During the Eighth Annual Wordstock Festival this past weekend, I was able to attend readings and lectures and to meet with various people in the Portland literary community. One of the lectures I found relevant to my writing life was called, “The Art of the Ending.” Featuring writers Jon Raymond, Brian Doyle, and Natalie Serber, the discussion moved from favorite literary endings to least favorites, various types of endings, and finally how each author viewed the ending and its job in a story.
I am lucky in that I don’t often struggle with how to end my stories. Usually they come to me once I’ve figured out the start of the story (it’s the middle that I always have trouble with). Brian Doyle (editor of Portland Magazine, novelist, and short story writer) best summed up my approach to endings. “Just stop,” he advised. Stories aren’t essays. They don’t need a conclusion paragraph. In fact, Doyle thinks that the best ending to your story usually isn’t the last paragraph, but rather the penultimate paragraph. That is some interesting advice that makes me want to revisit some of my older stories, or at least keep that in mind as I work on future stories.
Natalie Serber, author of the short story collection Shout Her Lovely Name, helped explain the difference between endings of a short story and a novel. “You can end a short story in a moment, a gesture. With a novel, you have to slow down.” Think of any number of Raymond Carver short stories and you’ll understand. Often the reader is cut off mid-moment, mid-climax (especially in “Tell the Women We’re Going”).
Then think of the epic, decades-spanning novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. After everyone in the Buendia family has died but one descendant, Aureliano Babilonia, he makes the discovery that the parchments he is deciphering tell the entire history of his family, right up to the present moment. He realizes that his life is about to make true the prophecies predicted about his family, that finally they will cease to exist. Here is the last line:
“Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”
I’ve read this novel twice, and both times I made the mistake of finishing it in public, which means that I have cried over this last line at a gym and on the bus. What a powerful moment when Aureliano realizes he’s it. Hundreds of pages full of love, sex, war, friendship, and hatred lead to nothing, to the end of a family and a history. It’s heartbreaking enough finishing a novel with characters whose lives you have felt so personally connected with, but it is an extra kick while you’re down knowing that those characters won’t continue on once you close the book. The finality of this ending is devastating.
Jon Raymond, novelist and writer of the film Meek’s Cutoff, lamented that often when he writes an open ending that leaves the audience to make up their own minds about the end, audiences often respond with disappointment. Many audiences want an ending with a neatly tied bow on top. I think it really depends on the story. I agree that short stories, which often take place during a smaller amount of time and don’t necessarily need as much wrapping up as a novel, can end without as much resolution. I prefer this.
When I wrote my short story “For Worse,” I didn’t want to tell the audience where Joe went with Claudine’s body (they body swapped; read the story and this will make sense). That’s not the point of the story. The point is that after years in a bad marriage, Claudine is really and truly stuck with Joe. I wanted to end the story with the image of her settling into his body, knowing she will die in it. That image was more powerful to me than seeing Joe, the secondary character, drive off into the sunset. For my reflection on brother and sister relationships, “Siblings,” I ended the story with dialogue. Dialogue takes up most of the story because it is about two people trying to talk through their problems. There is no happy, easy ending, but in the brother Josh’s story to his sister Elizabeth and his asking if she understands, the audience can see them connecting over their shared loneliness and maybe taking a step out of it.
There are dozens of ways to end a story. Perhaps I’ll write again on this subject because it is an exhaustive one. For now, I’ll leave you with a link to the American Book Review‘s list of the hundred best last lines from novels: