Wednesday 30 May 2018

The End of the Beginning: Endings in Short Stories

By Dan Powell

The end of my first year as a full-time PhD student in Creative Writing is fast approaching. It’s a landmark in my studies that seems double-weighted given the focus of my research-led creative project: the endings of short stories.

Over the last year I have read hundreds of British short stories from across the last 200 years, compiling lists of sample stories for four self-selected periods of focus. I’ve experienced the breadth and depth of endings on offer, in a dizzying kaleidoscope of style and structure and voice. The goal of this research is to identify structural and linguistic trends at work in the sentences that create closure in the story. The data from the initial reading study will be used to build writing frames which I will use in crafting the study's creative element: a collection of short stories. 

I had hoped, back when I began drawing up the proposal for this piece of research-led practice, that examining the endings of so many stories might make writing the endings of my own stories a more straightforward activity, that writing endings would cease to be so damnably hard, or failing that, that they would be, at least, a little easier. Alas, wrestling my own endings into submission remains a complex and exhausting exercise. 

However, completing the analysis of fifteen contemporary British stories written and published between 1995 and 2015, and reading hundreds of other stories written between 1800 and 2015, has sharpened my understanding of this, the slipperiest feature of any narrative. So here’s the top five things my first year of PhD study has taught me about endings in short stories:

1. There are as many ways to end a story as there are stories. Don’t let your How To Guide to Writing tell you different. Every story needs its own unique solution (or negative solution in the case of contemporary British short stories). The greatest short stories were all lucky enough to have an author who took the time to find that story’s own unique ending.

2. Don’t be happy with the first ending that comes to mind. The first thing you think of is almost never the most fitting, or indeed surprising, ending for the narrative you have set up. Take the time to explore the weirder, darker, more hidden corners of your story. Or if the story is driving inevitably toward an ending that is visible from a distance, find a way to veer off just enough to make it memorable, to make it strange. 

3. The most effective endings are those you feel rather than those you have to think about. Endings aren’t about tying up the reader’s understanding of what they have just read with a neat little bow so they can take it away like a party treat. Endings are not a take-home message in a PowerPoint presentation. Endings should be a punch to the gut you weren’t expecting, a slap in the face you didn’t deserve; they should be the unanticipated stroke of a stranger’s fingertip across your skin.

4. Endings are as much about the journey as the end. My research maps (in part) the staging of closure within my sample stories. All of the stories I have studied feature preclosural sentences that mark the end of alternative stories within the overall final story, which is itself marked by the story’s final sentence. Each preclosural sentence, each alternative story, is a stepping stone to an ending. In a short story the end is both imminent and immanent. Build steps toward closure into the very fabric of your stories.

5. The real end of a short story happens off the page, somewhere in the post-narrational thoughts of the attentive reader. It seems Chekhov was right, short stories are, in fact, all middle. Or as Carver put it, "Get in, get out, don’t linger." Or as Vonnegut half-said, "Start as close to the end as possible" and stop just before you reach it. Of course, this means that even the final closure sentence of a story is preclosural. 

In short, there are no easy fixes. Endings are slippery beasts. Sometimes you have to wrestle them to the floor and pin them down. Sometimes you have to let them loose and pick up the pieces afterwards. Sometimes you have to stalk them from a distance, until they get where they have always been going. Writing a story that can stand on its own four legs is all about being able to tell when to do what.

About the writer
Dan Powell’s debut collection of short fiction, Looking Out of Broken Windows, was shortlisted for the Scott Prize and longlisted for the Edge Hill Prize. The recipient of a Royal Society of Literature Brookleaze Grant and Society of Authors Award, he is currently a Midlands3Cities-funded Doctoral Researcher in Creative Writing at University of Leicester and a First Story Writer-in-residence.

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