by Jeffrey M. Mahr
©2004 Jeffrey M. Mahr -- all rights reserved
A very shy guy goes into a bar and sees a beautiful woman sitting at the bar. After an hour of gathering up his courage, he finally goes over to her and asks, tentatively, "Um, would you mind if I chatted with you for a while?"
She responds by yelling, at the top of her lungs, "No! I won't sleep with you tonight!" Everyone in the bar is now staring at them. Naturally, the guy is hopelessly and completely embarrassed and he slinks back to his table.
After a few minutes, the woman walks over to him and apologizes. She smiles at him and says, "I'm sorry if I embarrassed you. You see, I'm a graduate student in psychology, and I'm studying how people respond to embarrassing situations."
To which he responds, at the top of his lungs, "What do you mean, $200?!"
Source: Jokes Gallery
Apologies, but I've previously mentioned that I am a psychologist in real life; thus, the psychology-related joke. However, it has a purpose. After all, what's the key feature of the little story above? If you said the ending, give yourself a big cigar (or some other legal reward of your choosing). That's what this article is about: The ending of a story. And I'm going to try to respond to some of the more common questions that I've been asked about ending stories. I'll bet you didn't know psychologists got asked questions like that, did you? Well, we do -- all the time. Uh huh! Absolutely. Wanna buy this bridge I've got in my back pocket? Actually, I (along with Andy Hollis) edited this e-zine for three years before your current gentle hosts. That's where the questions came from. Having gotten that out of the way, let's get on with it.
When should you end a story?
It's sad but true; the best answer is also the worst. The only really good answer is, "When it's over." Of course, that's not really helpful, and doesn't even have the saving grace of being funny, so please bear with me while I give the longer, less accurate, but more useful answer. The right time to end a story is when all of the following conditions have been met:
Some people also believe that there must be an O. Henry-style ending, where the final line puts a completely new twist on everything that's gone before, or a joke, like the story at the beginning of this article. This is not really essential, although there is a strong urge to do so; especially for new writers, who feel a need to show off a bit, or for short stories where it often seems that every word is building to some climactic ending. I've been trying to remember the name and author as I write this article, but one of the best stories I ever read was one that had no real ending. I think it was The House by Ray Bradbury. It was about a house that was totally automated and day after day, week after week, year after year, it went on making dinner, cleaning, heating and cooling, and all the other things that a really good automated house is supposed to do; all for a family that had died long ago. The story had no real ending; it just faded out as the house continued on -- which was totally appropriate for that particular story and is one of the best proofs I can offer that good stories don't need to have gimmicky endings.
Should all the loose ends be tidied up?
If you have plans for a sequel, you want to leave at least a few loose ends, otherwise, please wrap up the loose ends.
Of course, there are times when you want to leave something unresolved, since, like the best horror movies, what you don't see is often scarier than what you do see. When I think of reasons to leave something hanging, besides plans for a sequel, the obvious answer is when there really is no good explanation. At such times, it's often best to gloss over the issue. The best example I can think of here is Kafka's existentialist story, The Metamorphosis. In the story a man turns into a giant cockroach. Kafka tells the story well, but intentionally gives absolutely no clue as to how, or why, it happened.
Are endings different for short stories as compared to novellas or novels?
As I've mentioned earlier, there is more pressure on the average writer to have some kind of punch line at the end of all short stories. It's not bad, or poor form (whatever that means) to do so, just predictable -- which is usually a much more fearful situation for a writer unless your name is Franklin Dixon (the pen name of the authors of the Hardy Boys mysteries and several other similar formula stories). By the way, the 's' after authors was intentional. Edward L. Stratemeyer actually wrote the first few stories in the series, but then wrote outlines and paid other authors, poorly I might add, to write the rest.
Novels and novella are different. They are more leisurely stories that take time to develop characters and situations. An abrupt punch line type ending usually feels awkward and rushed. In such instances, most authors will actually take a full chapter just to wrap up the loose ends after the climactic scene. Think about it. Would you be satisfied if a supervillain worked for more than two hundred pages to get the superhero to the climactic showdown and then had the story end immediately after the confrontation ended? I wouldn't. Just like a great basketball game, I want the time to cool down after all the excitement.
What is the perfect ending?
I don't know. Write a story and let me read it. I'll be waiting.