Endings in Stories

I’ve spent the day rifling round the house like a cold-turkey addict, searching for some codeine, even paracetamol or plain old ibuprofen, too lazy to find a shop.  My recent tooth extraction has floored me, I usually function quite competently with tooth-pain but this one really got to me.  I have a feeling he slipped a couple of times when he was fiddling about, and I wasn’t to know because of the local anaesthetic but I have some nasty sores on the roof of my mouth.  Anyway, nothing to do with what I wanted to say…

I’ve written down some thoughts in the past on different elements of writing.  Not official guides or anything, but things I’ve picked up through practice and my MA.  After all what else does an MA and six or seven stories published allow me apart from blogging a bit of guidance for anyone who wants to follow in my footsteps – or perhaps qualify me for the latest Celebrity Big Brother (I think a published poem would entitle me to that these days).  I’ve posted on Beginnings, and Character and I don’t need to post on dialogue because Craig Pay has blogged sufficiently in this area.  So here are a few thoughts on writing endings with a nod in the direction of the Comma Press website and the recent Comma Press/Madlab writing course I attended.

First of all, I suck at endings!  Seriously I could write episodes of Lost, my endings are that bad, they go nowhere.   It is the thing I do least well, and something I am trying to improve.  So what is the general advice? First of all as always I’m talking about short stories.  Are novel endings different to short story endings?  Who knows, I always presume everything about a short story is different to a novel.  I’ve become completely won over by the short story.  I recently returned to a great novel idea which I was five thousand words into twelve months ago, but had drawn up some decent plans for.  I wrote a sentence, then contemplated another 85,000 words…and turned my laptop off and went to make a cup of tea.  My stamina is damaged.

So short stories

They can end one of maybe three ways.  The epical ending – In modern terms Epical endings refer to an epiphany or revelation which sheds light on the whole.  The first one which comes to mind is the film Memento – the realisation of what Teddy says to him in the last five minutes (trying not to spoil the ending) sheds light over the whole film, and everyone in the room looks at each other with eyebrows raised and releases an ‘ahhh’.  Traditional Epical though is a more tied up ending, where the bigger picture is shown, but external realisations are key, not just a personal experience.  For me this ending is a bit cheap.  Tom eventually overcame the problems he and Diane were having, and he apologised and came home and they did get married three weeks later as planned.  You know?  It doesn’t involve feelings, it doesn’t involve thinking and contemplation.  But hey, I suck at endings, so convincing you to do endings like me is a bit silly.

So then there is reveal endings.  I find reveal endings so, so tough.  A reveal is obviously a bit like a twist, and a bit like a modern epical ending.  Except a reveal relies on a secondary plot, a continuing issue which at the end is shown to be important and conclusive.  Two plot lines come together in a way that makes you slap your hand over your mouth and start flicking back pages to look for the clues.  A twist in the tale meanwhile, shows the same hand-over-mouth ending but you won’t find the clues paging back.  A twist is unsupported, it’s too easy – there, it was all a dream, or James was really an Alien and he exploded, or the island is really heaven and everyone died in the plane crash.  Reveal endings untie the knots.  Magic tricks and jokes use reveal endings they take you in one direction so that when they reveal the truth you feel a dummy.  The most obvious kind of reveal is the one where Poirot stands up at the garden party and fingers all of them one at a time, and the shifty working class employee skulking in the shadows gets it last, and gets it good, a company of policemen waiting patiently off-screen to pounce.

Finally, and my favourite – Lyrical endings.  These are more modern.  For me lyrical endings are logical and authentic, my life isn’t a series of Poirot moments when I get bowled over by a suddenly revealed truth.  Things get their moment, sometimes I seize them sometimes not, when I do seize them they will inevitably sometimes dwindle and disappear – that’s the lyrical ending.  Arguments that end with one person compromising or biting their lip (rather than hacking off the others head with an axe [traditional epical] admitting they are going home to their real wife, who they’ve been married to all along [reveal] or realising that they’re in fact gay and going upstairs to pack their suitcase [modern epiphany])  The lyrical ending is real.  It allows the reader to feel something and think something after the story is over.  There is a lack of finality which to me inspires more interation with the events.  The reader can think, oh I’d do that, or this…what would you do.  People can find their own answers (Woody Allen’s Manhattan is a nice lyrical ending).

What is important, I believe is people want to read between the lines and add something of themselves to good fiction.  The Bible is an example of the fact a story can be taken several different ways.  People look for metaphors – does it really mean Jonah was swallowed by a whale or is it about a journey in our understanding?  Or is it a metaphor for Jesus in the wilderness?  Most Bible stories end traditionally epical, you’re told that the Israelites got out of Egypt, and when God sent the Egyptians after them, he gave them an out, and drowned all the Egyptians.  There isn’t anything lyrical about that.  Maybe if Pharaoh had sat outside his tent in the last scene, watching from the hilltop as the Jews walked across the Red Sea, and thought to himself, maybe I should start going to church again….

So there are three.  The only three?  The best three?  What do you write, do you always have a similar style to your endings, do you run out of steam and never know what to put.  Maybe you’re a reader and you’re really disappointed if you don’t get a certain kind of ending where the loose ends are all tied up?  Comment if you have anything to say.  Meanwhile don’t take any of this as fact, I really am not the best at endings.

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2 thoughts on “Endings in Stories

  1. I still haven’t seen the film Memento so I can’t comment on its ending, but I don’t think I’m keen on epical endings either. Perhaps it’s the way you describe it but it seems like such a let down.

    I don’t really enjoy endings that are all completely tied up and neatly packed, despite what I wrote earlier, but I do like endings to have a degree of closure so you can imagine the story continuing rather than just stopping.

    I do like reveal endings – probably because I read a lot of crime thrillers (my Mum’s favourite genre).

    (It’s off topic but I‘m very disappointed that they’ve cast Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher in One Shot. I haven’t met a single Lee Child reader who is happy with that casting. Have you read it? / Are you a Lee Child fan?)

    I’m not entirely with you on Lyrical endings (probably because I’ve never really put much thought into endings). Perhaps you could recommend some books with good lyrical endings?

    The twist endings you described are horrendous! If I read a book that actually had that type of ending I would feel I’d wasted a few hours of my life. :-p (I’m glad I never watched Dynasty – Didn’t that all turn out to be a dream? Lazy writers!) Oh, and Lost was rubbish too. It started out promising but that was an awful way to end it. Please DON’T recommend any books with this ending, unless it’s one where you didn’t feel cheated.

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