“He loved Big Brother.”
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
“How can we know the dancer from the dance?"
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
For starters, there’s the pressure of how important they are. If your reader has made it to your ending, it means you wrote a short story/novel/essay/poem that’s held their attention this entire time (congratulations on that, by the way!), and the last thing you want to do is mess all of that up in your final line. The ending is the last thing your reader will remember about your masterpiece, the lingering seed planted in their mind that will grow and grow—not to mention the impetus (hopefully!) for that reader to want to seek out more of your work in the future.
Perhaps endings are also so hard to write because, on some level, we don’t want to say goodbye to the project we’re working on. I know, I know, that sounds a little cheesy. But if you’ve poured your hopes and dreams, your sweat, blood, and tears, and everything else in between into this piece of writing, it’s a pretty tall order to come up with the line that will send it gently (or not so gently) into that good night.
And that brings us to the third challenge of producing a good ending: the dreaded feeling of having said everything there is to say already. You’ve simply run out of fuel. You’re out of material, but you’re left with a lingering, haunting feeling that the piece just isn’t quite finished yet.
But as tough as endings can be to hammer out, I’ve found that my favorite moments in the writing process usually involve final lines. The ending lines are the ones that most often take me by surprise—that sneak up on me in the middle of my drafting process and elbow their way to a closure I wasn’t expecting at all and had no idea I contained inside myself. It’s easy to get addicted to that feeling.
So how can we arrive at these kinds of moments instead of the moments of dread and frustration in our writing process? We’ll explore these questions and more in my 49 Writers class “The End!”, but for now, I’ll leave you with this: try to avoid at all costs the two worst kinds of endings—the neat bowtie ribbon ending and the dramatic hamster surprise ending. The neat bowtie ribbon ending is, essentially, “And they all lived happily ever after.” It ties everything up so neatly and prettily that the reader has no reason to ever think about your story, poem, essay, or novel ever again. Sometimes it’s saccharine-sweet, other times it’s trying too hard to feel wise and profound, telling the reader what to think of the ending with way too much hand-holding. It almost always feels like it’s forced, or like it’s trying too hard—like it’s announcing “HELLO, I AM AN ENDING!” in a gleeful or smug tone.
The dramatic hamster surprise ending, on the other hand, does something very different. It tries to introduce a sudden “twist” that reveals new information the reader didn’t and usually couldn’t have known all along. As an adolescent, I wrote a perfect example of one of these endings. I painted a picture of a grim and brutal war zone, inhabited by a soldier named Matt trying to sneak his way through enemy lines to victory, all while being bombarded with attack after attack. In the last sentence of the story, I revealed that Matt was actually a young child playing war with his friends outside. The “bombs” and “missiles” were actually water balloons. So what’s the problem with an ending like that? For starters, it feels like the whole story exists for the sole purpose of the ending. It’s all an elaborate joke with the ending as the punchline. It robs the story itself of any kind of beauty or significance. It trades good craft and interesting ideas for a cheap “Gotcha!” thrill—one that usually doesn’t reveal anything new or important about the world to the reader whatsoever.
Now don’t get me wrong—either of these endings often work extremely well in commercial novels (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has a great bowtie ribbon ending), and TV shows and films are absolutely full of them (Planet of the Apes, Oldboy, Memento, and any M. Night Shyamalan movie ever, to name just a handful, all feature mind-blowingly amazing dramatic hamster surprise twist endings). But in general—and “rules” are made to be broken, so don’t take everything I say here as an absolute—what works for thriller movies does not always work well for thoughtful poems and literary short stories. Then again, read Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths” and you’ll probably have lots to argue with me about.
Register for “THE END!” Writing Good Endings and Achieving Closure (March 5, 6-9pm)
Alyse Knorr has taught creative writing to individuals ages 8 to 80, of all levels and all genres, and is passionate about bringing out the best in her students. As a poet, she extremely sound-focused and spent three years studying meter, rhyme, and syntax while earning her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree from George Mason University. She currently teaches English at the University of Alaska Anchorage and is finishing up her fifth book.