Monday, October 4, 2010

Unexpected and Inevitable

Scott's post Friday and my own revising this weekend had me thinking about story endings again. I was revising, Bread, and I had gotten to the last few pages. The two possible endings I arrived at were both fine in the sense that they were plausible and gave the story closure (and really, how hard is that when you're dealing with a cannibal?). But, neither of the two endings sat quite right with me.

I realized that the reason I didn't like either one of the endings very much was because they represented the two most obvious outcomes to my story. In my case, my main character was committing a crime, and it was either going to go well or it wasn't.

While chatting with Michelle, I was reminded of two Jhumpa Lahiri stories in her most recent collection Unaccustomed Earth: "Hell-Heaven" and "Only Goodness". What I loved about both of these stories was how they were ended. In reading these stories, I will say that I was fairly underwhelmed a good 98% of the way through. They were deftly written, and in general the characters and conflicts were engaging and emotional. But, what bothered me about them was that they felt boring.

Until the last line.

In both cases, Lahiri managed to catch me off guard with the final sentence. They are both unexpected and inevitable, meaning, they led me to a new conclusion I wouldn't have guessed at, even though all the clues were there.

I think a reader wants to be surprised without feeling cheated. An unexpected and inevitable ending accomplishes both of those goals. It gives them a journey that they can relate to, but then something catches them off guard and makes them see things in a new light (something I think all good art should do).

So, in going back to Bread I ran through my entire story and dared to avoid the two endings that came most naturally to me. Using the earlier material, I decided to come up with that I hadn't thought about before. I wanted to surprise myself. I wanted to learn something new.

I'm happy to report that I like my current ending. I like that it makes me revisit the story again and sort of go, "Huh."

What about you? How do you go about approaching your story endings?


  1. Oh...well, as I do some last-minute editing to Monarch I'm looking at my ending cross-eyed and wondering if I should do something like that. I think I did that in Cinders, to a point, surprising everyone with the ending. Or just plain pissing them off. Either way, it's unexpected on a lot of levels, and it's one of the reasons I love that book so much.

    Monarch just kind of ends. Hmmm...

    The thing is, do you think Bread is 98% boring until the end?

    What I like about those two Lahiri stories is that the ending sentences made me want to read the stories all over again to see if they were as "boring" the second time around. That can be a good thing, I think. The stories are definitely elevated to something else when I read them again.

  2. @Michelle - I have about about that on Monarch. Watch out. Me and endings, you know. hahaha

    @Domey - this is a complicated question. When I write, a story is conceived as an explosion. The overall event is clear, and so is the beginning and the end. The messy part is the detail between.

    In a short story, I most often hope that the last few sentences give the reader the experience you're talking about -- something surprising but inevitable. For instance, I don't the ending of, "The Best Medicine," was something the readers would have predicted, but once it's there, I hope that it makes so much sense it almost seems obvious in retrospect. This is usually not hard, because this is usually how the story is born.

    With novels, I have a harder time pulling this off. The core story is born the same way, and really the core story ends the same way. I typically feel that at the end of a novel, though, the reader deserves a bit of a denouement. What I try to craft is a false ending, so that at the end of the denouement I can shove in one last inevitable surprise. Time will tell how successful I am at this.

  3. How cool is it when you know you need to do something (find a different ending that fulfills your criteria of unexpected and inevitable) and manage to do it. Celebration! Confetti!

    I'll have to go back to those stories to see what you mean.

    I am revising my novel currently and except for a few threads that need to be strengthened, I am very satisfied with it. Until I came to the big climactic scene. Is the outcome unexpected? I hope so. Inevitable. I think so. But I fell less secure with the actual details of the scene. Maybe I am overly affected by the feedback I received from my critique group. Maybe I need to go with my original idea. Maybe there is a third, and utterly brilliant solution.

    Endings. So full of possibilities, including really bad ones.

    What I will do, as I realized while ranting here, is to read some other endings and see if it will jolt my own decision-making mechanism into becoming more confident and less wishy-washy.

  4. Michelle, I really liked your ending for Cinders. It did capture that unexpected but inevitable feeling. I don't think Bread is boring for the first part of it, but I do think it goes along a predictable course. There is no surprise, just an unfolding. Regarding Lahiri's stories, I told agree with you about the second reading.

    Nevets, the denouement is something I've always puzzled over. Sometimes I can see the pleasure of it and sometimes it feels like wasted space. I like your idea of having the denouement serve as a second actual ending.

    Yat-Yee, I've been "writing myself into corners" more and more lately because I think it makes for a better story when I really have to think of how to get out of a problem. I think I get more creative scenes that way, and the end is no different. It's sort of scary, but it's worth it! Good luck with your own ending! It's tough for sure. I still fiddle with the ending of many of my stories.

