Storyville: Endings, Twisted and Otherwise
The alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end; this is what you need to think about when writing a short story or novel. Whether you plot out your stories in excruciating detail or start with an idea and just run with it, the way you end your story will help people determine whether it's a good one or a bad one. Endings need to be fulfilling, they need to resonate—they need to stay with the reader long after the story is over. But how do you do that? That’s what we’re talking about this week, endings that matter—twisted and otherwise.
An iceberg is a massive piece of ice, and only the tip of it is seen above water. That’s why the Titanic was sunk; the majority of the body of ice was underwater and it ruptured the hull of the ship. You need to think about every word in your opening paragraph, because it will be your story, it will expand to fill the pages. If the opening line mentions a cat, then that cat better be an important part of your story. If your opening paragraph touches on that cat, a family moving, and a highway that runs alongside the farm, heavy trucks rumbling past, casting a shadow of doom over the page, then I think you know where that story is going, right? Do you know what story I’m talking about? I’m talking about Pet Sematary.
You need to set your audience up. Whether you are writing a 500-word bit of flash fiction or an epic series, you need to plant that seed. Here’s a great opening line, one of my favorites, and it really gives you a clue as to what is to come, the essence of the series:
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
That’s from The Gunslinger by Stephen King. In that one line you can see the desert, a man fleeing, and a gunslinger (is this a western? Science fiction?) chasing after him. That image is burned into your mind and will sit there forever. It is the purpose of the gunslinger, Roland, to pursue—it is his essence.
So while you may not know your ending when you are starting your story, that opening paragraph will help to direct you. Don’t talk about anything that isn’t crucial to your story, and your ending, in the opening lines. If you mention a dead wife, you better address it in the story, and the ending should relate to it. If you mention an impending asteroid hurtling toward planet Earth, then we better have some resolution. Here’s another excellent one, from Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door:
“You think you know about pain?”
That is such a great set-up. The story that follows is all about pain and boy, what a hook.
FULFILLMENT THROUGH RESOLUTION
The ending to your story has to be satisfying. Where a lot of people fail to do this is in resolving their conflicts. If a man is out to exact revenge against the thugs that killed his wife, well, there better be some vengeance, right? And not only does he have to find these evil men and hurt them, kill them, but it must be done in a way that is above and beyond what happened to his wife—they must suffer, in the worst possible ways. And then, we must see how this changes the protagonist. It isn’t enough to simply get revenge. That’s the obvious situation we need to see, the bare minimum. Batman evolved out of Bruce Wayne not because of an act of revenge, but because of how that act changed him, how it made him into a vigilante, a lifetime of fixing problems and balancing the universe (see also F. Paul Wilson’s “Repairman Jack” series).
So be aware of your conflict. If you don’t resolve it, then we’re essentially writing a vignette, a slice-of-life story, bearing witness to some moments in time. And those stories can be well written, they can be entertaining, but they run the risk of not carrying the same weight as a story that resolves a major conflict. And when I say resolve a conflict, when I say that there has to be a resolution, it doesn’t mean that your hero (or villain) has to change 100%. They don’t have to do a 180 and become the exact opposite of who they were—the bad guy suddenly good, the jerk becoming a saint, the addict finally sober. That’s just one option.
The changes can encompass a wide range of emotions, philosophies, and concepts. Your protagonist can realize that in a violent world random events will continue to happen, and instead of becoming a vigilante, they can succumb to these heavy thoughts and give in, becoming a victim for all of eternity, their dreams squashed. The change can be an idea. A character simply coming to a resolution that they need to do more, sacrifice more, or the opposite, do less, sacrifice less. But whatever happens, there needs to be some sort of resolution. How much (or how little) is up to you. The resolution can even be to keep doing the same thing, to not change at all, but to at least be aware of this fact. To make that conscious decision in the face of great tragedy, or success, that they will not change, will stand their ground. The change is that they are now aware, they are now committed, whereas previous to this, they were merely drifting without purpose, or committing acts (of kindness or of selfishness) without any idea of why they were doing it. Acceptance can be a change. Motivations can change, hearts can change. These intangibles as well as literal and physical changes, like leaving the haunted house, burying the magic cube in the back yard, never to be opened again. It’s up to you.
I’ve been fond of endings with a twist ever since I started watch The Twilight Zone as a kid. I’ve always loved the mystery, trying to figure out what’s really happening, trying to guess not only the ending, but every clue and turn and hint along the way. I loved watching Lost and movies by Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, and David Lynch. I find that entertaining. But you have to be careful.
