“When It’s Miller Time” ~ Dennis McFadden on Short Story Endings

As we come to the last questions of the series “Why The Short Story? A Conversation Among Writers,” we dig into the ideas and possibilities set forth by endings. Seems appropriate, doesn’t it? Dennis McFadden begins the end here with his answers to Gerard Woodward’s questions set forth a few days ago.

Gerard: What’s the best way to end a short story? Open endings? Closed endings? What does it mean to be open-ended? How do you avoid a reader feeling cheated or frustrated by what might feel like an inconclusive ending? How does it square with achieving a sense of completeness, of closure? Does it ever work to have a more conclusive ending to a story, or is that just old fashioned, and only suitable for genres like horror and romance? Perhaps most importantly, what are your favourite stories in terms of their endings?

Dennis: On a recent visit with our excellent friends in Massachusetts, we hadn’t been settled over tea and cookies for half an hour when Ronnie said, “Dennis, Jack and I really enjoyed your story,”—they’d read “Blue Side Up” in the fall issue of Crazyhorse—“but we have some questions.

“There were two fires,” she said, “—now, did he start both of them?”

“That’s what I said in my email,” Jack said. “There were some things I couldn’t figure out.”

A couple more questions followed, but they quickly petered out. I’m afraid I wasn’t much help. Unlike all of you academicians, teachers and full-time writers, I don’t feel particularly comfortable talking about my work, and I’m not particularly good at it. Looking back now, though, I suppose I could have offered a more illuminating response.

I could have told them that, yes, yes indeed, the protagonist— Aviation Cadet Robert L. Tinley 882624, Sir!—did start both fires, albeit accidentally, killing his girlfriend in the first, dispatching the lady from Russellville in the second, then, unhinged by the accumulating evil, murdered Steven McShea, his friend and fellow cadet. Or I could have told them he was a young, innocent victim of life’s circumstances who, traumatized by those two accidental fires, and suffering delusions of seeing his girlfriend in the clouds, committed suicide on a training run in his Stearman. Or I could have told them he was in fact a psychopath who set both fires intentionally, then went on to set several more, killing his base commander and an innocent duck in the process. Or for that matter, I could have pulled a James Dean Sanderson and told them the same thing he told me some fifty years ago when I asked about the ending to his novel, Boy With a Gun: Why don’t you write an ending that suits yourself? Maybe your English teacher will give you credit for it.

I personally have always liked the type of ending that leaves me pleasantly dissatisfied. So that’s the type I try to write. I don’t want to tell my readers everything that happened. I do want to tell them enough, however, so that they can figure out for themselves the part I didn’t tell them.

And if the part they figure out isn’t exactly what I had in mind? No harm, no foul. Because, you see, I know what really happened. We writers find the lure of omniscience nearly impossible to resist. It’s good to be God sometimes.

And God never lets you know everything that’s happening, now does He?

Life is pretty much a mystery. We can never really know everything that’s happening in our lives, or anything that will happen after them. And doesn’t realist, literary fiction attempt to be an honest reflection of life?

Whoa. Is that heavy or what?

As a writer of realist, literary fiction, I’ve used all types of endings. The first story I had accepted for publication, “Something in the Cellar,” depicts a marriage crumbling amid mounting animosity. Late in the story the couple goes to a dance where the man asks an acquaintance who happens to be a doctor about a mole on his back. The doctor warns him to have it looked at soon, or, judging by his description, it could quickly metastasize into something very fatal. The man assures the doctor he will, then, in the last paragraph, he’s tickling his wife’s back—their last, remote point of contact—where lives the mole that’s spreading there undetected. An ending with a twist.

Hayden’s Ferry Review published my story, “Reinventing Francie,” about a fugitive IRA man on the run in theU.S., reluctantly pressed back into action when a notorious informer is found to be living nearby. In the end, he confronts his intended victim with execution on his mind, but the informer turns out to be armed and dangerous. The final scene shows the former IRA man lying wounded on a wooded mountainside, possibly dying—an open ending. (Apparently not open enough for HFR, however; they insisted on ending the story at the beginning of the confrontation, an ending I thought would leave the reader unpleasantly dissatisfied.)

A story called “Helga’s Last Days,” to appear next spring in the minnesota review, might have been open-ended enough for HFR: A woman worries that her husband might have committed a murder for which his nephew has been convicted and sentenced to die. In the climax, the woman attacks her husband in the kitchen, and a bloody brawl ensues. The last sentence: “I figured if I could take him then there was no way he could have done that to Lucy Wilson, and I reached up and the frying pan found my hand, and I cracked him good, but the outcome was still in some doubt.”

In “Bye Baby Bunting,” the final story in my collection, Hart’s Grove, the protagonist, a rough roofer named Dave, goes searching for and finds, against all odds, a little boy lost in the woods, a miracle that begins to heal the rupture in his marriage caused by the loss of his own child a few years before. In the final scene he and his wife are going home together to make love for the first time in a long time. A closed, happy ending.

Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t make that ending an open one. The story would be cheated. Nor could I have the ex-IRA man shoot the informer, blow the smoke from the tip of his six-gun and ride off into the sunset, neat, complete, explicit and closed. Nor would “Something in the Cellar” allow for anything but that particular twist.

So what’s your point, McFadden?

The point is, I’ve written all different types of endings not just to see how many different types of endings I could write, but because the story being written dictated the ending that was right for it. The ending grows naturally out of the narrative that went before. After all, Ronnie and Jack weren’t really asking about just the ending, now were they? They were asking about the whole damn thing. That first fire—it was described midway through the story and took place years before the current storyline. Can an ending really be surgically removed, examined under the microscope, discarded and the story then fitted with a prosthetic replacement? Open endings, closed endings? Does the writer really have a choice? Not if he or she is listening closely to his or her story.

It seems to me there are only two types of endings to short stories: good endings and bad endings.

Gerard also asked about our favorite stories, in terms of endings (favourite actually, but who’s quibbling?), so I gave it some thought. You know what I came up with? Saunders’ “The Falls,” Hall’s “The Ledge,” etc.—stories I’d already mentioned as being my favorites, as well as my favourites, suggesting to me that if a story is good, the ending is too. You can’t have a good story without a good ending.

A well written story will tell you, the writer, when it’s Miller time. In fact, a good, well written story will not only tell you when it’s over, it will tell you how it’s over. The ending grows out of the story. It’s organic. I would say it’s preordained, but then I’d be getting into that God thing again.

The best way to end a short story? Quit writing when the story’s over.

*

Speaking of endings… I’d like to thank Patty for inviting and allowing me into the august company of this conversation. It’s been a pleasant diversion from the lovely drudgery of hammering on my fiction, and it’s also given me plenty to ponder as I go about trying, in my small, pitiful way, to turn words into something close to literary. It’s been fun, and it’s been a pleasure meeting and talking to—in a manner of speaking—Gina, Vanessa and Gerard. Thanks.

I should also mention, Patty, how impressed I am by your organizational skills, your timely postings, apt commentary, communications and coordination, in short, the exemplary way in which you’ve managed this entire project. In fact, if you’re ever considering a career change, have your people get in touch with my people. Maybe we can do lunch.

Aw, shucks, Dennis. Thanks for the kind words. And thanks, too, for finding the time to be part of this conversation among writers. And to those of you reading these posts, we know you must have a soft spot for the short story. Remember that it is still National Short Story Month, so go out there and support the story and its writer. Read one, share one, pick up a collection. Might I recommend Hart’s Grove by Dennis McFadden? And we’ll be hearing from our other writers on the subject of endings in the next days. Thanks for stopping by. Y’all come back now, hear? -PMc←

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