“Classification of fantasy and reality is itself a fantasy that humans created. Life begins when you make a distinction between yourself and others. From that moment on, the world becomes a stage for the story in which you are the main character. All humans live in a fantasy in which they are the main character. But the world doesn't recognize you as the main character at all. What nonsense. Everyone lives their entire life tormented by this confusion. There's only one way out of this hell. To place yourself in a position that is neither the main character nor a supporting role. In other words, the Author.”—Kino no Tabi
Closing Time: The Ending
Anonymous asked: I need some tips on finishing short stories. I’ve been writing for a while and I really love it, but unless it’s for school I have never finished anything I have started…help?
The ending is the thing that can make you hold the book against your chest and start sobbing, or close it with a satisfied smile, or throw it across the room in outrage. All endings are valid endings, with one exception. This is the ending in which the reader casually closes the book, drops it on the table, and brings up their Facebook page without another thought.
We’re going to try to help you write everything that isn’t that. Although the original question was about short stories, we’re going to give some tips for endings in general, then for short stories, then for novels.
First, some general tips to keep in mind:
- Give some answers. You set up a story, so finish it. You don’t have to resolve everything by either killing off the main character or having her solve all of her problems and live happily ever after. There’s a lot of life in between those extremes, and that’s where your story will probably end. You don’t have to change the lives of your characters Oprah Special-style, but it’s suggested that you address the problem you laid out in the first place.
- Accomplish something. Just like the characters within them, stories have goals. If you’re trying to say something, say it. If you want your reader to feel something, make them feel it. Think to yourself, “Why am I really writing this story?” Whatever the answer to that question is, it should be implemented throughout the story and brought to fruition at the end. Tailor your story to what you need it to do.
- Avoid the Deus ex Machina. This Greek phrase literally means “god from the machine”, and it commonly refers to stories in which the ending comes out of absolutely nowhere. This is when the Love Interest’s fiancé chokes to death on a piece of beef jerky and your main character capitalizes on the availability of the Love Interest, culminating in matrimonial bliss within a couple of paragraphs. Don’t pull endings out of your butt. They come from your story. Pull them out of there.
- You will not please everyone. Ever. There will be people that will have a beef with your ending. There are probably a couple of ways that you could have done it, but it’s your challenge to rifle through those alternatives and figure out which one your story really needs, not your critics’. Don’t worry about pleasing your audience; worry about respecting the story you’ve told by giving it a proper end.
- Be careful with ambiguity. You might love those endings that make you think about what really happened, or make you fill in the blanks yourself. Those endings are great, but they should be approached and implemented with great care. If you want two readers to fight over whether your character decided to do something or other, give them a reason to fight over it. Make your character complex enough where it would have to go either way. The ambiguous ending can be magnificent if the story requires it, but it can seem unsuccessful and faux-artsy if done weakly. Tread carefully.
Now, on to the short story.
- Keep it short. While your short story probably has depth and complexity, it is still limited because of its length. There is only so much you can do with a small word count. (By the way, please don’t try to cram a novel into the space of a short story. You will only do yourself a disservice.) Don’t look for a massive, grandiose ending if it isn’t there.
An ending can be small, like a change in attitude or direction for one of your characters. At first, it might not even feel like an ending, but if it resolves the problem, you’ve gotten the job done.
“I have an aunt who thinks that nothing happens in a story unless someone gets married or shot at the end of it.”
— Flattery O’Connor
- Leave early. Don’t volunteer to clean up. You haven’t been at the party for that long. Your readers don’t need to know every detail of the ending and ever little thing that gets tied up. The ending should have some emotional impact, and if you keep writing once that’s delivered, it’s going to get stale. Your reader hasn’t been able to establish very involved relationships with the characters over the course of your short story, so be aware of that in writing your ending.
What about novels?
- Stick around. Help out and clean up. You know the people that threw this party pretty well. The least you can do is to help put everything back in place. Unlike the short story, the reader of a novel has spent loads of time with these characters and probably isn’t averse to finding out what happens to them when the dust clears (assuming, of course, your reader liked your story).
- Plant. In many stories, the ending is the coming-together of many elements, characters, and ideas from earlier in the story. Many stories use plants, or things that are mentioned earlier in the story for the purpose of being used later, to impact the ending (this is a good way of avoiding Deus ex Machina). The ending should develop from the rest of the story and follow logically. While it may surprise and astonish your reader, it shouldn’t make them cock and eyebrow and wonder where it came from.
- Pivot on your climax. The outcome of your climax is going to be the material that you have for your ending. In dealing with the post-climactic world, take a look at the rest of your story and figure out what’s fundamentally changed during the climax. The ending, whatever it may be, lies in those changes. After you’ve excited your reader over the climax, resolve what’s happened. A resolution is not inherently happy, but it does end the story.