I was given some advice by Stephen Graham Jones about one of the stories that I wrote in his class. He said to be careful of the twist ending, because it takes away much of the re-read value. And he makes a good point. If your entire story hinges on that last page, the last gasping words, will it change the way your reader enjoys the story? Will they ever want to read it again? ROSEBUD! SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE! I SEE DEAD PEOPLE! You need to think about these things. If the audience feels cheated, they will be really angry with you. Many people complained about the ending of Lost and The Sopranos. But most people loved the end of Six Feet Under. You don’t have to spoon-feed every bit on information, not every question has to be answered. But you take a risk if you leave a story open-ended, if you end your novel with too many unanswered questions.
A better approach may be to have your twists and turns running throughout your story, slowly revealing information across the 5,000 words, or 300 pages. Most readers will allow you that surprise, that twist, if the journey is enjoyable enough, if you gave them real clues along the way, and the ending is mind blowing. For some people, and again, I’m talking about films here, the ending to The Village may have been a big cheat, whereas The Sixth Sense felt like a revelation. One of these was earned, one was not.
Stephen has a story in his collection, The Ones That Got Away that uses a pretty major twist to end the story. BUT, in my opinion, it isn’t the whole story. The story is “Father, Son, Holy Rabbit,” but I don’t want to blow the ending for you, so if you haven’t read the story (and it’s a great one, one of his best) then please skip ahead. It’s really a love story, a father and son story, about how far a father will go in order to keep his son alive. It’s touching, terrifying, and ultimately horrific and disgusting, but it is powerful. The feeling you walk away with, and this is why it works (in my opinion), is not one of horror, even though it is horrific, but one of sentiment, one of gut wrenching love. If you are a father (or a mother) it will certainly resonate even more. If you are reading this for one of my classes, read it first before continuing please!
Lost in a snowy forest, the father and son are stranded and will certainly die if they don’t find food. The father catches a rabbit one day, and they eat it raw. Over the next several days the rabbit magically replenishes itself. At the end of the story, we see that the father has been cutting strips of flesh out of his leg and feeding it to the boy.
So you can see how this might be a twist of an ending, a revelation. But it isn’t so much the revelation of fact, it isn’t the actions that are powerful, although they are—it’s the love of the father that overshadows everything else. And beyond that, how the consequences of that knowledge ripple out into the future, damaging the boy. They never REALLY come out of that forest whole. Can you see the difference?
DEUS EX MACHINA
Direct from Wikipedia: “Deus ex machina is Latin for ‘god from the machine’ and is a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object.” Don’t do this. Don’t have a villain run over by a random car, or a sudden rainstorm appear and wash away the fire, or a new character jump in who can solve all of the problems. I’m sure you’re smart enough to know this already.
DO WE CARE?
I’ve shown you a few ways to end your stories here, by resolving conflict, by showing change, by revealing twists and bits of information to add up to an epiphany. But one thing to keep in mind when it comes to your endings is DO WE CARE? The ending will only matter if you create characters that we can root for (or against) and give us backstory, show us scenes and moments, build dimensional people that matter to us. If the villain is never thoroughly depicted, the depth of his (or her) ruthlessness and darkness never really shown, then do we really want to see them suffer and lose? No. If we never really get to know the husband and wife, how they have always wanted a child, how hard it has been for them to conceive, then will we really care when their child is run over by a tractor-trailer and killed? Sure, the event is horrible, but deep down in your gut, in your heart—do you really care about what happened? You need to get to know these people, laugh with them, be touched by their grace and kindness, and then see it all fall apart—build them up and break them down. It’s a tough journey, but we need all of that in order for the ending to resonate.
How you write your stories, with an ending in mind or only an idea rattling around inside your head, that’s up to you. You can plot out the entire story, or you can feel your way through the narrative. Take a moment when the story is written, after your first draft, and read through the whole thing to see how it feels. Look at your ending and sit with it. And if it needs to be tweaked, think about what is missing, what doesn’t work. In time you will be able to recognize where the ending is, you’ll know when to stop, down to the word. Here’s one of mine, from “Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave.” This is the reason to leave:
“Because every time she looked at me, she saw him, our son, that generous boy, and it was another gut punch bending her over, another parting of her flesh, and I was one of the thousand, and my gift to her now was my echo.”
One of my favorite contemporary writers of all things dark is Paul Tremblay. He writes crime, noir, horror and everything in between. One of his best stories is “It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks,” originally published in Fantasy Magazine, and collected in In The Mean Time. I mention it because the end of the story is so powerful it almost made me cry.
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