Having read last week’s entry, a friend gave me feedback that she felt it ended without a conclusion. I agreed with this analysis: the final paragraph had linked to a page on Reddit that was too loosely connected to what had gone before.
On writing a story, I know it’s finished when the characters
are where I intended them to be. For a poem, I work more by experience; when I
feel I’m dragging it out, I know to stop.
I find a blog entry is more difficult. I’m not often telling
a story, nor conveying an emotion through poetic language. In those cases, I
would leave the most exciting parts until nearer the end and perhaps introduce
On WordPress, I’m writing factually about writing, and some
subjects don’t lend themselves well to a linear narrative or a logical
progression of events.
I therefore asked my friend how she would rewrite the end of the blog entry in question. She’s worked as a reporter and an editor, so has much more experience in writing factually. She told me it’s a bad idea to introduce something new in the last paragraph, and suggested summing up what was said near the beginning,
I revisited the entry, removed the dodgy last paragraph and replaced it with one that refers back to the first paragraph. As a result, we agreed it’s more cohesive than the first version.
Although this entry discusses the endings of screenplays and short stories, no spoilers are revealed. We’ll be looking at the craft of bringing a story to an end rather than the specifics.
There’s been some disquiet over the ending of the TV version of Game of Thrones, with the consensus that it had been unsatisfying compared to the action that had gripped viewers earlier in the run. It echoes the rumbles that followed the endings of Lost a decade ago and The Prisoner in the 1960s.
Conflict is at the heart of storytelling across all media and all eras, and it’s by convention that the conflict should rise and rise as the story progresses, then end with a final resolution that ties up every plot point. Unless a writer is exceptionally skilled, it’s difficult to break away from this convention and still hold the audience.
An unsatisfying ending is usually because the writer failed to resolve the conflict, or sometimes because said conflict wasn’t strong enough in the first instance.
Let’s look at The Prisoner. The series begins when a former British intelligence agent known as Number Six is abducted and imprisoned in a coastal village, where absurd rules apply and staff attempt to nudge him into explaining why he abruptly resigned from his job.
Despite this strong initial premise, the series begins to fall into a rut. By the halfway point of the run, each episode sees Number Six attempting either to escape or to win over his captors, but failing each time in a near-predictable manner.
The final episode is consistent with the absurd rules that had been well established, but fails to answer the question posed about why Number Six had left the security services. That revelation could have been one of the greatest moments in TV history. But thanks to the erratic production, the episode instead divided its viewership.
It is entirely possible to end a piece in such an open-ended manner, as is common in some short stories, but this must be carefully done. A few years ago, I had a story published in an anthology whose stories didn’t seem to have proper endings, leaving me with the feeling that each writer was concealing a vital plot point.
However, an open ending is common in The New Yorker and similar publications. In other media, the film Teeth (2007) is a particularly good example of showing how the previous sequence of events might be about to repeat without spelling it out too much.
The bottom line is that a good ending must either indicate that the previous conflict will be resolved in some way, or an audience must have enough information to work out how it might be resolved once the narrative ends.
A couple of entries ago, I riffed upon the art of shortening the short story. But having thought a little more about it, I’ve come to realise a lot of the short stories I’m most proud of are actually longer than 2000 words. I have written novels, but they’re a different class entirely.
My longest short is called An Abundance of Apples, clocking in at around 4500 words. This tells the story of a man who trades 26 items, each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet. This was always going to be the approximate length, and it gave some room to manoeuvre when telling the story.
Another of my favourites is The Cracked Goldfish Bowl, about a man with an amazing memory but no self-confidence. The final word count was 4300 words, but that’s merely because I kept thinking of new challenges to face the main character rather than creating an overarching plan.
I tend to approach my short stories from the top downwards. Sometimes I know where I’m going to end up, but often I let the story wander as it wishes. An artist I know, Jennifer Robson, prefers the meandering approach to her sewing, as she doesn’t feel challenged if she knows what the end result will be.
