Writing Advice: The Strap-On Ending
I have problems ending my stories. People are always telling me that my endings are not “satisfying.” Any tips?
Endless in Utah
Let’s consider, for a second, a few different kinds of story endings.
First, you’ve got your “closed” ending, one that pulls everything together and answers all the reader’s lingering questions. Closed endings are complete, and, yes, favored by Hollywood, but they are also used to great effect by many writers. Look at Pride and Prejudice – the last few pages recount how the ongoing relationships of all the central characters will play out over time. There’s no ambiguity there at all, but we find satisfaction in knowing how Austen’s carefully constructed mesh of marriages and hierarchies has been resolved.
The “open” ending leaves some things hanging. The reader doesn’t know how every plot point will play out. Instead you get the sense that the lives of the story will continue, beyond the page; the characters are still fumbling along, seeking answers, just like everyone else. Raymond Carver was the master of the open ending, which is in keeping with his closely observed, minimalistic work. His stories are like being given a snapshot of lives in motion. When the frame ends, so does the story. Carver’s endings are tantalizing, and yet so true you can’t argue with them. The satisfaction comes from the sense of recognition that yes, this is life: messy, confusing, full of inchoate emotion.
Then you’ve got your third style of ending, one I like to call “the strap-on.” A strap-on ending introduces a new plot point as a way of forcing a story into closure. Or it presents a new, never-seen-before aspect of a character at the last minute. These kind of endings do not arise from the story – they have been thrown into place by a panicked or bored writer who is bailing on his responsibilities to his work. Endless, does this sound familiar at all? Are you leaving your readers unsatisfied because you are servicing them with a strap-on?
The next logical question is: how do you avoid a strap-on ending? As the writer Mark Doty says: “If you listen to your work, if you live in it, it will deliver you to its destination.” That destination already exists. It’s latent in the story – you just need to find it, and you do that by asking questions of your work and characters. Interrogate them. Follow the clues that you have left for yourself. What would push your protagonist over the edge? What emotion has your character been avoiding? What established plot point might come back around to bite him in the ass? What will reveal him?
Of course, all the endings above – even the strap on – supply one crucial element: change. The final kind of unsatisfying ending is the one that isn’t an ending at all, because the characters are essentially the same at the end of the story as they are at the beginning. Put simply, in literature we need our characters to start somewhere and end up somewhere else, and I’m not talking about geography here. It’s not enough to change a character’s external circumstances. They’ve got to change internally too, even if in subtle and barely perceptible ways.
It’s by reading about such characters that we learn how to live. Yes, that’s my heady claim; it’s one of the way that reading nourishes me, anyway, and one of the reasons why an unsatisfying story is worse than an unsatisfying meal. So don’t stiff your readers, Endless. Ask questions. Seek out the ways in which your characters change. Let them lead you, and you’ll have readers coming back for more.
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