Ten Ways of Thinking About Endings
Office hours, week #2
I got a cluster of questions regarding endings and how we know we’re finished with a story, including the following three:
What is your advice for knowing when a piece is "done"? I know on
e the one hand that a piece is never really done, but on the other hand, I am a practical person and I want to send a piece out into the world at some point. I am also wary of looking at submission rejections and acceptances as a sign of "doneness," because there is a lot of randomness and subjectivity in editors accepting works for publication. Do you have any advice on how to balance these things? Surely there must be something better than a gut feeling!
Can you talk about how you writing endings, and the ways they can go awry. I always find the ending to be the hardest part of writing a short story. People say we often write past them, and that you should look for an earlier place to end, but that doesn’t seem to suffice. Do you have a process for endings?
Do you have any advice about figuring out where a story should end? Two of your essays so far have been quite helpful: the one that was also published on Lit Hub, where you talked about place-holders and letting them be until they "pop into clarity", and also the post on My First Goose about experimenting with different ordering of pulses/sub-pulses. Both of these have helped me to be more patient and more willing to play with things - but I still often feel as if endings are simply arbitrary. How do you know when you've explored all of the "earned meaning"?
These are all great and I can feel (and I recognize) the longing in them. So, I thought I’d offer a few different ideas about “endings” and “being done” in hope that at least one of these might be useful.
Being done, ugh.
Endings, yes, argh.
“Further earned meaning,” good Lord, amen to that.
I once defined “ending” as “stopping without sucking.” And I’m going to stand by that. If we charm and interest the reader throughout the story, that means that our story is continually escalating. If, at one such moment, we stop, we at least can say that we didn’t bore anybody.
Then there’s the meta-answer, which is: Yes, exactly, good question. That is, “craft” is exactly equal to coming to know your answer to that question. What does a finished version of one of your stories feel like, versus, say, one that is seventy percent done? It’s kind of like: “How do I love what true love feels like?” The answer might be: Fall in love a lot of times and…compare those times.
One practical thing we can try: reside with a story (or with the ending of one of your stories) longer than feels natural. If we do this, we might inadvertently break a new trail – the story will suddenly do something one of our stories has never done before. Then, ever after, we’ll at least know that such new territory exists – we’ll have a fond memory of that new land we once blundered into.
So: make a deliberate point of reworking or even overworking a story, even to the point of being ridiculous, just to see what happens. (That is: maybe you’re someone whose natural tendency is to under-revise; this exercise will let you know about this.) Take the closing paragraph of one of your stories and (maybe at the end of your “real” working day, just work the heck out of it.
Another way I’ve talked about this is that we want to always be escalating, even into its last lines. So, I’ll spend a little extra time goofing with the ending, sort of, you know, Rubik’s-cubing it, trying to see if I can get just a little more light into it. I’m thinking something like, “Dear story, do you have anything else you want to tell me?’
Sometimes I’m just mechanically changing the last few lines around, to see what that process produces. When we rearrange a sentence, we create new possibilities for meaning. (What I love is when an inert sequence suddenly starts begging for some action to happen. Often, until I rejiggered it, it hadn’t occurred to me that something else might be wanting to happen.)
It's sometimes useful to take a breath, there in the last lines, and see what there is to work with. Is the character thinking? What physical objects are around? What’s the next natural thing that would happen if, say, the story didn’t know you were trying to end it? The writer, at this point, is a bit like an improv artist, looking around the stage to see what he might use.
As we’ve recently discussed, here’s one thing we writers really can get better at: precisely judging how good a scene or paragraph is, vs. the best we’ve done in the past. This takes real honesty but, more importantly, a willingness to accept our gut-level response. This response is like (let’s say) a very shy but super-intelligent person in a really loud room: what she has to say is crucial and it behooves us to learn to hear her.
I don’t have the old drafts here with me, but something like this happened with the ending of my story Victory Lap” (the first story in the collection Tenth of December).
(Warning: there’s some inside-baseball talk below, that might both ruin the ending AND be meaningless, if you haven’t read the story.)
I had finished the story with a scene in which Kyle’s parents are talking to him at bedtime and they basically agree to give him more freedom in the future.
It worked, I felt at the time, but…
…that little voice in my head was saying there was a better ending hiding underneath the current one. (And I knew this, in part, because I’d achieved this level of ending before, and remembered how good that felt like.)
In this case, as I remember it, the scene with Kyle’s parents was….pretty good. I’d revised the heck out it. It even had a little of that coveted “lyrical lift” that short fiction writers like to go out on. I’d sent it, with that ending, to The New Yorker with that ending in place and they’d accepted the story.
