Eleven Steps to Ending Short Stories

Various Exits – Closing the Short Story –  the paper delivered at the International Conference of the Short Story, Vienna July 16-19 2014

We take someone by the hand for a couple of thousand words – and then wave them goodbye. This is how reaching, or even better, achieving, the end of a short story is, as experienced by a writer.

First – Starting Writing. Let’s sit at the table and be four years old. Our first impulse is self-expression, which becomes communication. This paper and its signs. I am writing to my mother who is in a TB sanatorium. Here is who I am. As well as the words I am drawing the classic figure with curly hair, five fingers and the buttons all down the front, feet at a quarter to three. All this has something to do with the calendar, it takes time to reach my mother ; and the King, whose face is on the red tuppence-ha’penny postage stamp. All this has to be shaped together. The letter arrives at the sanatorium, wherever Mother is, she sends back a message that my letter was good and the drawing too. (I have decided, at 4 that I am going to be an artist.)

So we have the wonderful triangulation here of the writer, the receiver and the critic. Mother as reader and editor and reviewer. And it is all on paper. It exists.

Second -The Missing End of the Story.

At seven I joined Liverpool Libraries, with three library books a fortnight. If a book was popular, it became bound in real leather with gold lettering and its Dewey classification, i.e. The Just So Stories/Kip/823; A Child’s Garden of Verses, Alice in Wonderland, all the Enid Blytons etc. All our library books stood on the sideboard next to the clock and the radio. Soon afterwards, I got diphtheria and went off to hospital. Over a fortnight later, arriving back at home, I found that Liverpool Board of Health, and perhaps Liverpool Education Committee had incinerated my library books to prevent infection. Whatever the book was (I can’t remember the other two either, they were not even read,) it was a loss as I had not finished reading it. Where had it gone? What was it going to say? And that mix of loss and mystery is as vivid right now as it was then. So, here we have the missing ending, essential. It exists out in space, is untouchable. All the stories in the world are trying to reach that special place too.                                                                                                                 And for the rest of my life I have been chasing that vanished ending.

Third -The Mortice Lock.

We are completing the set – the mortice lock is the closed, clipped ending. As well as our library books, between the bookends on the sideboard were Dorothy L. Sayers’ anthology, Detection, Mystery and Horror and – surprisingly enough – a small book of Nineteenth Century American Short Stories. I have no explanation why these two books remained there ,while I read them often between the ages of nine to twelvish. They grew boring as I got older, especially Nathaniel Hawthorne, but at a younger age there were other pages so horrible I would read past that part, looking away.

The outstanding short story was W.W.Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw 1919? 3013 words. A Somerset Maughan-like character gives a monkey’s paw to a couple living in a mining village. It gives three wishes, but he warns that each will have a twisted result. The wife is tempted and wishes for money. So, the son is killed in a mining accident and they get £200 compensation. His mother, aghast, then makes another wish to bring the son back from the dead. But the father realises that the twist will be a mangled destroyed son. He grabs the monkey’s paw and wishes just as there is a knock at the door and no one is there when she opens it.

An abrupt, crash ending. It does not lead to being read a couple of times as the ending dominates the story and it is an especially sharp finish.

There was another story, The Iron Maiden, (Bram Stoker?) that I have been unable to trace. It was similar in its sharp ending, where a group of young people tour a castle and one young man, throwing stones down at a cat and her kittens, kills the kittens. Later, as the group tours the dungeons, he larks about with the Iron Maiden, an item like a suit of armour cut in two. As the halves close towards each other, spikes go through his vital organs. The mother cat has climbed over the cog-wheels that drive the mechanism and the open half shuts fast, goring him to death.                                                                                       So – no use in reading that again. The horrific ending foreshadows the entire structure from the beginning and nothing can displace/distract your awareness of its outcome. This story is also too overshadowed by its ending.                                                                           There I was presented with the main building-blocks of short story-ism – communication, ending and avoiding strict forms. What was left?

Four – Essays Are Easy. We were fed at school, from 10-14 years with the neatly-crafted essays of G.K.Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia. These were ambling opinion pieces, perfectly constructed, gliding along. It was like standing next to a skilled woodworker and watching how to manufacture dovetails. We then did similar essays; about 250 words, first steps in assembling ideas, placing in order and suggesting a sensible answer. Given a subject – A Day in the Life of a Shilling, we were allowed to ramble, as long as we reached the bottom of the second page.                                               Then I discovered in French lessons, a softer version – Alphonse Daudet’s collection, Lettres de Mon Moulin, especially “Les Vieux.” Here, the main ingredient was atmosphere and the endings were a gentle amble to the finish, with no shock or surprises. And it is similar with Chekov, who also constructs a world and invites you in, with no locked doors.

Five – Twists. We also learned in French lessons Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace. (It has a mirror-image The Real Necklace, where the facts are reversed. There is also Paste by Henry James.) I discovered The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry via The Saturday Evening Post. Only 2150words for this classic.                                                                                         These stories are conjurers’ tricks where the author stands back to dazzle the crowd with their brilliance. The story depends on a crux, on a misunderstanding. Once that axis is discovered, this is the type of story that falls into an obvious shape and the ending, again, looms as you reach the three-quarters mark. Even women’s magazine editors are advising against the cruder examples of this fabrication and want more disguised versions. It can provoke irritation in the reader, as if they have been made a fool of. The events leading up to the crisis are overturned and the ending is stronger than the rest of the story, leading to a marked imbalance.

