Deb: That Pot of Gold – What to Do about Endings

“Great is the art of beginning, but greater
is the art of ending.”  Longfellow

Whoever came up with that bit about the pot of gold at the
end of a rainbow was a writer. I know this for certain because I’ve searched
certain craft books only to find that their advice about endings is, and I
quote, “Good luck.”

It’s true that nailing the end of a narrative arc feels as
tricky as finding the end of a rainbow. It’s one of those parts of writing that’s
simultaneously easy to over-think and prone to dismissal. Let’s deal with this
last part first. Allow me to get in your face for a moment and say that to excuse
yourself from the problem of endings by pointing to stories that seem to have
none is nothing more than a cop-out.

Let me offer as Exhibit A two hundred (give or take)
students at Sand Lake Elementary. As part of a recent program there, I offered
a sneak preview of my forthcoming Black Wolf of the Glacier (2013). I decided
to read only as far as the artist had illustrated, which happened to be this: The
girl in the red coat searched the woods. 
Her dog sniffed the trails.  He
whined and barked for his friend.  But
there was no answer.

Whining? Try howling outrage. They all demanded to know how
it ended. No, this isn’t just because they are children. Any story worth
reading has a well-crafted ending. It may not be the perfect ending. You may
not like it. But a good story doesn’t just stop.

In a talk given at the 2011 Squaw Valley Writers Workshop,
National Book Award nominee Diane Johnson notes the dread that develops as you
read a good book, the fear that the writer’s going to somehow muck up the
ending. All we want, Johnson says, are endings that are clever and surprising
but also in line with what came before, endings that are neither gratuitously
happy nor gratuitously unhappy, endings that offer both climax and resolution.
Is that so much to ask?

In a word, yes. Endings are hard. Between us and our
endings, Johnson says, come haste, fatigue, literary fashion, personal blocks,
and denials. Even in a fresh book, she says, endings will fit into patterns we

  • Closure:
    This includes marriage, death, going home, or facing future more
    wisely.  Johnson warns not to sell
    out to cheap tears or easy laughs. Death can be poetic justice or
    indifferent; marriage a symbol of felicity. The traditional resolution of
    comedy, she notes, is the “triumph of hope over reason.”  Sometimes the hero is sadder but wiser.
  • The
    “serves them right” ending: These are characteristic of our time, Johnson
    says, and include ironic inversions operating in the realm of poetic
  • Order
    is fractured or restored: This may of course include aspects of justice
    and/or closure. A force of nature may be at work here, engulfing or
    saving, but Johnson warns it can’t just take everyone out, no matter how
    much the weary writer may wish it were so.
Of course, conventions are meant to be ignored, and an unexpected
ending is great as long as it works, which usually means there’s a set up. The
ending starts at the beginning; in a good story, the tracks are laid, as DavidVann says, in the first paragraph, but that doesn’t mean that we must write in
such a linear way. My first novel began as an ending. I thought it was a short
story until someone pointed out that if I told what led up to it, I’d have a

Sometimes writers are so concerned about endings that they
won’t begin a project unless they can see their way clear to the end, in a
formal outline or at least a fuzzy vision. Katherine Anne Porter, for one, said
she wouldn’t begin a story until she knew the ending, and she always wrote the
last page first. This sounds beautifully efficient, but it’s also possible that
by committing to an ending before you begin, you pigeonhole the most
interesting stuff that would otherwise rise up out of the subconscious. Other writers
are more or less content to flail around until an ending rises up out of the
narrative. This is not at all efficient, but sometimes the best route to truth
is roundabout.

Every story or essay or poem has a great ending. The problem
is finding it. Sometimes we’re just trying too hard. I was blown away in a
recent workshop by how easily people who don’t write every day could in response
to a prompt craft a full narrative arc, complete with ending, in fifteen
minutes, while I was still loading my narrative guns. This has a lot to do with
the pressing and urgent need to write, to spill ourselves on the page, a desire
that people who write every day may have to fight to reclaim. Plus a little
success yields lots of second-guessing. The uninitiated sometimes enjoy better
access to their intuition, a direct connection to that elusive pot of gold.

Check This Out: I admire short story writers – they manage
to write so many endings. The queen in my opinion is Alice Munro. For the
uninitiated, start with The Beggar Maid.
Not every ending’s perfect, but a lot of them are.

Try This: Start with the ending. Like Katherine Anne Porter,
write a scene that will serve as an ending and then write the story toward it.
If you don’t have a scene, you may use (free of charge) this little incident
that happened to me last week: My dog and I are walking the bike path along
, minding our business. (I carry in fact in
my pocket a Doggy Business Bag, $6.99 for 40, fully biodegradable in 45 days.)
A skinny guy approaches, gray hoody up, eyes down. Convinced I’m ill-equipped
for most threats, my dog lunges to investigate. I reel her in and look up and
we have to stop because a police cruiser, lights flashing, has pulled up on the
bike path a few yards in front of us. The officer’s already out. He exchanges a
few words I can’t hear with the guy in the hoodie and then says, “That’s funny,
because you match the exact description.”

I’ve given you a little about four characters here (we of
course count the dog) and the setting, but for this exercise, you may change
any of that as long as you make the last line your ending: “That’s funny,
because you match the exact description.” (But if you find a better story along
the way, with a better ending, run with it.)
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