So….what’s not to love?
But, at one point, during the editing, as I was listening for that gut-level response, that shy, smart person in my head said, quietly: “Well, no offense, but: meh. You can do better.” (My needle dropped slightly into the “N” zone.) To which I responded: “What! We’re publishing this thing in a week! Don’t be neurotic!”
To which that inner voice replied: “OK, that’s fine, but you are going to have access to an even deeper meaning if you just…set this ending aside and try another. Just try. It costs you nothing to try.”
So, the move here was to simply not accept the current and possibly inferior ending.
Once I’d given myself the space to do that, a notion came to me, very quickly and unsummoned, to change the scene so that it was Allison’s parents, talking to her at night. This required some massive rejiggering of what had come before – and I won’t go into the details.
But the ending that is now in the story came about just because of that slight (slight) feeling of discontent with the former ending, and the willingness of my (stubborn, more-principled-than-the-real-me) inner artist to indulge that slight doubt.
So…the first step to becoming excellent is to refrain from stopping while one is still….not excellent.
Consider that, if you’re having trouble with your ending – you’re not. Your issue is actually the beginning and/or middle of the story.
Years ago, I was teaching Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron” to a group of undergrads. I’d photocopied it from a certain anthology and passed it out in class. Just before class, I read through it quickly, and something was off. There seemed to be something missing. I located the story in another anthology and, yes: what was missing was the last page of the story – there’d been an error in the anthology I’d used. Being both clever and desperate, I converted this mistake into, uh, a teaching moment. I “revealed” to the class that the last page of the story had been left off and asked them to supply it. (I counted the words and let them have that many words to do the job.) Now, these are undergrads who were not writing majors. I only gave them forty minutes. But when I had them read their endings aloud, it was astonishing: every single ending was good. Some were better written than others, yes, but all of them landed – they all made sense, all took into account the story that had preceded the ending. It was very strange, really.
A good ending, really, is a taking-into-account of everything that came before. Sometimes – not enough has come before. No bowling pins are up in the air, or not enough of them. The fabric from which a rich ending gets made is supplied in the earlier portions of the story. (Remember our discussion of “My First Goose,” and how many things that arose naturally and early ended up reappearing, transformed, in the ending.) If that early richness isn’t there, we get that sadly familiar feeling of begging the ending to work – stretching it and making it over-literal and so on.
The Vonnegut story was so perfectly constructed that every student in the class, even the ones who weren’t big readers, knew which bowling pins were in the air. (I’ve heard this sentiment expressed in the TV/movie world as: “A third-act problem is a first-act problem.”
I’ve sometimes compared the whole process of writing a story to that move where you pick up a scattered deck of cards and gradually, through a series of tappings against the table, bring the deck into alignment – with “rewriting” being equivalent to those taps.
Finding the ending of a story, then, is that last tap – and we know how to do that because of the (now, post-revision) unscatteredness of the rest of the deck (i.e., all the preceding pages of the story.
WAY TEN (THE LAST, I PROMISE):
Finally: I sometimes think of ending a story in this way: we are, for some reason, painting the floor of a room. We keep going over sections, trying to make sure that the paint is on smoothly, there are no brushstrokes showing and so on – making sure that all that floor back there is “done.” (I’m not entirely sure why “we’re” painting a floor, but bear with me.) For me, this is related to that P/N meter I’m always talking about. The process is: keep revising until you “approve of” every phrase, transition, etc. (You can find no fault with anything; it all floats your boat, etc). So, with endings, we are applying that way of thinking (even) to the last lines of the story. We’re kneeling near the doorway (i.e., we’ve “approved of” everything but the last few paragraphs.) Ahead is just one small, unpainted place near the door (the last lines of the story)…and then there’s just one missing brushstroke…which you apply while, uh, leaping out of the room. (The metaphor gets a little strained in here.) But there: all painted. We take a last look. All looks good, except – maybe we need, again, to adjust that last spot. We might do this several times. But at some point, the ending has assumed the same “finish” as the rest of the story.
And we’re done.
I am going to, I swear, figure out a way to answer these Thursday questions, uh, more briefly. There are so many great ones, in a big pile on my desk. Thanks for them…
Sunday, behind the paywall, I’ll have another post on Tillie Olsen’s miraculous “I Stand Here Ironing.” The discussion going on in the comments over there is epic - 450+ comments, much heat and insight and that lovely swerving into politics that can come from certain stories, and, given that swerve, an amazing level of civility and genuine attempts to understand one another - which is very welcome, especially right now.
Join us over there, if you feel inclined.
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.
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.