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Short Story Endings

Short Story Endings: A Writing Show Interview, May 2008

By Melissa Palladino, Randall Brown, and Paula Berinstein

 

The Writing Show (WS): Randall Brown teaches at Saint Joseph's University and holds an MFA from Vermont College. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cream City Review, Hunger Mountain, Connecticut Review, Saint Ann's Review, Evansville Review, Laurel Review, Dalhousie Review, upstreet, and others. He is the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live from Flume Press, 2008.

Melissa Palladino lives in New England and has been writing fiction for seven years. She came to short stories only recently, and this is where she has picked up speed. Her story “Spring Cleaning,” which was a published finalist in Inkwell’s annual short story competition, was nominated by them for the 2009 Pushcart Prize. She has also been published online at Vocabula.com and was recently long-listed for the Fish Prize. Melissa is an active workshop participant both in person and online at Zoetrope Virtual Studio and The Fiction Workhouse. In real life she’s a private chef.

WS: Let’s dive right into it. What sorts of short story endings are there?

Melissa Palladino (MP): I’ve been thinking a lot about this; there’s so much to consider when you’re thinking about a short story. It’s so multi-layered that I was trying to think of a metaphor for short story endings. The way I’ve come to think of it is like planning a trip or a vacation. You’re thinking, “Where do I want to go? Do I want to go to Hawaii, do I want to go to Siberia?” Some people plan way ahead of time, and some people just start walking, and they end up where they’re going. That’s like the emotional destination of your story.

This destination is the emotional impact you want to have on your reader and what you want them to walk away with. You might want your reader to feel really satisfied by the way you wrapped up the story, or maybe you want them to be haunted, or maybe you want them to be moved and uplifted. How you get to your emotional destination--if you’re going to California, you can go by car, you can go by hot air balloon, you can go by plane. That’s the equivalent of the larger mechanics of a story. So you could plan a plot twist if you’re writing a mystery. Or you could have the classic denouement, or a closed ending, where all of the internal conflict is resolved. Or, if you’re more of a literary writer, you might have an open or an ambiguous ending where the internal tension is not necessarily resolved. Chekhov is famous for that. This writing is also known as The New Yorker or the MFA ending. Or you could possibly decide on, say, an epilogue ending. That ending gives you more a feel of a fable. Some of the older classic stories had endings like that; "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" had an epilogue ending. "Young Goodman Brown" by Nathaniel Hawthorne had an epilogue ending.

There are other aspects; these are the smaller mechanics of an ending. These are things that you can twitch around if they’re not quite working for you. It’s like if you are riding in the back seat of a car, you can change to the front seat, or if you’re in the aisle seat on a plane, you can switch to the window seat. So you could end on a monologue; you could end with dialogue between two people; you could end with a symbol; you could have it be a parallel ending; or you could have a very literal specific action, like, “I drove away in my car out of the town of Rockport.” Or you could just write, “The end.”

WS: Randall, do you want to add to that?

Randall Brown (RB): After surviving an MFA and doing some reading for magazines, I think it can be narrowed down to two types of endings: good ones and bad ones. A good one is James Joyce’s ending for “The Dead:” “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Maybe one reason it’s so good is that only this story gets that ending. I’ve tried using it on other stories I’ve written, and it never seems to work.

WS: What doesn’t work?

RB: It seems that only that story gets that ending. One of the things I’ve noticed as a reader is that sometimes you get the sense that these endings could work on other stories. They don’t seem necessarily to develop organically out of the story. I think that James Joyce ending feels like there’s no other ending like it, and it was made for that story, and somehow they met up with each other.

WS: You’re talking literally about those words?

RB: Yes, literally those words. It feels like that ending was made for that story, and fortunately James Joyce discovered it. With, for example, a story that ends on a figurative image, one sometimes feels that that ending could be transported to another story and sort of work for it, but I think that’s the ending “The Dead” was supposed to have. I was just reading an essay on “Annie Hall” by Sam Girgis, and he talked about how the desire of reading is the desire to get to the end of the story, but reached only through tension. I thought that was such a strange desire that we readers have: we want to be trapped in an anxiety-ridden world only for the joy of being released from it at the end. So the end, then, is the end of desire for the reader. I think that’s what makes it tough for writers--at least for me--that you have to always leave them not wanting more. I think that’s what makes all those endings Melissa brought up so wonderfully hard for writers.

WS: You said there are also bad endings. Can you talk about that a little?

RB: Yes. There are all kinds of bad endings. I was working with Ellen Parker, an editor at FRiGG Magazine when I first started writing, and she pointed out that a lot of my endings were a paragraph or two too long. I had the ending, and then I felt the need to go on, and it seemed like I was sort of explaining. The ending that I had worked, but I didn’t realize it, and the next few paragraphs were explaining that ending as if I didn’t trust the reader to get it. So I think some bad endings try to explain too much. I know that was something I did early on, not trusting myself and also not trusting the reader as much as I could.

WS: You’ve both come up with so many wonderful types of endings. I’m sure there are even more, but I want to explore this “end of desire” idea. Melissa, you mentioned the open, ambiguous ending, for example, which obviously wouldn’t be the end of desire.

MP: Right. It leaves the reader wanting. Well, in some cases, it leaves the reader really irritated, because it’s “What happened?” The New Yorker is a classic example of a publication--it might be changing--but they seem to like ambiguous endings, and many people say they publish the type of stories where you turn the page to see what happens next, but there’s no more. That’s the end. I think people can get vexed if the ending is too open.

WS: You say you should leave the reader not wanting more, but actually with fiction, you almost do want to leave them wanting more, particularly if you’re writing a series.

MP: That’s true, but if you’re writing a series like the Harry Potter novels or Bobby Pendragon…I have a fourteen-year-old son, and he’s really into a lot of these series. Animorphs was a big one for a while. Even those which are sequels and carry a larger story from book to book to book, they still have to resolve the internal conflict. I think in novels it’s almost impossible to have an ambiguous ending. It’s different for movies. I think short stories can get away with a lot of things, but even if you’re writing something where you’re setting up a sequel, you have to resolve it in some way, don’t you think, Randall?

RB: Yes. I think the more open an ending, definitely the greater the chance readers will feel a bit cheated, that you’re abdicating the responsibility of a writer, which is to close your story and come up with a meaning, and you’re turning that job over to the reader.

MP: And sometimes I think a reader is happy to do that. I’ve heard some people say that an open ending could be just a pause in the action, or as long as you have an idea of the probable trajectory of the main character that you can have an open ending and still leave the reader satisfied, especially if they’ve gone through some kind of a personal emotional metamorphosis in the story. So you feel like there’s a sense of transformation, and you don’t have to have your hand held all the way right through to the end.

I think it’s different if you’re talking about genre fiction. With mysteries, obviously you want to know who pulled the trigger. In a love story, you want the guy to get the girl. And even in some western, sci-fi, horror, you have to have some kind of a conclusion, so I think it’s harder to have an open, ambiguous ending in those types of short stories.

WS: That’s true for short stories, not just for novels?

MP: Right.

WS: Because I was going to ask you, are particular types of endings especially suited to particular types of stories?

Transcript continues....

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