Friday, October 1, 2010

Ending a Short Story: Some Thoughts

I will admit that I am not the most brilliant short story writer, but I've read a lot of them and I have made some observations about things that writers of good short stories never rarely do. So this is one of those proscriptive posts that annoy me so much but here I am, writing one anyway. Go figure. But here are the things I'd keep in mind were I working on a short story:

1. Never directly explain the action. People read partly for the pleasure of figuring things out for themselves. Don't deny them that pleasure. Which is to say, avoid things like Jimmy picked up the bundle and stormed away because he was angry. We can figure out that Jimmy was angry, really we can. If you write a sentence using the word "because," you might be well advised to just delete it.

2. Never sum up. Readers are bright. See above comment, but mostly I mean don't sum up the story for the reader at the ending. Don't tell your reader the meaning of your story. The "meaning" of the story might be different for the reader than it is for you. It's also highly likely that you don't know what your story actually "means" in a deep thematic sense while you're writing it (unless you are deliberately writing didactic or moralistic fiction, in which case your story probably really sucks will probably only appeal to a limited audience; I'm just saying).

3. Leave them wanting more. Go out on a high note. Don't drag the ending out. Have you finished the necessary action of the story? Then get the hell out of it. You can get to the moment of crisis, assure the reader what's going to happen next, and then stop without even showing the crisis resolving itself. That's a cool trick.

Also! I am not even here today! Through the magic of the internets, I wrote this post last week or so, and this lovely Friday morning I'm on vacation! I will not be looking at this blog until, say, next Tuesday, so have a good weekend in my absence, and I look to Domey and Michelle to keep the commentary cracking with humor. So get cracking.


  1. Number 2. I write things and people say, "Oh, I loved that hidden meaning you had in there." And of course I have no idea what they're talking about.

    Have a great vacation!

  2. Thank you for this. I've recently been trying my hand at short stories and this is exactly what I needed. Thanks!

    Great post, that rebel, Olivia

  3. #3 is so important. Even when I write stories where a character dies in the end (*gasp* me?), I try my best to avoid blatant, literal narratives of death.

    "And I died."

    "I took my last breath."

    "The conductor called an end to my dance with life."

    And also, "This is the last story anyone will ever let me write."

  4. Rule number one is brilliant. Somehow, I've a horrifying feeling that I do that all the time. It's one of the faults of my writing, that I treat my readers like goldfish who mightn't remember things. I shall have to remember this post.

  5. These are great points, Scott. I especially like #2. I agree with the idea that we ought to treat our readers as intelligent readers, rather than dumbing things down. What's more, if we can lead them down a more investigative path where tidbits are revealed, it's more enjoyable a read. Enjoy your time away.

  6. Oh #2, how true. I was talking to my mother about a possible nonfiction book I wanted to write. She, being a writer also, decided that we could collaborate. I gulped and stayed silent. Then she said the book must have a message. I gulped and spoke up. Anyone care to guess the outcome of that conversation?

  7. Anne, the part of the "vacation" Scott didn't talk about was that he is going to help some friends move. Lately I've started to write more stuff that seems (at least to me) to not say anything. I wonder if readers will give meaning to it.

    Olivia, good luck with the short stories! I'm always interested when people try different forms to see how they like them. Keep us posted.

    Nevets, I don't know. You've got some pretty good lines there. I like the last two.

    Dominique, that's hilarious! I think sometimes I treat my readers like gerbils.

    Eric, this is something I have to try really hard to remember. I think often I assume my readers don't want to work.

    Yat-Yee, I think the outcome of the conversation is that you love your mother very much, but there are just some things that you have to do alone. :)

  8. The last one especially would save the world a lot of headaches. :)

  9. Good timing on this post as I am deep into revisions. I think I have #3 down. To be honest, I never even considered summing up a story, as though I had some predetermined meaning behind it.
    As for #1--I'm still trying to balance out my show vs tell...
    Thanks for the rundown!

  10. I think the summing up trap I see short story authors fall into most often is the oblique summary. They don't have a sentence that says, "And so Jon learn that women should not be treated as if they were incompetent." Instead, they have another character say something like, "Jon, you can't treat women as they're incompetent," and then in the narration they say, "With that one simple sentence, Jon knew he would never look at women the same."

    That's an exaggeratedly obvious example, but it's amazing how oblique and compound sum-ups make it into our writing.

  11. But it's okay if I have a Greek Chorus come into the story and explain the moral, right? Right?

  12. Good points to keep in mind.

    And I like writing short stories, mostly because of those points. I think its harder to write shorts, you have so few words to get the action accomplished, the point across, and then end, but they are sure a lot of fun.


  13. it would be interesting to have the Greek chorus come into the story and explain the oposite of the 'moral' and see if anyone caught on.

  14. Woody Allen did do one movie with a Greek Chorus. After a while you realized they were just there to further mess with your head.

  15. I thought for a while about writing something where I slowly killed off the Greek chorus, but that would need to be novel length and I didn't have a ready novel to go with it. Maybe some day I'll adapt Lysistrata or the Birds or something.

  16. Solid advice. I'll keep #3 in mind for my Genre Wars Anthology submission! I'm not at risk of committing sins 1 or 2, but it can be tempting to hash out the "best" part. But I guess writing a short story is kind of like telling a joke--it falls flat if you explain too much.

  17. This is good timing as I'm in revision process (again) for a short story I plan to submit to literary magazines. #2 I think I've got but I struggle a bit with #1 as some writing teachers advise to tell how the character feels about the action . I tend to just show with another action. It's a constant learning for sure! If you ever want to expand on point two, I shall be very grateful. Great post!

  18. Oh, well, I totally wasn't here on Friday, either, so I guess it was up to Domey...

    *looks nervously at the comment section...*

    I agree with all your points here although I've never laid them out into a nice little list. The thing that turns me off the most with short stories is spoon-feeding the reader everything. That falls into your #2 category and it's something I've done before without even realizing it.

    Tara: I'd read it if you put in a Greek Chorus. Sweet. ;)

  19. In trying to figure out the ending for my ten pages in the NOTES anthology, I appreciate this post. I've made a note of my own re. #3 in particular. And, yes, people have mentioned a twist or turn in something I've written that I never even saw. Reading is such a personal thing. Thanks.


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