Last night I had a conversation with a student about endings in short stories, and I think I was listening to my own comments as much as he was because I’m coming up to the point that I’ve delayed: having to figure out the ending to my new novel. When I was at VCCA this winter, I was able to write up to a certain point, about three-quarters through, and then (at the time) it seemed like a good idea to step back and revise what I had, do some more historical research (the book is set in 1899), and then tackle the ending in a swoop at some mythical “later date.”
That later date is approaching—mentally, and on the calendar. My class will be over in a few weeks, and I’ll have a small but significant patch of time before other responsibilities overtake me again. Since I find that I can squeeze in revision while I’m teaching, it seems to make sense to generate new material in this larger, emptier window I’ve got. Plus, mentally, I’ve found myself wondering (i.e. stressing out about) how I’m going to pull off this plot and, as Tim Gunn so wisely advises, “make it work” (easy for him to say).
Here’s the advice I heard myself giving:
--A good ending is authentic. It’s believable given the parameters of the world set forth in the story.
--Beyond that authenticity, the ending also needs to feel inevitable, as if the book/story could not have ended any other way, given the characters and action that has preceded.
--Beyond that inevitability, there needs to be a simultaneous sense of surprise. Though the story could not possibly have ended in any other way, the reader is nevertheless surprised that it has done so. The classic phrase is “the surprising yet inevitable ending.”
--And beyond that, the hardest element of all, I believe, is that dark, uncomfortable, transcendent squirminess that the reader feels as he/she realizes that the author has found some difficult, universal truth and expressed it so completely that the reader believes his/her life view is forever altered even if not understanding exactly how. If I had to pick one writer to study as a master of endings, it be Flannery O’Connor’s short stories.
And in the end...easy for me to say, right? Now, to try to do all that....