I’m a strong believer in writing a proper ending to a story, whether that ending is known beforehand or not. Sadly I’ve read too many ‘two-thirds’ pieces with a great set up, and enjoyable narrative, but the writer has omitted a satisfactory conclusion, leaving it to flop out with a vague sentence or two. That final third might have made all the difference.
What I’m saying is that some stories need cut down to size, as discussed in that last entry, while others require some room to breathe. The question is which approach is the best one to take for that particular story.
I met a woman last week who reads books in a particular manner. She’ll read the last few pages first, decide if she likes the way it ends, and if so, she’ll then start reading from page one. She added that this method allows her to know if there’s going to be a satisfactory ending before investing time in the main story.
I do accept her argument as logically sound, but there are books where the ending makes very little sense unless you’ve ingested the main text. I’m thinking of an epic novel, such as Moby Dick. Reading the conclusion without knowing the tensions between Captain Ahab and his crew, detailed in the rest of the story, you won’t fully understand why their voyage ended the way it did.
If you ever do tackle Moby Dick, incidentally, you can quite safely skip Herman Melville’s obsessive personal polemics about the whale.
Another problem with this system is that some books paint a picture rather than tell a story. Consider Breakfast at Tiffany’s; the novella, not the film, although the woman in question uses the same method with DVDs. Truman Capote explores the complex relationship between the narrator and Holly Golightly in such a rich manner that there is as much to be gained from the description as the plot.
I do enjoy including some historical context in my entries. Read the prologue of William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet and those 14 lines give away the plot before any of the other actors say a word. Audiences expected to be given the precis at the beginning.
By the 20th century, the position was completely reversed. Agatha Christie understood this when she wrote The Mousetrap, at the end of which she specifically asks the audience to keep the secret. These days, there is still an expectation that endings will be kept under wraps, or clearly marked Spoiler Alert, with the odd exception such as Star Wars or The Sixth Sense, where it seems fair game to give it away. But there are also websites you can consult if you want the full plot.
I’ve created a poll to gauge how many WordPress users agree with my feelings on the matter. If necessary, do expand on your answer in the comments.
Ye gods! I knew I was living under a rock with LiveJournal, yet I didn’t realise the exact extent until other users started hitting the Like button. I’m unaccustomed to such a response, and I much appreciate it.
I chose WordPress over sites such as Blogger because I have a couple of friends here already. Even the range of basic features are bewildering; when I typed Like button in the previous paragraph, it gave me a Wikipedia link to the Like button page. After a little more kicking the tyres, I’m sure I’ll soon crawl into the 21st century.
Today I’m talking about endings. I recently read two short story anthologies by the same publisher: one from 2011, the other from this year. It struck me that a high number of the pieces in both of these did not have a proper ending, in fact the editor seemed to prefer this style. In some cases, the author would conclude with a limp or vague paragraph. In other cases, it would simply stop, leaving me checking for a missing page and in a couple of cases, asking, “And?” out loud.
It was disappointing rather than annoying because a lot of the stories in the anthology contained great ideas that were let down by their execution.
I try to give my stories a twist ending, or at least a clear marker the reader has reached the end. I don’t always manage, however. I recently received a rejection from a publisher looking for funny stories because, “… the ending lacked a good punch line.” To me, a rounded ending is important in a short story. Even if the reader is meant to be left in some doubt, there ought to be enough clues or information in the body of the story to narrow it down to two or three possible options about what might happen next.
One important exception, however, is autobiographical writing. I’m going to come back to this in more detail on Monday. For purely fictional writing, however, an ending is king.
I was going to leave it until Monday to post about the Not the Booker Prize run by The Guardian, but the deadline is midnight on Sunday.
In my last entry, I mentioned my writing sensei Zöe Venditozzi. Her novel has been shortlisted, and I encourage you to click on the photo above and vote for it before the deadline of midnight on Sunday.
That’s not just because I know her, but because it’s a cracking character-driven piece from a début novelist, featuring alongside established authors Neil Gaiman and Kate Atkinson. It also happens to feature a chap with my very initials who happens to volunteer at hospital radio, just as I do.
To cast your nomination, you’ll need to create a Guardian account and write a short review in the comments. As the paper says, Comment is free, and so is your vote.