart of things, then you’ve painted your floor, as George says, and you can step outside.

That's my take, anyway.

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Damned if all ten of those approaches don't actually help. It's hard (for me, anyway) to talk about the details of process & method, but you've laid out ten realistic, usable, intriguing, practical approaches in one wham-bam list of goodies. A million thanks for these. I can see myself trying out every one of them on half a dozen recent stories. Three brimming amphorae of kudos for you and yours!

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Thank you, George, for so much great food for thought. This one seems to tie together many of the ideas and notions expressed in prior posts. I like this idea of the story being a living, breathing organism that just might get up and walk, if paid enough attention.

And you’re not kidding, the discussion of “I Stand Here Ironing” blows me away. I have learned so much from all the different takes.

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I’m predisposed to being really hard on myself, so it’s super hard to know, even after years of revising, at what point my stories don’t suck. Admittedly, I sometimes have to say, okay, Amy, good enough, time to call it done. I could stand to learn how to endure longer because I’m up for some breakthroughs…just not sure how to work and rework without, like, beating the crap out of myself?

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George - there is no need to shorten any Thursday commentary. I thought you were headed to Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird re: endings. But 10 works.

For me, there’s always an element in the title or the first paragraph that connects to the ending. “My Last Duchess” and “My First Goose” beg the questions that there were other duchesses and will be more geese. It gives those stories a sense even the ending is artificial because something in the story will go on after the reading has stopped.

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I like #8. And I think it's OK if you're never done done, or there's an editor waiting and that's the best you have right now. If Vonnegut, Saunders, and Olsen can rewrite their endings later, so can everybody else:-)

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"Fall in love a lot of times and…compare those times." That one's fuel for my pen!

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I joined Story Club in mid-January and missed the first couple of topics. I did go back and read all the stories when I first joined, but had avoided reading the comments. I realize now the comments are a huge part of this whole experience, so I’ve been working my way through all the comment sections, right from the beginning.

It’s especially convenient for me to note that George’s words and so many comments about The Falls, and later about Cat in the Rain have to do with endings, since we’re now talking about endings. I also went back and re-read Victory Lap (I read it quite a few years ago) and was awestruck— both by how great the story is, and also by knowing the inside story of how the ending came about. Wow!

Last January, I didn’t think I’d ever actually post comments because my writing feels overly simple and direct (maybe from years of writing special education reports for an audience of parents and teachers: no room for personal opinion, only professional recommendations). I am starting to realize it’s okay to be myself and even have some fun writing. Thank you to everyone in this amazing group, and especially to George who brings out the best.

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Am wondering if any of you have had this experience or if I was just incredibly lucky (this time).

I’d written a story, believed what I had to that point was engaging, that, in particular I’d done a good job creating the world of the story, but the ending eluded me. I sat with it for several weeks, had a couple of friends read it who thought it was fine the way it was (I knew it wasn’t, knew it wasn’t a story), and then, one day, sat down and, to the best of my recollection, because it was kind of a blur how this happened, had the characters continue with what had been the final scene, and it came to me. And I knew it was EXACTLY the right ending, that there could have been no other ending (for it to be the story I knew it was meant to be) and yet knew it would surprise the reader.

Never been so sure of anything in my life. Had my mentor Jim Krusoe take a look at it, tweaked a very few things, and sent it out. Plenty of rejections of course, but those didn’t sting like usual because I KNEW it would hit and it did. Got accepted and then, before I had a chance to pull it from other places I’d sent it, got two more requests to publish it (of course I went with the first). Will I ever have that certainty again? How did that ending come to me? I wish I knew. All I can do is be grateful.

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I reread George’s help on endings, and reread Victory Lap this morning and I’d like to articulate my response to its massively powerful, to me, this morning, ending. I've rewritten this a few times to try and get it more better.

So. At the beginning of the end, Kyle is holding the geode over the wounded attacker’s head:

what will Kyle do?

Two realities shimmer – one where he brings the rock down and one where he doesn’t.

The moment is elided by a jump in time. “For months afterwards she had nightmares in which Kyle brought the rock down....”

Here I believe completely that Kyle has in fact brought the rock down. My emotions tumble me into this view. She is reliving this horrible experience. (Rereading I see it differently).

I did pause over the text: “Then the guy had no head. The blow just literally dissolved his head.” Which sounds unreal and dream-like, but in the moment of my belief in the act, I read as a subjective experience of an actual action.

Also leading me to believe that Kyle kills the attacker is how Alison wonders how in dreams “we can’t do the simplest things” – It seems to say that in the crucial moment she does not cry out and therefore Kyle does in fact smash the rock into the guy.

