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.
“Character is action.” “You are what you do.” These adages are behaviorist: they imply that identity is reducible to externally observable data. They argue that the question of who we are—always the topic, in some sense, of literary fiction—is answerable in terms of the impact our actions have on the world around us. Like the ubiquitous Show, don’t tell, they take a common problem and offers an overcorrection. They advise us to steer into the skid of interiority, bringing the story out of a character’s mind and into the external narrative world. Furthermore, such thinking is corrosive to the very moments in literature I find most compelling, moving, and meaningful. They repress the particular species of felt experience I hunger for as a reader, and which I seek to capture in my own work.
Christy Turlington, 1990s supermodel and Salvadoran-American, may or may not be my prima. The connection has never been confirmed, and I’m not trying to say I’m as fly as Christy, but her mother’s maiden name, “Parker,” is an apellido shared by some of the members of my family in El Salvador, and she grew up near San Francisco, where I grew up, so it’s not inconceivable to imagine that some of her family came over to the US around the same time mine did, maybe even on the same boat. El Salvador is a small enough place that finding unknown relatives can be as easy as flipping through the phone book.
“Mainly, I wanted to avoid talking down to an audience of new readers. My teaching experience had convinced me that as long as the writing was concrete, as long as sentences were sharply honed, as long as ideas were connected clearly, as long as the pacing had some momentum–in other words, as long as the writing adhered to certain well-known standards for good writing across the board–new readers could respond to it.”