The ending of a story is always a tough time for me, both as a writer and as a reader – it’s the ending of a story that either elevates or destroys the piece as a whole. Often while reading a story for the first time, I get anxious: please don’t screw up the ending. Please, please, please. I become personally invested in the success or failure of the story, and I’ll be honest – I’m a little hurt when the ending underwhelms, or hits the wrong note, or doesn’t leave me dazed and thinking and wanting to read the thing again.
I’m almost certain I have yet to close one of my own stories with an ending that meets my own high standards of “please don’t screw up the ending.” So, as a companion post to “Five Short Stories that Open with a Bang,” below are some great short story endings, in no particular order, and some thoughts on how or why they click. Do I need to mention there are likely to be spoilers afoot?
1. “End of the Line,” Aimee Bender
“It was not up to them to take care of all the world, whispered the mother to the daughter, whose yellow dress was unmatched, whose hand thrummed with sweat, who watched the giant outside put her hat on his enormous head and could not understand the size of the pity that kept unbuckling in her heart.”
This story was referred to me specifically in a conversation about endings and how hard endings are to write (shout out to fellow Puerto editor Sessily Watt on this one!). This ending in particular has great verbs that I love. But more than that, this ending makes the odd move of suddenly introducing new, un-named characters, the mother and daughter, who enter the story only here in the final page, to reveal a mystery. I’m a fan of Flannery O’Connor’s thoughts on fiction as vehicles for mystery, for asking a question of the world. This ending, beyond the “mystery” of the girl’s feelings, is the mystery of how compassion and pity can still be offered to the “giant,” a man who is lonely, yes, but also despicably cruel.
2. “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” Flannery O’Connor
“‘Help, help!’ he shouted, but his voice was thin, scarcely a thread of sound. The light drifted farther away the faster he ran and his feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere. The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.”
Since I’ve already mentioned Flannery O’Connor, it seemed fitting to include her in my list of endings. This is the ending I always remember from her work because it creates this wonderful, telescoping image of the world drawing away for Julian, postponing the moment when Julian must inhabit his new life, doomed to feel the guilt of his mother’s death. This story leaves the character, and the reader, with the terrible knowledge that change is imminent and final.
3. “Bullet in the Brain,” Tobias Wolff
“The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.”
Similar to the Flannery O’Connor ending (I’m apparently determined to use her name as much as possible in this post), this is an ending that telescopes in time, lingering on a series of gorgeous, though vastly different images, from a comet to a grassy baseball field. The whole last half or so of the story is also telescoped in time as it follows the trajectory of a bullet through Anders’ brain, along the way revealing why he is the way he is and totally reworking the readers’ view of the character. The closing repetition, which is itself a phrase from earlier in the story, leaves the piece with the sense of an echo, creating the humming silence just after a voice stops speaking in an empty room. The whole effect creates a lovely note of finality and that elusive sense of “satisfaction” for the reader at the end of the piece.
4. “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” Karen Russell
“My mother recoiled from me, as if I was a stranger. TRRR? She sniffed me for a long moment. Then she sank her teeth into my ankle, looking proud and sad. After all the tail wagging and perfunctory barking had died down, the parents sat back on their hind legs. They stared up at me expectantly, panting in the cool gray envelope of the cave, waiting for a display of what I had learned. ‘So’ I said, telling my first human lie. ‘I’m home.’”
This ending feels a little different from my other selected endings in that it closes with dialogue, rather than a strong image (though I do appreciate the clear rendering of the were-wolf family “in the cool gray envelop of the cave,” making the were-wolves friendly and dog-like and the cave a pleasant, isolated space). The dialogue, however, is both complicated and complicating to the story – this isn’t the first lie the narrator has told, though it is perhaps the first she feels she has told as fully “human.” While the story feels like it could end a page earlier, the wait for this passage is worth it.
5. “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin
“Then it was over. Creole and Sonny let out their breath, both soaking wet, and grinning. There was a lot of applause and some of it was real. In the dark, the girl came by and I asked her to take drinks to the bandstand. There was a long pause, while they talked up there in the indigo light and after awhile I saw the girl put a Scotch and milk on top of the piano for Sonny. He didn’t seem to notice it, but just before they started playing again, he sipped from it and looked toward me, and nodded. Then he put it back on top of the piano. For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling.”
So, I know that this is probably a go-to story for the creative writing student, but I still want to talk about it. The closing image here really sells the ending. The image is gorgeous, with the indigo light coming through the swirling Scotch and milk on the piano-top, but if it was just a beautiful image the ending would not be as powerful. The glass also functions as a symbol that indicates that, although the sent drink and nod reflect a new connection and understanding between two brothers, the presence of this “cup of trembling” reminds us of the imminent threat of disaster and judgment in Sonny’s life and gives the story and characters momentum into an unknown future. This is a tough effect to pull off, and I love the way Baldwin handles it here. Let’s see, now how to incorporate Flannery O’Connor somehow…
So, having looked at all of these, it seems endings that appeal to me have beautifully rendered, resonant images or effects that somehow reflect the content or change within the story itself. What other endings, or styles of endings, do you think should have made this list? (And if you haven’t yet, check out my companion post of short stories that start with a bang. BANG!)