We thought this excerpt from Elissa Schappell’s excellent essay from The Writer’s Notebook II might be both informative and inspirational to those of you taking part in our Shirley Jackson Short Story contest.
“Great is the art of beginning,” Longfellow said, “but greater the art of ending.”
It’s true. Beginnings, like first kisses, need only seduce us with their potential, clearly establish the theme, cast, and tenor of the affair to come, whereas the ending must realize the story’s potential, deliver on the checks the beginning has signed, and do so in such a memorable way that the reader is left wanting more. For we may forget how a relationship began—we were drunk, it was wartime, it began slowly—but rarely do we forget how it ended—with a slap, a kiss tasting of tears, a farewell wave from the back of a camel. It’s the end of the story we’re focused on when we recount these tales of betrayal, lost love, infidelity, isn’t it?
The ending bears all the weight of the story, its task nothing less than imbuing the story with meaning and making it unforgettable. The ending must fulfill the reader’s expectations by answering the questions that have been raised in the reader’s mind (or at least some of them), and it has to make sense, but at the same time, it should be unexpected. I don’t mean I want a surprise—I mean, even if I know how the story will end, I want to be surprised by the way I get there. The writer has done his job, novelist David Leavitt says, when the reader’s reaction to the ending is “Oh my God,” followed by “Of course.”
Obviously, endings are hard. Every writer struggles with them. Ernest Hemingway revised the last page of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times. When asked in an interview what the problem was that had him in such a swivet, he answered, “Getting the words right.”
Oh, is that all?
If beginnings are characterized by a lot of throat clearing and exposition, and the middle is where the writer hits his stride, endings—the knowledge that the end is near, The C on my A-B-C narrative arc looms!—strikes panic in writers’ hearts. You have to understand your story to end your story. Endings are harder than beginnings because they must grow organically out of the rest. They must, as Anton Chekhov says, “artfully concentrate for the reader an impression of the entire work.”
Of course, certain genres require specific closures. Mysteries, crime novels, ghost stories, bodice rippers, all by their very nature promise a neat resolution. Once the reader knows “who done it” and how; what, pray tell, ate those Eagle Scouts; and who will end up in whose arms, there is no reason for the author to stick around. Indeed, it’s best just to tidy up quickly and get out of there as elegantly as possible. Part of the pleasure of reading these genres is knowing exactly what sort of ending we can expect, and that our desires will be satisfied. But in fiction writing, it is often less clear to the writer how an ending should be resolved. Here are some common approaches—both ones to aspire to and ones to avoid—when writing an ending.
The Doogie Howser Ending
The pressure to tell readers what we want them to know is strong. Oftentimes, this anxiety manifests itself in the last paragraph of the piece being written in the form of summation, telling our readers what we fear we haven’t shown them, or what Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House magazine, calls a “Doogie Howser at the typewriter” moment. Doogie Howser, M.D. was a television show in the early nineties starring Neil Patrick Harris as a relentlessly perky teen doctor. At the close of every episode, Doogie would sit down at the typewriter and bang out the takeaway (“Today I learned that friends are invaluable”), just in case you missed it.
The cure for Howsering is simple: amputate the offending paragraph or paragraphs and be done with it. I realize that sounds heartless and cruel, but buck up, darling. You’re in grand company. William Faulkner was speaking from experience when he advised writers to “murder your darlings.” Understand that most early drafts are greatly improved by tearing off the first and last pages. If excising the last paragraph or page doesn’t reveal an ending that feels true, then go back. Retrace your steps and return to the place where you last felt a pulse, where the language felt alive, and you felt engaged. If that’s not your ending, it will at least point you true north.