It’s Lesson 9, and we’re approaching the end of the Starting to Write Course. So, let’s think a bit about how to end a short story.
To be honest, this is – like How to Be Funny in Prose – one of the hardest things to teach. I’d quite like some lessons myself.
But I do have some advice.
The first is a bit of writing wisdom from the world of screenwriting. You may have heard it before. It was passed on to me by the English writer Malcolm Bradbury, who taught me creative writing. It’s this –
Get into a scene as late as you can, get out as early as you can.
As Fiction Editor for MIR Online, I read a lot of submitted stories. I almost never ask for a story to be longer, or to add a few sentence so I am more certain what happened, or what it means. I very often suggest that the last paragraph be cut.
A while ago, I wrote a single tweet that contained the three things you can do to improve almost any story:
- Change the title
- Cut the first paragraph
- Cut the final paragraph
I’ll quickly explain 1. and 2., then get on to 3.
Unless you have a very good reason for it. The title shouldn’t be a cliche or a phrase the reader knows well. Far better if it is something minor in the story than the point of the story. Leave a gap, probably a big one, between the title and the story. Make the reader read the story if they want to cross that gap.
Often the first paragraph in a story is something you, as the writer, needed to get on paper. When you’ve written a couple of stories, try this – go back to them, cover the opening paragraph, and start reading with the second paragraph (as if the first didn’t exist). You’ll almost certainly find that you get all the information you need – without it being information.
A story isn’t architectural plans for a house, it’s how the children run screaming down the hall.
The piece of advice I most often give writers of short stories who are good, but want to get better is, trust the reader more.
Trust the reader to get the point of the story without you having to tell them the point of the story.
Trust the reader to pick up the subtext in the dialogue without you getting the characters to state themselves nakedly
Trust the reader to fill in the gaps.
The final words of a short story are the biggest gap. You need to give the reader all the energy they need to jump it, but you don’t carry them over it and gently set them down on the other side. The other side is up to them. You let the reader leap off into themselves.
One of the remarkable things about short stories, I believe, is that they can bulk as large in the memory as novels.
When I think about a really big novel I read a while ago, I usually remember roughly what happened in it, but more vividly I remember a few stray details. A description of someone’s shoes. An empty room.
When I think about a short story, say Chekhov’s ‘Lady with a Dog’, I remember just as many details. It seems just as big (in my memory) as the novel.
One of the main difficulties of writing the endings of stories is that readers are very wise to them. Some readers, when picking up a novel in the bookshop, will even turn to the ending – to check it’s the kind of ending they like.
The are happy ends, sad endings, ironic endings, lyrical endings, trailing away endings, abrupt endings, wry endings, dying fall endings.
Writing the middle of a story can feel very free. Wow, this could go anywhere! Writing the end of a story can feel like choosing from a drop-down menu of pre-existing options.
My advice would be – keep going, keep writing. Write as much as you know about the characters. But then, after leaving the story for a while, go back and see how much you really need to know about the characters to get them.
End with an image. End with a satisfying rhythm. End with a gap.
Write three different endings for your two main characters. Imagine you’ve written more of the story, after where you left them, and now you’re finishing off. The three different endings are these:
Write an ending that is just dialogue. Have the two characters speak three or four lines each, then leave it hanging. Don’t end with a conclusive statement. End with a pause. An in-breath.
Write an ending that is a silent but significant action. But they and make it one you can’t remember reading in a story before. One of the two characters makes a gesture towards the other – friendly or unfriendly, hostile or loving. Don’t have them hold hands or fight. Have it be something with some mystery.
Write an ending that jumps forward into the characters’ futures, futures that they don’t know, but have the narrator say or imply what happens to them afterwards. Don’t do this clunkily. Make it about something immediate – the clothes they’re wearing or a day one of them passed the same way again.
Go back to Chekhov’s Lady with Lapdog. Read it again, paying special attention to the ending. I find that, each time I re-read this story, the ending becomes more expansive and sadder. The characters are set against a background of time that promises to be long and melancholy. Think about in what other ways Chekhov might have ended the story.