Story Endings, How They Torture Me
Time really does fly when you aren't paying attention! I've been a slush reader for Electric Spec for four years. Four years! I have not kept stats on how many stories that is, but I'm guessing somewhere on the order of 600+ short stories that I've read in that amount of time.
We have a policy of not providing direct feedback to submitting authors, and as an editor I understand there are very good reasons for it. In the history of E-Spec, there have been times when engaging directly with an author like that has gotten messy, and turned out to be unproductive for us and unproductive for the author. So we just don't do it.
At the same time, as an author myself craving exactly that kind of feedback, I am frustrated by the policy. There are so many stories that I have read that could've been much, much better if the author had just fixed these one or two things. But alas, I can't share that insight with the author. And honestly, the author may not agree with my (one) opinion. I'm not a guru. I've just read a lot of stories and happen to know some stuff about writing.
But now things have changed. I got a promotion (yay!) and I have the opportunity to write the editor article for our inaugural issue under (mostly) new management, which I am able to use to talk about annoying slush pile things in the general sense, which will hopefully help some of you in a specific way.
So here we are, and first on my list of pet peeves when it comes to our submissions is endings. A bad ending is the most annoying reason to reject a story, because you had me! You had me all the way up until... that lame ending. There really is no more painful rejection to send than the one that came because the ending fizzled. Here's what you need to watch out for, and how to fix it.
Endings: The Basics
Everyone knows that the ending should, well, conclude the story in a satisfying way. Short stories, because of the nature of the format (at E-Spec, we define "short" as 6,000 words or less), are more like single hits to a punching bag than a novel, which is more like a whole workout. In a novel, you have the climax, and then you have the denouement, which is where all of the rest of the loose ends are tied up.
In some genres, the denouement goes on for a long time. It's like the cool down period after a workout. You, the reader, have just been through a very intense experience where a whole lot of stuff happened to a character you've spent a long time rooting for. You need a chance to catch your breath before you reconnect to the real world. It's a transition period of a kind.
In a short story, you don't have the time or the space for a long, drawn-out denouement. At most, 500 words of a 6,000 word story. Tiffany's story, "Catch and Release," in this issue is a good example of a short and sweet denouement. She's got the resolution of a subplot, which is an important part of closing out Theron's story arc, and then three short paragraphs. The last line is the best, because it's a direct contrast to the opening, which shows just how much Theron has changed as a result of the plot.
Make Your Ending Sizzle
Change is probably the biggest and most important part of an ending. An ending often fizzles because there is not enough change. For example, one of the stories that we considered this quarter had a momentous event that impacted the world, as told through the eyes of the main character. But at the end, the only thing that really changed for the main character was that he decided he was going to investigate this momentous happening. Sure, in the big picture sense there was "change", but not enough that was specific to the character who was carrying the story.
How do you make sure you have enough change? Ask yourself: Mentally, physically, emotionally, where did my character begin? And at the end of the story, how much have any or all of these aspects changed for my character? In the momentous event example, the character barely changed at all -- just, basically, decided he was curious. That's not enough to have an impactful ending.
Next up, make sure you end in the right place. In a short story, back to the boxing analogy (I've been catching up on Daredevil, that's why that's top of mind!). You get one hit to make your mark. A punch is the most powerful when you spend the least amount of time transferring the energy of your fist into the bag. If you leave your hand on the bag too long, then some of the energy bounces back into your fist, up your arm, and into your shoulder.
A short story ending should operate under the same principles. The real, natural conclusion of the story may well be something that the reader constructs in her mind. Philip K. Dick was a master at this, and if you haven't read the short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," the basis of two very horrible major motion picture releases (Total Recall, attempts one and two), you should, because it is a perfect example of a short story that punches hard and fast, leaving reverberations in the reader that last well beyond the printed word.
For your story, the question is, can I end it sooner? Can I set up an ending so the denouement happens mostly in the reader's mind? You want to be careful that the ending isn't too ambiguous or confusing, because that happens too, but that's what a good beta reader or critique group is good for, to help you find the places where readers will get confused.
One more piece of advice, and then I'll give you a handy-dandy checklist for endings. The advice? No punch lines. If your ending is a punch line -- "ha ha, you thought the story was about X but it's really about Y and I fooled you!" then you're not writing a story, you're writing a joke. A joke is a different kind of contract with the reader than a short story. A short story promises a quick hit of change. A joke promises a trick. Most people don't like to be tricked, especially when they're not expecting it.
I guess the difference could be taken to be a subtle one, but I don't see it that way. An ending can be startling or unexpected -- in fact, twist endings are often brilliant, and difficult to pull off. Go back to "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" -- that is definitely a twist ending. But it can't come out of things left out of the story. It can't be a trick ending. The questions to ask yourself about trick endings: Do people who don't know me read my story and get mad because of how it ends? Did I do enough to "plant" the hints (even if subtle or buried under red herrings) that provide a solid foundation for my ending?
Hopefully this helps! I love a good ending, and I find fizzled endings bitterly disappointing, like carefully licking a Tootsie Pop only to find there is no center. Your ending is the last impression you leave with the reader -- make sure it's a good one!
Short Story Endings Checklist
How much change has happened to my main character? Mentally, physically, emotionally? Is it enough change?
- Am I ending my story in the right place? Does the denouement drag on?
- Is it possible to end sooner by implying an ending, without necessarily drawing the ending out for the reader? How much work can I make the reader do -- without being confusing -- in figuring out how the story really ends?
- Do I plant enough evidence to support my ending so that the ending doesn't seem random or a trick?
- Does my ending leave readers mad or unsatisfied? If the answer is yes, then you'll want to revisit that ending.