Six – Meandering to the Open Gate –All these examples have been by men; but now a woman arrives and changes the format. Kate Mansfield arrives, (and, much later, Janet Frame, both from New Zealand.) A structured collation of limited information/ events that stands for something more profound and revealing. Insight without a parade of colourful events. No linear arrangement, centre of the story is where the weight is. It is a complete re-design – the story is now its own circular universe, like a willow-pattern plate that encloses its complete drama. Or, to change metaphors, we are inside these situations like one of those small public parks that are set in cities to stop the citizens going mad. You can go in and out of these stories at will, sifting and discovering other layers. There is no firm ending and the resolution is often left to the reader. This can be a relaxing experience, to return to the narration and tease more out.

Seven – Taking the Wings Off the Butterfly –it is risky to investigate one’s unconscious, instinctive impulses, but, about my own structures, I discovered, for this conference, that few of my published stories end with dialogue.                                               Of the 26 stories in The Fog Index, only 2 end with someone speaking. ( Of the 10 stories in the collection Average Sunday Afternoon, it’s 4, and of the 19 stories in Rainy Pavements only 1 ends with direct dialogue.) No spoken word wraps up the majority of short stories. It is as if the people (and I never refer to them as ‘characters,’ because that gives a layer of falsity before you even start) invented by the writer are not seen as strong enough to carry the end of the story – the author as narrator steps in with authority instead. Or is it conscience? Is it the responsibility of the creator to apologise at the end, smooth over edges and clear up any mess or doubts? Or perhaps it’s a chance to be standing on that podium, however self-constructed, arriving as deus ex machina. The ult in this is of course a Miss Marple or Poirot, who wrap up and explain all, leaving the actual inhabitants of the short story dumbstruck.

I also looked at the end of your short stories:

Bridges Anthology,    2012                44 stories,                                       10 with dialogue ending. 33f/11m

Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, 2010     31 stories,                     6 dialogue ending   10 f/21m

New Granta Book of the American Short Story, 2007 44 stories,    7 dialogue ending 18f/26m

Picador Book of contemporary Irish Fiction 1993,    45 stories           6 dialogue ending 16f/29m

Eight – Loop Ending ,  where the beginning of the story leads to and fro from the end backwards and forwards. Coming round in a neat circle, I often use this ending. Drunks sends Dolores back looking for the same table in the pub. Enemy of the State looses the government privileges. Like Stars Do, the arts administrator returns on the prowl.

A lot of my stories have an undertow. The surface is as smooth and glossy as I can make it, so that the reader can skate across, without any difficulty, I hope, to the end. But I like to think they go back and read a second time and encounter the cracks in the ice, the dark well-like depths where another level of meaning lies. It has to be hidden in order not to be too obvious/cheap.

The Paradise Club has ‘ Stan was lounging at the top of the steps’ and ends with him sitting on a chair behind the front door.

The Last Season begins and ends with the hotel; first it is a crowded holiday centre and when it is revisited, it has actually disappeared, with all the connected lives spread out, some to disasters.

Nine – Latched on Ending

also known as ‘The Epiphany’ in the trade. In The Previous Wife – a gift of a picture notecard gave me the ending. The insertion mid-way through worked, but I had to bring it in again as the conclusion. I just had to construct a story around the card of Monet’s painting of the twinned women and children in the poppy field, as it intrigued me, and luckily bolting it on at the end worked.

When Someone Else Decides – I also go in for something I don’t quite approve of, where, at the end, a smaller, different event illuminates what has gone before, or throws up a contrast that makes it all jigsaw together. An Ah-ha! Moment. Or you could call it-

Ten – The Wobble  -where an event, item or place is referred to again in the closing sentence, leading back into the story.   In    Definition   “Like patients who have given up hope”    –   still life items that the painter has discarded in order to depict the house opposite, wait in the studio.

In Until Tomorrow, having escaped being installed in a brothel, Sonia has to manage ‘until tomorrow,’ whereas a couple of pages earlier the naive Rosie had ‘so much to think about until tomorrow.’

And in The Fog Index, it begins as Evan says, “ I want a clear view” and it is that view which leads to him making the list of car registration numbers and it ends with him waiting for them all to return.

ElevenThe Perfect Ending

1          St John’s Gospel  “And there are also many other things which Jesus did the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.”

2         The Swineherd,  Hans Anderson “ And then he returned to his own kingdom and left her behind.”

3         Brokeback Mountain,  Annie Proulx At 11,000,words, ( it’s novella territory) the ending enriches and fulfils all that has gone before and adds resonance. The story could have stopped at an emotional high,when Ennis discovers his own shirt entwined within Jack’s. But no, dealt like a pack of cards there are 8 possible ending points. But after this false ending, Annie Proulx leads us out as Ennis goes on about surviving, intuiting that Jack was probably killed.

And here the story takes fire. It’s like a can of petrol going up in flames in front of your face and then tracing that line of flame back over all the rest of the story, underlying all that has gone before, giving depth to each previous word. And isn’t that what it is? An investigation, however small, into the big mess of life and a small attempt at solving one millionth of it. I have to resolve the very problems that I have created, or the story has, seemingly of itself, accumulated as it went along and it is like  a little death, as carefully arranged.


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