The Sense of an Ending

Today, the world is wearing winter’s wedding dress. The whole place is white and lacy, and there’s a layer of frost over every surface. The sky and the ground blend into one another. It’s quite lovely, but it’s very cold!

Image: 5ksandcabernets.com

Image: 5ksandcabernets.com

As I write, the sun has started to peek up over the horizon, bringing touches of gold to the whiteness. Hopefully soon things will start to thaw and I’ll be able to get outside. Nothing is as refreshing as a lungful of cool air on a crisp day like this.

While I’m waiting, I’m still thinking about short stories. I wrote three yesterday, all of them very different – one was about a frustrated wife trying to get revenge on her oppressive husband (very much not based on reality, before anyone asks!), another about an anxious child who feels she has done something terrible, and the third about a man convinced that his life so far has been meaningless and he’s wasted any potential he had. Two of the stories are narrated in the first person, and one is third-person; one of them features a lot of ‘salty’ language – it seemed appropriate for the character – and all the protagonists are different in terms of age, race and gender. But all the stories have one thing in common.

None of them end very well.

I’m not sure if this is a problem for others, but it’s certainly a problem for me. I find it very difficult to bring short stories to satisfying conclusions. It’s even the case with the longer pieces I’ve been working on over the last few months. With ‘Tider’, I felt happy with the ending at first – I thought it was exciting and snappy, leading the reader into curiosity about the next book, and it wrapped up most of the plotlines, leaving some strategic threads unresolved. Then, I read on several internet forums that ‘cliffhanger endings are a no-no’, which gave me a bit of a headache. How do you end a book which is the first in a planned duology without leaving some plot threads unresolved? I was stumped. Luckily, this isn’t such a big problem for me any more because I’m planning to completely overhaul the book anyway, but it speaks to the larger problem I feel I have. Stopping the writing process, rather than starting it, seems to be my biggest challenge. I’m really enjoying the focus on short stories lately, because they don’t come naturally to me, and finding solid, convincing and meaningful conclusions to them is vital to their form. So, with every story I write, I’m learning.

But how does it work, this ‘concluding’ business? I suppose it helps if you plot religiously, and you know exactly where you want your characters to be at the end of the piece you’re writing. But, as we saw yesterday, sometimes writing short pieces is a case of listening to what the characters have to say, and letting them finish in their own time. It can be hard to plot when all you have to go on at the beginning is a flash of an image, or maybe a couple of words of dialogue. Perhaps, if you’re lucky, a whole opening sentence will come to you. Trying to write a story like this is a delicate business, and I fear that trying to tie these bursts of inspiration to a tight plot will strangle them. Then, that’s where drafting comes in. Perhaps the first draft of a short piece should be a listening exercise, finding out who your character is and what they have to say. There has to be a point to the story – otherwise, it’s just a pointless ramble. We’ve all been on the end of another person’s bumbling, and it’s usually not much fun. So, the second draft is where the real work comes in. You take your character’s thoughts and turn them into a narrative. Find out what was so important about what they had to say. Chisel out the kernel of their thought process, and find out what concerned them so deeply that they felt they had to tell you about it.

It’s not as easy as it sounds.

The story I found the most difficult to bring to a conclusion yesterday was the one about the anxious child. The image was very strong – a little girl who was sick in the night and who was too afraid to wake anyone up to help her in case they’d be angry with her. She was tiny, cold, afraid and very lonely, and I felt her very clearly. But I wasn’t sure what was important about what she had to say. Her younger brother had been very sick and he’d just been released from hospital; her father had a hard job and he needed his sleep. All of these things were on her mind. As well as that, she was terrified of something, but she wasn’t able to tell me what. I’m going to revisit this story today and find its point – redraft it until this child’s message becomes clear.

I know I sound like a nineteenth-century Spiritualist here, knocking on tables and making the lights flicker in my attempts to contact ‘the other side’. I just find it easier to talk about characters as though they were actual people trying to speak. Sometimes, it is a bit scary – they seem very real and, sometimes, in a lot of pain. Most of the characters that step into the parlour of my mind don’t want to tell me about how happy they are and how much love they have in their lives – something terrible or sad has happened, and they want to explain it all to me. But they’re all a bit like me (which makes sense, I guess); they like to ramble on, and they find it hard to wrap things up.

Perhaps it’s just a case of practice makes perfect. The more I listen, the more I’ll learn, and the more I read, the more I’ll discover about how to master the art of conclusion.

Back to the drawing board for me!

7 thoughts on “The Sense of an Ending

  1. Janet E. Cameron

    What a great post! I don’t think you should listen to whoever’s telling you that your unresolved ending is a ‘no-no’. Look at how the first book of His Dark Materials ends. Personally I find with endings that it helps to think of an ending to a story or book that you enjoyed and isolate the reasons why it worked for you.

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks! Yeah, I agree with regard to the unresolved ending thing. It’s great to hear other people (especially accomplished people like yourself :)) echoing what I’m thinking myself. If a book is designed as the first part of a series, surely it needs a certain amount of unresolved-ness at the end? Anyway.

      I really like your suggestion about finding endings to stories and books which worked well and isolating what was good about them. I’m off to raid my bookshelves… 🙂

      Reply
  2. Maurice A. Barry

    Know how long it took Nabokov to get Lolita right? Besides, there’s nothing wrong with letting a story ferment. That said, what works for me is a good boot in the a__ from a good friend to get me to move something along :>)

    Reply
  3. Kate Curtis

    I like a degree of resolution, but I think you *need* unresolved plot threads if you plan a sequel. I’m working on a blog post discussing my own writing difficulties. I like to hear about the process and problems of other writers. Great post 🙂

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Writing Backwards | Will Wally Wonder

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