Some Thoughts on Short Story Endings

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Crafting good endings, like good openings, is among the most difficult feats to attain in a short story. So much pressure lies in its mastery – where a solid or tepid opening could mean the difference between having a work read or not read beyond the first page, a satisfying or lackluster ending often decides whether the piece gets published or not. The final paragraph of a story is usually what readers take away from the entire experience, as it is the last thing they get to process, and thus, the last thing they’re likely to remember.

Apart from the exhortations that a story needs to tie up all loose ends and bring closure to the readers, discussing what constitutes a good ending frequently devolves into the famous pronouncement in the concurring opinion of Jacobellis v. Ohio: “I know it when I see it.” As is the case with establishing aesthetic rules in writing, generalizations usually don’t work. In fact, what may sound like an effective closing to one reader might just be totally underwhelming to another. With those caveats in mind, the next best thing is to present case studies of endings that I think work (at least for me) within the context of those particular stories.

Let’s start with one of the most famous lines in literature:

Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

In James Joyce’s “Araby,” the closing depicts a 180-degree change in the perspective of the narrator – an unnamed boy who, prior to the above, is a lovesick child blinded by the beauty of a neighboring girl. The ending shatters the boy’s romantic misconceptions and plays with the concept of a blind person finally being able to see (“gazing into the darkness I saw” and “my eyes burned”). The sentence contrasts earlier scenes where the boy daydreams and comically assumes chivalric airs. It is a satisfying ending because we witness a character maturing, we see him finally come to grips with reality, and we apprehend the change before our very eyes.

Such epiphanies within characters of a short story, however, often run the risk of appearing predictable or didactic, especially in our postmodern age where simplistic assertions are suspect. Because of the length of short stories, it can be argued that a realistic portrayal of a character’s dramatic change of heart is too difficult, if not artificial. Charles Baxter, in the chapter called “Against Epiphanies” in his influential book Burning Down the House, likens epiphanies to “the mass production of insight” and pins the source on culture that has “a fascination with innocence.” He argues for and challenges writers instead to write “stories of real consequence in which no discursive insight appears, or in which the insights are shown to be false.”

To slightly vindicate myself for using Joyce’s (still-beautiful) ending as a jumping off point to talk about the pitfalls of epiphanic endings, here is an excerpt of a different story from the same author:

But no one tried to show [Maria] her mistake; and when she had ended her song Joe was very much moved. He said that there was no time like the long ago and no music for him like poor old Balfe, whatever other people might say; and his eyes filled up so much with tears that he could not find what he was looking for and in the end he had to ask his wife to tell him where the corkscrew was.

In “Clay,” Joyce surprisingly ends the story not on the main protagonist Maria, but on Joe, a side character. Furthermore, Maria does not undergo any change – she is until the end a tender but clueless, tragic character. The only person who demonstrates a true understanding of her is Joe. But even then, Joyce slyly withholds the nature of that realization (read: “epiphany”) from us – we can only deduce the reason why Joe is “very much moved” by Maria’s singing and why he cries. Instead of giving us more details, Joyce subverts our expectations by offering a hyper-awareness of a seemingly unimportant and completely mundane detail: the corkscrew. The effect is a heightened sense of realism (or what James Wood calls “thisness” in How Fiction Works) with a bit of tragicomedy. This ending works by inviting us to re-read the story and detect the subtle indications that all is not well in Maria’s life.

Sometimes, setting the proper emotions rather than impart more plot information to the reader is all that an ending needs to do. In Anton Chekhov’s “The Name-Day Party” (also called “The Party”), a pregnant Olga Mihailovna puts on a cheery face throughout the festive celebration of her insensitive and flirtatious husband. At the end of the day, when all the guests leave and she and her husband are alone, Olga delivers a premature baby that dies, and the story closes with:

With a despairing wave of the hand [the husband] went out of the bedroom. But nothing mattered to Olga Mihailovna now. There was a mistiness in her brain from the chloroform, an emptiness in her soul…. The dull indifference to life which possessed her when the two doctors were performing the operation was still with her.

Without telling the readers what will happen to the couple next, Chekhov plants the emotions that he wants us to feel when thinking about the story and forming our conclusions: “despair,” “mistiness,” “emptiness,” and “dull indifference” are lodged in our minds. Note that the words are not directly used by Chekhov to talk about the marriage itself – rather, these descriptions are used to refer to other things, such as the husband’s wave of a hand or Olga’s brain. In other words, the epiphany forms in our heads, not on the page. But it will be difficult to come up with anything other than a gloomy prognosis for Olga and her husband.

