Crafting Endings in Short Fiction
By Jennifer Murvin •
There are two quotations I often turn to when thinking about ending a short story; the first comes from Flannery O’Connor, in her essay, “On Her Own Work,” which reads, “I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity.” Sure, I want to say, no problem! In character and beyond character, world and eternity, got it! These seemingly impossible, lofty demands on a narrative’s ending are probably why we as writers are often brought to our knees when we finally reach that dreaded question: How on earth do I finish this story?
The second quotation comes from Eudora Welty, who writes in her essay, “Some Notes on Time in Fiction,” “In going in the direction of meaning, time has to move, of course, through a mind. What it will bring about is an awakening there. Through whatever motions it goes, it will call forth, in a mind or heart, some crucial recognition.” I love this quotation for its practical and maybe more accessible advice: an ending should address the character’s understanding or perception of time, and a character should have a recognition. Perhaps if I can include these two elements, O’Connor’s demands of “world and eternity” might tag along.
The takeaway from these two quotations and my own experience in closely reading short fiction might be this: the crisis action is a (subtle! magical!) combination of the character’s mind and body, of both recognition (thought) and gesture (action) to suggest the narrative’s ultimate stakes of meaning and significance. The “heart” of the story will sometimes move out in all directions from a line in which the writer articulates the recognition by the character that this—this moment, these particular events—marks a before/after moment in the character’s life. Does the character need to understand or articulate the intricacies of the recognition in the moment itself? Perhaps not, but the writing must acknowledge it, must contain it.
For those like me who love specific prompts, what follows is a brief listing of techniques writers might try to create what John Gardner calls in The Art of Fiction the “resonant close.”
Recollection and Meditation: Write a reflection/summary/recollection of events recently occurred, along with a few sentences of the point-of-view character thinking on the page in which they evaluate these events.
For an example, we can look to the ending of Richard Ford’s story “Great Falls.” In the passage below, notice also the manipulation of time—here we begin the final paragraph with the character walking to school, and by the end, over five years have passed.
As I walked toward school I thought to myself that my life had turned suddenly, and that I might not know exactly how or which way for possibly a long time. Maybe, in fact, I might never know. It was a thing that happened to you—I knew that—and it had happened to me in this way now. And as I walked on up the cold street that afternoon in Great Falls, the questions I asked myself were these: why wouldn’t my father let my mother come back? Why would Woody stand in the cold with me outside my house and risk being killed? Why would he say my mother had been married before, if she hadn’t been? And my mother herself—why would she do what she did? In five years my father had gone off to Ely, Nevada, to ride out the oil strike there, and been killed by accident. And in the years since then I have seen my mother from time to time—in one place or another, with one man or other—and I can say, at least, that we know each other. But I have never known the answer to these questions, have never asked anyone their answers. Though possibly it—the answer—is simple: it is just low-life, some coldness in us all, some helplessness that causes us to misunderstand life when it is pure and plain, makes our existence seem like a border between two nothings, and makes us no more or less than animals who meet on the road—watchful, unforgiving, without patience or desire.
In this closing, the character declares quite clearly his understanding of these events having marked a before/after moment: “As I walked toward school I thought to myself that my life had turned suddenly, and that I might not know exactly how or which way for possibly a long time.” He follows this admission with a recollection of those key escalations in plot through the use of questions, which energizes the action of the walk to school, which eventually turns into a sort of walk into the future: “In five years my father had gone off to Ely, Nevada, to ride out the oil strike there, and been killed by accident. And in the years since then I have seen my mother from time to time—in one place or another, with one man or other—and I can say, at least, that we know each other.” I think often writers might resist the kind of writing Ford gives us in the final line, which takes a stab at meaning-making in a more philosophical tone, or meditation: “Though possibly it—the answer—is simple: it is just low-life, some coldness in us all, some helplessness that causes us to misunderstand life when it is pure and plain, makes our existence seem like a border between two nothings, and makes us no more or less than animals who meet on the road—watchful, unforgiving, without patience or desire.” Often, we are discouraged from explaining the emotional meaning or takeaway of our stories, but for me, this line of meditation absolutely makes the ending. Another technique to notice in this final line is the “rule of three” to create a satisfying, resonant prose rhythm: “watchful, unforgiving, without patience or desire.”
Suspended Symbolic Action: Engage the character in a symbolic action (movement) or gesture that would demand an end, but leave that moment in a state of suspended action, without resolution. For example, one would imagine the narrator of Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” would have to eventually open his eyes, but the story ends with his eyes closed. This action is combined, of course, with thought.
I love this ending from “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” by Nam Le as another example, in which the narrator is waiting for his father to cross a bridge and speak with him. Again, we have experimentation with time—the narrator tells us what eventually happens—but the action of the waiting is how the story ends.
If I had known then what I knew later, I wouldn’t have said the things I did. I wouldn’t have told him he didn’t understand—for clearly, he did. I wouldn’t have told him that what he had done was unforgivable. That I wished he had never come, or that he was no father to me. But I hadn’t known, and, as I waited, feeling the wind change, all I saw was a man coming toward me in a ridiculously oversized jacket, rubbing his black-sooted hands, stepping through the smoke with its flecks and flame-tinged eddies, who had destroyed himself, yet again, in my name. The river was behind him. The wind was full of acid. In the slow float of light I looked away, down at the river. On the brink of freezing, it gleamed in large, bulging blisters. The water, where it still moved, was black and braided. And it occurred to me then how it took hours, sometimes days, for the surface of a river to freeze over—to hold in its skin the perfect and crystalline world—and how that world could be shattered by a small stone dropped like a single syllable.