It is very tricky to pull of the perfect ending. Rely on your story and keep to your goals. If you got them reading up until now, they’re going to want something good. Trust yourself to not disappoint.
Thanks for your question! If you have any other questions about writing, feel free to hit up our ask box!
“Don’t let the thoughts banging around in your skull delude you into thinking this is how the world really is. Words are individual units of meaning that you string together to form your personal narrative about reality…stop trying to explain everything away. You’re a prisoner of a story you created – your autobiography. You are limited because your thinking limits you. ”—The Zen Humanist
“Did you have a genius of a great-great-grandmother who died under some ignorant and depraved white overseer's lash? Or was she required to bake biscuits for a lazy backwater tramp, when she cried out in her soul to paint watercolors of sunsets, or the rain falling on the green and peaceful pasturelands? Or was her body broken and forced to bear children (who were more often than not sold away from her)-eight, ten, fifteen, twenty children-when her one joy was the thought of modeling heroic figures of Rebellion, in stone or clay?”—“In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” by Alice Walker
Hyu’s sight, before corrupted by the darkness surrounding him, begins to clear. A bright light surrounded him as he felt lighter. What was happening? All the pain devouring his flesh was healed, and he could breath again. He widened his eyes before seeing darkness again. A pleasant breeze he could feel blowing his face, as well a strong light hitting his body. He realized he was only with his eyes closed. He slowly opened them and…
“Tom, come take a look at this,” the attending beckons excitedly. I get up from the charting station and walk over to his computer.
A CT scan fills his screen with a very large, obvious abnormality. “This is one of the biggest I have seen in my career,” he says. The patient had developed not only a large mass but a rare one, causing all sorts of systemic anomalies. Given the extent, it would be inoperable.
As we proceed to the patient’s room, the doctor explains the clinical presentation of mass effect on the body. His eyes are wide and flicker with a fiery excitement. He can barely control the rate of his words as he gushes about the various pieces of the unique clinical puzzle in front of him.
“Are you excited?” he asks after he finishes. I reply that it is “interesting,” much to his displeasure. “How could you not be excited? You might not see this ever again in your life.”
But all I could think about was how this mass, this zebra on a CT scan would soon bring our patient to their untimely death.
Within, I watched the attending as he spoke to the patient and their family about the situation. He explained things with such professionalism, clarity and assurance that I could see no better way it could have gone.
Yet it continued to disturb me, his excitement in it all.
Joseph Addison, a poet said: “Everything that is new or uncommon raises a pleasure in the imagination, because it fills the soul with an agreeable surprise, gratifies its curiosity, and gives it an idea of which it was not before possessed.”
For my attending, who may have seen thousands upon thousands of patients with very similar presentations, this zebra case must have stirred up a renewed sense of adventure, a break from an otherwise regular routine of patients.
Perhaps, it is that hot flush of novelty, that infectious high of our peers that perpetuate our own behaviour.
Too often our fascinations show outwardly as our primary intent. In the process, we forget that the patient has a name, has a right to be treated with dignity, has an illness that still needs to be treated. In the process, we forget that the condition does not define the patient any more than he defines the condition.
It is a strange situation we find ourselves in, to be excited and captivated by our morbid curiosity; on some level, we must in order to learn and improve as clinicians; at the end of the day however, it must come at the expense of someone else’s health. For that, I must always consider the fine line that separates respectful and disrespectful learning.
“Pretty neat findings, eh?” He nudges me. I take a look back at the patient’s room. I watch as the family huddle in an emotional embrace as they come to terms with our news.
“Yeah. It is really interesting,” I mutter bleakly.
“I’ll say it loud and I’ll say it clear. I am not mentally ill, never was, never have been, never will be. I am a survivor of abuse and I believe that I have had a perfectly natural human reaction to terrible experiences. And to frame my responses as illness, I think, is offensive. And I think we spend far too long talking about what’s going on in people’s brains, and not enough time talking about what’s happened in people’s lives.”—Jacqui Dillon, The Personal is Political
Becoming a Mentor
“Hello,” came a quiet voice. I glanced up from my paperwork to find a young lady leaning in across the counter. Her wavy brown hair framed a shy smile. A white coat hardened her otherwise soft and subdued attire while the red tubing and metal instrument around her neck helped identify her.
“Hello. How are you?”
“I am good. How are you?”
“Not too bad. Can I help you with something?
“Yes. I am a second year medical student. I was sent up here for our clinical skills session to assess a patient and I was hoping, if you have time, to help me with a few points on my presentation.”
I stopped for a moment, unsure of myself. Could I help this student? Perhaps I am not the right one to ask. But what is the harm in trying?