  5. I haven't read Lahiri's latest book yet. Guess I'll have to bump it up on my to-be-read list.

    @Michelle. Monarch, at least the version I read, doesn't "just kind of end." It has a dramatic climax. I don't think it would make any sense to suddenly have a surprise in the last sentence.

    I have a couple of short stories in my anthology that have a "twist" or "O Henry" ending. In at least one of them, I took a whole paragraph to explain the twist and probably ruined it by too much exposition. (I'm still thinking about Domey's previous post).

    Right now, on the advice of a good beta reader ;) I'm reconsidering the ending of Tomorrow We Dance. It's a novelette, but especially challenging because it's an extract from my Dindi series. Therefore, I can't just change it arbitrarily -- it has to be true to the work it does in the big picture. I'm also trying really hard to walk the fine line between making my ending clear and satisfying, but also leaving it somewhat ambiguous and not over-explained.

    I think it's harder to mess around with the ending of a novel than of a short story. Life of Pi and Beasts of Eld have twists, but it isn't all contained in one line, it unfolds in the last chapter. This makes sense, it's just a matter of scale.

    The big headache with twists at the end of a long story -- another problem I have with my Dindi series -- is that you have to be careful you aren't just pissing the reader off by making your characters too stupid or tendentious to mention the surprise all through the previous scenes.

  6. I like your idea of reading different endings to jumpstart ideas, Yat-Yee.

  7. Tara, I just talked to Davin about this, and Nick as well, and I'm being completely paranoid because of recent events happening with Monarch. I'm getting cold feet. I'm going to leave the ending as it is because that's the best ending for the book that I wanted to write. I freak out sometimes!

  8. I hate stories that just end. I normally want to know more . . . so, with my endings, I do the whole denouement thing and give both my readers, and my characters, a sense of hope. No, I don't tie everything up in a neat little package. Life isn't like that, and I don't think books should be like that either.

    I also think, it all depends on the story you are telling. In most cases, I do a one chapter wrap-up that occurs a few months after the Climax part of the story. In other cases, there might be multiple chapters.

  9. Correction. I was referring to Scott's post yesterday.

  10. @ Michelle. I totally understand. Fingers crossed.

  11. Thanks, Tara! I'm sending you an email.

  12. @Domey - I actually have very mixed feelings about the denouement, as well. I believe it can serve a very useful purpose in structure and style, but I also I know that a lot of readers feel cheated without one.

    I think it's sort of like my Mom's reaction to letter-box formatting on videos. As much as I tell her that it actually helps get the more in the picture, the fact that she sees black bars on her screen feels to her as if something is being cut off or is missing. Endings can feel too abrupt for readers without some measure of denouement, and they can feel as if the book was cut short -- even if it wasn't.

    That so I try to give them their denouement and then kick them in the gut a little as their reward for sticking it through.

  13. For some stories, a denouement is a nice reward after a high-tension ending. I like to think of it as a chance for the reader to soak in the hot tub with the characters after a brisk swim.

  14. I like the way you put that, "surprised without feeling cheated." The ending should be reasonable with what the reader knows, but not the most obvious thing in the world. Otherwise, what's the point.

    Your post reminded me of a story I heard about Pirates of the Caribbean. (SPOILER-ish). Apparently, the writers weren't sure how to execute the ending, so they went back, looked at the beginning, and realized that since they'd given Will that sword throwing trick, they could use that. Thus, their ending.

  15. When I write novels, the ending is the first place I start. Then the beginning, then the middle. For some reason, having that ending in mind, makes the rest easier for me.

    But short stories are different. Usually its a beginning, but sometimes I have an action or emotion to explore, and write around it.

    So the end is less sure for shorts than novels.

    But I do like exploring different endings. I like the way you went about your's Domey. Very interesting.

    I'll have to come back and thoroughly read the discussion. Fascinating info; but I have to return to work.


  16. "How do you go about approaching your story endings?"

    With great fear and trepidation.

  17. Tara Maya, you make a lot of good points. The only thing I'd like to add is that maybe your shorter piece doesn't have to stay true to your longer piece after all. Maybe you could think of it as two separate things...if you wanted to. I guess what I'm saying is there's no outside force dictating this, right? It's just your own personal preference. (I mean all this in the general sense, not specifically for the story in question. I think that ends fine.)

    Scott, thanks for telling me about your preferences. I'm glad to hear it because that's what I figured the denouement did, but since I don't feel that way myself, I was never sure.

  18. Dominique, I love it when things like that happen. I try to look back often too see what sort of rules I have already set up for my story. I think it helps readers suspend their disbelief if you play by those rules.

    Donna, it's very interesting to think about how we handle different types of stories differently isn't it? That's fascinating to me. It's not just a matter of length. Somehow, they feel like different forms sometimes.

    Chuck, I think that's a wise approach.

  19. I also love an unexpected (yet inevitable) ending, especially in a short story. I'm glad you've been able to end Bread in a way that satisfies you. Congrats.


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