A tempting tendency among writers is to fallaciously equate great endings with grandiose endings: often in the form of a spectacular and breathtaking panorama, usually of nature, or of the sky, the sun, the sea, or all of the above. But before we go there, let us look at an example of how such an ending could be used effectively, courtesy of another Chekhov excerpt:

Meanwhile, up above, in that part of the sky where the sun is about to set, clouds are massing, one resembling a triumphal arch, another a lion, a third a pair of scissors. A broad shaft of green light issues from the clouds and reaches to the middle of the sky; a while later, a violet beam appears alongside of it and then a golden on and a pink one … The heavens turn a soft lilac tint. Looking at this magnificent enchanting sky, the ocean frowns at first, but soon it, too, takes on tender, joyous, passionate colors for which it is hard to find a name in the language of man.

Yes, it’s safe to say this conclusion indeed sounds grand. But in “Gusev,” consider that the entire story before this paragraph takes place in darkness, whether inside the dank third-class cabin or at the deck during nighttime. In addition, the story is about two men (one of whom is the soldier Gusev) who are sick, surrounded by varying discomforts in their setting: stifling humidity, blood and excrement on the floor, seasickness, unbathed bodies, corpses. When Gusev finally dies, he is tossed overboard with very little fanfare. Therefore, the ending presents itself as an extreme contrast to the rest of the story – the freedom of space, the magnificence of the sunset, the softness of the sky. Even the once choppy ocean (that “frowns at first”) takes on a positive note. It’s as if Chekhov is saying that Gusev is now much better off, for he is free from the confines of the ship and his ailing body. The last paragraph lingers on after Gusev sinks to the sea floor (and is eaten by sharks), as if his soul resurrects and floats up in time to enjoy the sight.

But just as powerful are endings that wind down the scene using a smaller aperture. In Yiyun Li’s “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” the story fades out this way:

[Mr. Shi] shakes his head hard. A foreign country gives one foreign thoughts, he thinks. For an old man like him, it is not healthy to ponder too much over memory. A good man should live in the present moment, with Madam, a dear friend sitting next to him, holding up a perfect golden gingko leaf to the sunshine for him to see.

Again, the conclusion is particularly strong in light of what comes before it. Just several sentences and paragraphs prior to this, Mr. Shi discovers that the daughter whose love-life he’s trying to help is actually the one who cheated in her previously broken-up marriage. Moreover, Mr. Shi reveals to the readers by way of remembering, that he himself has had his own extramarital affair and that he has been exaggerating and lying about his career as a “rocket scientist.” In the excerpt above, he struggles to confess – partly because of a language barrier – some of these secrets to the immigrant woman he has befriended in the park. The enormity of his burdens is contrasted – and temporarily lifted – in a Zen moment of staring at a beautiful, transparent leaf.

Li is a master of depicting quiet, subtle moments, and in this different excerpt from “Extra,” she again focuses on the small objects to bring her story home.

Granny Lin sits on the street and hugs the lunch pail to herself. Hungry as people are, it is strange that nobody ever thinks of robbing an old woman of her lunch. That’s why she has never lost anything important. The three thousand yuan of dismissal compensation is safe in the lunch pail, as are several unopened packages of socks, colorful with floral patterns, souvenirs of her brief love story.

The “socks” mentioned above are leftovers from Granny Lin’s effort in covering up for Kang (a troubled thief of girls’ socks), whom Granny Lin helps take care of while working as a maid at a boarding school. The “love story” between the two is ironic because there is almost none (a marriage with an old man ostensibly for his money also ends in a tragedy earlier in the story). Although Granny Lin cares for Kang as if he is her own – it is as a result of trying to cover up for him that she gets fired from her latest job. The generosity is never thanked nor reciprocated, with the boy being at best lukewarm to Granny Lin and ignorant of her sacrifices.

In contrast to stories that hinge on epiphanies and conversions, Granny Lin here never changes – she is as optimistic, empathetic, and reserved as she’s always been. When looking back at this piece’s opening paragraph, which describes Granny Lin walking in the street with her lunch pail and dismissal certificate, we see a virtual difference of only the “extra” addition of the socks. Indeed, in coming full circle, Li depicts Granny Lin as having added only objects – and their memories – to her trove. Li ends the story resisting any suggestion of consequences or insights as a result of the experiences.

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