In this ending, the character is left suspended in the act of waiting for his father to cross the river. Through the writer’s use of prolepsis—writing about future events beyond the present moment—we understand what will happen next, but for now, in this moment of waiting, there’s almost a sense that maybe the outcome could be different. (We know it won’t be.) The writer pairs the suspension of the character waiting for his inevitable fate with the image of the water “on the brink of freezing,” itself in a suspended state between liquid and ice. The writer collides these two images in the final comparison: “a small stone dropped like a single syllable.”
Rhyming Action: Echo a detail from earlier in the story but reimagine it so that it presents in a new way. Milan Kundera calls this narrative feature “symmetrical composition,” Charles Baxter calls this “rhyming action,” and John Gardner calls this “dramatic repetition.” Rhyming action can take the form of an imagined or possible world, as in “Miles City, Montana” by Alice Munro. Carmen Maria Machado utilizes rhyming action in her magical realist story “The Husband Stitch” from her collection Her Body and Other Parties, specifically in pairing retellings of stories from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. One of my favorite examples of rhyming action is from the close of the story “What I Didn’t See” by Karen Joy Fowler. Fowler draws from an image in an early scene in the story, when the narrator is observing a gorilla eating wild carrots. In the ending, years after this event, the narrator replaces the gorilla with the woman who went missing on the trip she recalls throughout the story:
Since my eyes went, a girl comes to read to me twice a week. For the longest time I wanted nothing to do with gorillas, but now I have her scouting out articles, as we’re finally starting to really see how they live. The thinking still seems to be harems, but with the females slipping off from time to time to be with whomever they wish.
And what I notice most in the articles is not the apes. My attention is caught instead by these young women who’d sooner live in the jungle with the chimpanzees or the orangutans or the great mountain gorillas. These women who freely choose it—the Goodalls and the Galdikases and the Fosseys. And I think to myself how there is nothing new under the sun, and maybe all those women carried off by gorillas in those old stories, maybe they all freely chose it.
When I am tired and have thought too much about it all, Beverly’s last words come back to me. Mostly I put them straight out of my head, think about anything else. Who remembers what she said? Who knows what she meant?
But there are other times when I let them in. Turn them over. Then they become, not a threat as I originally heard them, but an invitation. On those days I can pretend that she’s still there in the jungle, dipping her feet, eating wild carrots, and waiting for me. I can pretend that I’ll be joining her whenever I wish and just as soon as I please.
The narrator echoes the earlier scene with the gorilla by replacing the gorilla with the imagined image of the missing woman: “On those days I can pretend that she’s still there in the jungle, dipping her feet, eating wild carrots, and waiting for me.” Fowler also engages in the technique of rhyming action with the invocation of the zoologists Jane Goodall, Biruté Mary Galdikas, and Dian Fossey as counterparts to the missing woman, rhyming the woman’s disappearance with the zoologists’ intentional presence: “And I think to myself how there is nothing new under the sun, and maybe all those women carried off by gorillas in those old stories, maybe they all freely chose it.” In the final line, the narrator imagines herself in the jungle along with all of these women: “I can pretend that I’ll be joining her whenever I wish and just as soon as I please.” Fowler’s ending is full of rhymes and echoes.
Surprise Memory: As the character moves the crisis moment, or during the action involved with this moment, write in a surprise memory. Often, this memory will contain some form of literary irony (situational, dramatic, verbal). We can take from Tobias Wolff’s classic story here, “Bullet in the Brain,” which follows a book critic during the moment of his death as memories of his life “in a phrase he would have abhorred, ‘passed before his eyes.’” These memories are given in summary line by line led with the refrain, “He did not remember,” detailing the character’s lifelong progression from impassioned literary fan to disillusioned, cynical book critic. The final paragraphs of the story stand out in that the writing slows down into scene, and the refrain shifts instead to, “This is what he remembered.” We’re taken to a moment from Anders’s childhood at a neighborhood pickup game:
Then the last two boys arrive, Coyle and a cousin of his from Mississippi. Anders has never met Coyle’s cousin before and will never see him again. He says hi with the rest but takes no further notice of him until they’ve chosen sides and Darsch asks the cousin what position he wants to play. “Shortstop,” the boy says. “Short’s the best position they is.” Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to hear Coyle’s cousin repeat what he’s just said, but he knows better than to ask. The others will think he’s being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn’t it, not at all—it’s that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.
The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end, it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.
This surprise memory of the baseball game provides an important irony: book critic Anders, shot by the bank robber in the introductory scene as a result of critiquing the bank robber’s stereotypical, even plagiarized dialogue, remembers at the moment of his death a grammatical error, “They is.” To the Anders we have come to know throughout the story, such a subject-verb error would be egregious; instead, he is “strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music.” This sudden, surprise memory delivers the irony of the story and shifts the narrative approach from summary to scene, slowing down to create that resonant close. Notice also the nice prose rhythm “rule of three” used in the last phrase of the final line, “They is, they is, they is.” (Tobias Wolff’s student George Saunders also uses the technique of the surprise memory in the close of his story “Tenth of December.”)
How to end this craft essay? With an unresolved action perhaps…that lingering on the final paragraph of a beloved story, wanting desperately to know how it will end, but delaying at the same time, not wanting the pleasure of reading to be over. The best kind of ending is one you want to begin reading again and again.
JENNIFER MURVIN’s essays, stories, and graphic narratives have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, DIAGRAM, The Sun, Indiana Review, The Cincinnati Review, American Short Fiction, and other literary journals. Jen is an assistant professor of English at Missouri State University and she teaches for the River Pretty Writers Retreat held twice annually in Tecumseh, Missouri. Jen holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University and is the owner of the independent bookstore Pagination Bookshop. Find Jen on Twitter @JenniferMurvin.
Featured image by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen courtesy of Unsplash