“Why the Short Story? ~ A Conversation Among Writers” is near its end, and as we face the final curtain (apologies, Frank) Gerard Woodward answers his own questions about endings:
Gerard: Perhaps it would be appropriate for an entry about endings to begin with one. In conclusion I would say this—there should be no hard and fast rules for how we end stories; as I hope I have demonstrated in this article, closed endings can work just as effectively as open endings, even in what we call literary fiction. What is important is a sense of completeness within the flow of things—the sense that a story is fully resolved and concluded while at the same time existing in a universe where things go on happening.
There is a story I love that has a closed ending—though love is not quite the right word for a story on such a horrible theme—by the British novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Taylor. It is called “The Fly Paper,” and I’m going to summarise it now, (I’m afraid an unavoidable problem in writing about endings is giving them away). The story concerns an 11-year-old girl called Sylvia, who is on her way to a music lesson when she gets pestered by a creepy guy. She is rescued by a kindly older lady who sees off the creepy guy, and then invites the girl to her cottage for tea, to let her recover from her ordeal. After a reassuring chat over tea and biscuits, the girl is horrified when a visitor arrives, and it is the creepy guy, who greets the elderly lady as a friend. The whole thing was a set up and the two older people have lured the girl into a trap, and there the story ends. This story is uncharacteristic of Taylor, and was written as a deliberate shocker. It is horribly prescient, written just a few years before the Moors Murderers put child abduction (and the role of a motherly figure as a lure) into the public consciousness. The whole story is beset by a bleakness of vision and a torpid provincial entropy—everything from the scruffy peripheral landscape that is seen from the bus, to the fact that Sylvia herself is recently orphaned, and has discovered herself to have an unappealing personality—“She did not go into many houses, for she was seldom invited anywhere. She was a dull girl, whom nobody liked very much, and she knew it.” The cleverness of this portrayal of Sylvia is very characteristic of Taylor—she makes her protagonist a little unendearing, so that her terrible fate is slightly more bearable, and even darkly comic. Had Sylvia been sweet, innocent, pretty and happy the story would have taken on a tediously moralistic good-versus-evil dimension, and would have been both too painful and too boring to read. Instead we have a marginal world where good and evil seep into each other, where misery and joy are different shades of the same colour, and the world is too tired to even notice that a child is entering hell.
In some ways this story might seem open ended, for we do not actually know what will happen to Sylvia. It is not described. The final sentence has the three of them sitting down to tea, “she noticed for the first time that there were three cups and saucers laid there.” But of course, the lengths of subterfuge and careful planning that have gone into the abduction of Sylvia can only indicate that her fate is to be a terrible one. Part of the horror of the story is that the reader is forced to imagine what that might be—without that brief bit of imagining on the part of the reader, the story has no power at all. So in fact the openness of the ending is very limited. It is only the nature of the suffering that is left open, the fact of her suffering is absolutely certain.
The closure of the story is dependant on an inversion, what is sometimes called a ‘twist’, so characteristic of suspense genres like the classic detective stories of, say G.K.Chesterton’s Father Brown, or the novels of Agatha Christie. Like those stories, the twist in “The Fly Paper” is like one of those etchings by M.C.Escher, when a lattice of sailing ships suddenly becomes a lattice of fish—the background becomes the foreground and vice versa. In “The Fly Paper” the moral certainties of the world are completely inverted—little old ladies transform from safe moral guardians into their antithesis, tea becomes poison. This moral inversion is compressed into a single phrase in the story—after witnessing the entrance of the man into the cottage “Sylvia spun round questioningly to the woman…” In fact it is just that verb that does it, precisely chosen, as always with Taylor, it conveys powerful, urgent movement in space as well as the sense of a moral universe turning itself on its head. The story is very tightly, firmly closed at this point, but with just the right amount of pressure to keep the narrative flowing beyond the time of the story.
But it is perhaps indicative of the power of the open ending that the closed ending is so rare in literary fiction—unless the intent is to turn the world of the story upside down. This is very different from the ‘reveal’ of detective fiction, where the closed ending is akin to a set of answers to a puzzle that you have been trying to solve as you progressed through the story. The ending of “The Fly Paper” isn’t a reveal, because there were no puzzles in the earlier part of the story, no mysteries that needed solutions. At the same time there is a sense of satisfaction when a story ends like this that should have its equivalent in any story, and not just ones that set out to shock and horrify.
The danger of the open-ended story is that the reader experiences a sense of disappointment. In reading a narrative, the desire for a sense of completeness is very strong, and if this desire is unfulfilled the story has failed in a very significant way. You could go so far as to say the reader has been cheated, or even betrayed. This holds true for novels just as much as short stories, and in fact for any narrative form. However, leaving an ending open is very different from leaving it incomplete. Raymond Carver is a master of the open ended but satisfactorily complete short story. The endings are so open that, bizarrely, they can be hard to spot. When I use these stories in teaching, some students have difficulty in ‘getting’ their endings. Take the story “Boxes” for example. This is a deceptively simple story about a man and his partner helping his elderly mother move house. The story reveals many layers of complexity in the triangular relationship between man, partner and mother, but nothing extraordinary happens. A domestic chore is completed, the mother’s move is successful, as confirmed when the mother calls the narrator a couple of days after the move. And that is the end of the story, except for one thing. When the narrator puts the phone down, he is distracted for a moment by a little scene that is taking place across the street. A porch light has gone on and shown a couple in a ‘welcome home’ embrace. And the story ends like this – “What’s there to tell? The people over there embrace for a minute and then they go inside the house together. They leave the light burning. Then they remember, and it goes out.”
Some of my students miss this ending, they misjudge its weight and don’t feel its impact. Of course, for it to work properly you have to experience it as the closing paragraph to what has gone before. It is cleverly downplayed (What’s there to tell?), and draws little attention to itself. But if the story is read with enough engagement the scene comes to life in those few words as a tableau of human frailty and love which binds together all the images of fractured and difficult relationships that have gone before (like the memorable image in the middle of the story, of a workman hanging precariously from the top of a telephone pole). And what could be more final than a light going off? And it is quite characteristic of Carver that the moments of significance are found outside the narrative itself, in the incidental epiphanies that are glimpsed far away from the action. Another good example is “Intimacy,” which ends with a vision of dead leaves. In this and so many other stories of Carver’s, you might wonder at first why it ends the way it does, before realising that it couldn’t possibly end any other way. And whether endings are open or closed or a bit of both, that is the effect one should strive for in writing them. Which is more or less where I came in.
This has been fun. Thanks to my fellow contributors—Dennis, Gina, Vanessa and of course Patty for putting it all together.
→Thanks to you, Gerard, for your insight and questions. Chicago just ain’t the same without you here, by the way. Coming soon, Vanessa Gebbie shares her thoughts on the ever elusive art of endings. Thanks for reading. -PMc←