In Search of the Perfect Ending

The End(s)Why am I writing about story endings when the very thought makes me want to whimper and hide my head under my pillow?

Endings! Endings! Oh the agony! But oh the sweetness when you get the right one!

A request came to a group of writing colleagues asking for the best advice we’d received about how to find endings. I had my whimper and hid under my pillow but found once I’d started thinking about endings I couldn’t stop.

I don’t – can’t – plan my endings beforehand. I understand from what I read that this is ‘a bad thing’ but I just love the surprise when I discover an ending that I wasnIMG_6226‘t expecting. I have to admit though, finding an organic ending probably takes quadruple or more the time than a planned ending.

For the various types of ending, Booker Prize finalist Josip Novakovich’s descriptions in his “Fiction Writer’s Workshop” are a good place to start.

1. Beginnings and Endings

In my second semester in the Lesley University MFA Creative Writing MFA, Buki Papillon gave a terrific graduating seminar on “Developing the Short Story Ending”. Buki talked about the necessity of understanding what your story is about, and then on satisfying what you’ve implied at the beginning.

What I loved in her seminar was the exercise in which she had us look at sample beginnings and endings from a number of novels and short stories. Try it – pick any novel or story you love and see how the seeds of the ending have been sown in the beginning paragraphs.

So I always go back to my opening paragraph to see what has changed (and to check that is really the right paragraph to open the story). I don’t like to make tying the two up an absolute must because sometimes it holds the story back, but it is extremely useful in helping me see possible ways forward as I work on the story.

2. Multiples

Lesley University author A.J.Verdelle (The Good Negress: A Novel; Meanwhile Back at the Ranch) suggested thinking up a number of endings. Eight, if I remember rightly. I usually try to aim for 10-15.

I find this exercise particularly useful, because it keeps me open to all possibilities and allows the characters and story to surprise me. This is especially the case when I believe in the ending of a first draft, when I tend to get locked into that ending even when it has outlived its usefulness and the story needs to move on.

I used to think once I got the ending, that was it but I now know that first “yessss – got it” can shift overnight into an even better ending, which in turn…. In other words, I no longer send off a story the moment I’ve typed “The End”.

3. How Did They Do It?

When I’m trying to find what an ending should be, I read a LOT. For some reason I find this helpful. I especially read stories I already know. I suppose I’m looking for “so how did they do it?”. Or am I hoping my ending will be inspired by other stories through a kind of osmosis?

4. The Lingerie Theory

Julie Checkoway’s essay “The Lingerie Theory of Literature: Describing and Withholding, Beginning and Ending” (in “Creating Fiction” – which should be on every writer’s real or virtual bookshelf) gives several pieces of advice about endings. The one I particularly like is to look for your ending a few paragraphs up from where you think the story ends. This is particularly useful for me as I tend to overshoot my endings.

5. Nah!

“The ending doesn’t live up to the story.” “You can do better than that.” “I don’t think you have the right ending yet.” “I felt let down at the end, sort of disappointed.” Feedback from writing peers you respect is invaluable. Essential, in fact. The temptation is to go for the logical, easy ending, without even realizing it’s the logical, easy ending. A good hard nudge onward can do wonders. That’s when I return to #2 on this list.

“Writer and editor Gordon Lish once said that the last line of a story should be like the little piece of string that "Creating Fiction" ed. Julie Checkowayone pulls when trying to build a ship in a bottle. You pull the little string and the whole structure, already fit snugly inside the vessel of the glass, goes up, masts and all, entirely constructed. Voilà! Lish’s point is that the ending shows the thematic and structural connections between all that has come before.” Julie Checkoway

I have to write to find my ending. That is, the ending only emerges for me when I am writing. I don’t seem to be able to conceptualize it first and then write it. I’ll be writing and then I’ll think “there it is, that’s it”.

That is my best case scenario. Usually I have to keep working at experimenting with this angle or that. In these cases, there is a certain point when I know an ending is working its way to the surface. It may not be the final ending, but once I have the end of a thread I can keep pulling at it until all becomes clear.

How do I know? It’s a body thing. I get very tense and irritable. I don’t sleep well. It’s not necessarily that I’m working out the ending logically (although I do that too), it’s more that my story’s characters, the relationships, events, images, are all jostling around inside me. It’s easier now that I recognize the feeling as I can just accept it rather than fight it. Often this is a good time for me to do other, quite different, stuff. My husband knows to give me a wide berth at these times!

Not all stories – not all my stories that’s for sure – end. They stay half-baked, in my mind or hard drive or in folders. I return to them again and again but I just can’t get them to the place where they need to be to come to the boil. It’s like you’re whisking up an omelette but can’t find a pan to cook them in so you’re left with raw eggs.

Do you plan your ending before you write? If not, how do you tease it out?

How does your body know your story is about to find its ending?


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