At this point, I am in “OH NO!” state emotionally: these kids’ lives are forever blighted! (which I think is where George wants me, qua reader).

And then “Sometimes she’d wake up crying from the dream about Kyle. The last time... “

(Oh and I now notice “The last time...” – i.e. she doesn’t have the nightmare again – this is where it ends for Alison.)

“...The last time, Mom and Dad were already there, going, That’s not how it was. Remember Allie?”

And it’s the loving adults who put me, the reader, right too. “Say it. Say it out loud. Allie can you tell Mommy and Daddy how it really happened?”

(I think of Mr. Rogers advice to children – to look for the helpers, when terrible things happen.)

“I ran outside, she said. I shouted.”

And now we are whoosh—joyfully speeding down a ski jump and wheeee! rising high in relief! – something akin to Kyle’s "lush release of pressure" (gorgeous phrase) -- to the actual fabulous ending.

I'm not sure I ever really, properly read this story before -- or maybe was willing to let it in. The prospect of the rape of a young fancy-filled girl -- well, walls rise, Roman legions square up around my crouching psyche, etc.

George Saunders stories generally (in my experience) demand a level of rib-cracking opening up of their readers--but then the heart of the tale shines out! (Reminds me of that figure of Jesus we see in Catholic churches.)

He puts these ordinary people, befogged and begirt by the numberless delusions of life, into exceptional circumstances and under horrendous pressures. What do they do? Kyle and Alison -- They did good.

Thank you, George, for telling us of the ending that was good enough to be accepted by The New Yorker but which you knew wasn’t IT. You were so right!

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I'm so glad Story Clubbers asked those questions about endings. It's a struggle, and the ten ways are helpful. I love the long emails!

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You are the Story Horse Whisperer ;)

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As Lee and Mimi responded, please don’t shorten Thursdays answers. It feels like you are talking to us in person! And Lee, I like your comment how the Title or the first paragraph connects to the ending...sometimes, George?

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So many ways to consider an ending. I struggled with the ending of my recent novel for too long, worrying how my reader would feel. Would she be disappointed? Bereft? Feeling cheated? Angry? God I hoped not, perhaps too much. I wanted her to close the back cover and smile. Just smile, as if to say "of course." That is a real tall order, and I don't know if I achieved it, but reports from early readers are consistent in their demand for MORE. So that tells me I ended without resolution, which is a failed ending, unless I do a sequel. But isn't that a cop out? I believe endings are as important as the first few pages. If they succeed, you live to be read another day. If they fail, game over.

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I have gone completely mad in one story. Yay! I’ve revised it every day for the last five months, sometimes twice a day. At first I got a growing sense I was fixated, obsessive, compulsive, avoiding something else. Then my older, experienced, more self-accepting senior self chimed in with, “Why not go with it and see what happens?” I still work on other stuff, but this is my pet project. George, I must blame you a bit for getting me started doing it. Actually, thank you.

Many days, I change a phrase that had a little bullshit factor in it and find words that are truer to the voice of whoever was speaking, such as the change from “whomever” I just did. That micro-process lasts till today and sometimes makes significant steps forward to trueness, and other times reflects the old story of the author who puts in a comma in the morning and takes it out in the afternoon. I forget whom.

But on other days, especially well into the marathon, something else happens. Part of me goes numb. The part that wants to hold onto nice paragraphs even when they’re not doing good work. I re-read a paragraph and for the first time, I’m ready to feel the bullshit meter and I make a significant cut. This has helped me quite a bit to cut fat but not mess with the parts that are actually working to construct a natural world in the story where everything fits together and only true moving parts are left.

That last phrase brings me to the engineering metaphor you often use, George. I do think there are phases in the process of creating a story. First, the dump part. Exploration might be the best word. Some call it self-expression, but since listening to William Stafford lean away from that concept on YouTube, I like exploration or discovery better.

Then the engineering phase, where you start moving things around, still in a an exploratory mode.

Finally, the reverse engineering phase. At some point, you can look at your piece with more of the left brain and ask, “What has my unconscious delivered to me to back engineer?, to understand like the lady in Engineering removing parts from a product, one by one?”

It’s almost as if the material has come from another person for me to edit. Here, I can let go of my prejudices about my piece and my "wonderful" writing and break it down as if it were a commercial reverse-engineer project. I am in a state of maximum hovering over myself, as if in Buddhist practice. The real meaning of the story and how its moving parts can be arranged for best effect, become clearer. Before that point, maybe my knee-jerk biases cloud the picture.

So I may be insane, just not in this case, right?


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