The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
If, as Hills stated in the previous section, the middle of a story ends with movement of the main character, then what defines the ending? And how does a writer know when to bring the ending to a close?
The first question is one of scale, and the answer for any narrative form can be found by focusing on the relationship between preparation and effect. The second question concerns sensibility, because ending a story is as much about being a good host as it is about tying up loose ends.
As should be clear by now, Rust Hills believes the short story is the shortest literary form that supports convincing movement of character. Compared with the epic scope of a novel, a short story is a literary close-up focused tightly on a moment of change. It is this close focus that allows the short story to illuminate subtle or delicate moments of transition that might be overwhelmed by a more complicated tableau.
Here’s Hills on the ending of a novel:
After having spent so long with the characters, the reader of a novel has become so interested in them, almost fond of them as acquaintance, that he is not adverse to a long “afterward” or “conclusion” that tells how they married, settled down at Milltown Manor and raised children and grew old together.
And here’s Hills on the ending of a short story:
The short story need only tell us what happened in the story itself, need only make clear the slight movement that has taken place. A lot of modern short stories don’t seem to have much of an end at all, really, not in terms of old-fashioned plotting….
In order to fully realize subtleties in such a limited form, the short story truncates both the beginning and end, concentrating on those elements that are critical to providing convincing movement of character. By doing so the short story not only limits possibilities, it also omits considerable authorial obligation. If you establish almost nothing at the beginning of your story, how much can there be to resolve at the end?
Show and Tell
There are two ways unresolved preparation can be addressed at the end of a work. The simplest is by telling, where questions or issues that may be lingering in the reader’s mind are resolved directly: “The Carter family never recovered and the children all went their separate ways.” If you have a bevvy of loose ends to deal with, or if you are eager to bring the curtain down quickly, you will probably use this approach at least in part.
The other approach involves showing (dramatizing) the effect of the main character’s movement on the dramatic world. If a broken and confused protagonist finally finds balance and meaning after three hundred pages, the average reader may want to witness that rebirth first-hand as opposed to reading a short summary of what happened next. The same goes for a story in which a fallen superhero recovers his super powers, or the girl-next-door becomes the woman-in-charge.
Movement of the main character in any story has obvious narrative implications. In a short story those implications are often implied and assumed. In a novel — or a film, or a play, or any longer work — those implications are why the ending of a story is often called its ‘resolution’. In an attempt to satisfy the audience’s curiosity, uncertainty and voyeuristic interest, authors dramatically resolve the effect of the main character’s movement on the narrative canvas.
And why not? While a writer could certainly truncate everything into a brief paragraph that tied off any loose ends, why waste all that dramatic potential? Whether it’s showing how the bad guy is hunted down like a dog, or what happens to the mean girl down the block, moments like those are ones the intended audience almost certainly wants to experience.
Hitting the Right Note
The question of what to show and what to omit at the end is no different than the same question at any other point in a story. In previous sections Hills talked about selection in both character and plot, and the same editorial sensibilities required there come into play as you bring a story to its close. Apart from making sure that you meet the intended audience’s logical and narrative needs, you will also want to make sure they leave on the right emotional note, feeling what you want them to feel as they depart the world you created.
It’s your choice what to resolve and what not to resolve. Wrapping up every detail can be as off-putting as leaving the reader hanging. And because you’re never going to be able to satisfy everyone you can’t approach the problem that way. Unlike following a logical thread or providing a glimpse into the narrative future, ending a story on the right note is pure art. If you can’t sense the weight and timing of your words your ending may not be pitch-perfect, but with practice and good feedback you can get close.
Next up: Sequence and Causality.
— Mark Barrett
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