Day 5: Endings, Beginnings and Editing
From Tania Hershman
A short story, even a very very short story, can take months or years to finish. But a first draft in five days, or even in a few hours, is perfectly possible. It’s a very rare event that a story emerges in its almost finished form on the first go – most of the time I find I have to write my way into the story, following it until I find out what the story actually is. Only once you’ve finished the first draft can you hold the whole story in your head and then see what changes you might need to make it the story you really want to tell.
Now, what about endings? They are one of the trickiest parts of a short story. There is one school of thought that a short story ending is a bit like a joke, in that it is both surprising and inevitable. And this is where we bring in the idea of a potential reader. If the ending is a complete surprise, if there’s no way the reader could have seen that coming, they might feel that they’ve missed something or that they read “wrongly”. Conversely, if the ending is inevitable, if it’s exactly what the reader imagined would happen, then they might wonder why they bothered reading in the first place.
Getting that fine balance of the two is difficult. For me, it’s a physical feeling: when I read the story out loud to myself (a great tip, by the way, I read everything aloud to myself while I’m writing). If I get a bodily sensation when I read the end, I know that this is the ending I want. This instinct comes with time, when you’ve written – and ended – a number of short stories. When you are starting out, it’s fun to experiment with various kinds of endings! Note which ones work for you, and take a close look at their endings, thinking about why they affected you. There is no one right way and no formula across all stories.
If you’ve read some of the stories I’ve offered you over the past few days, take a second look at their endings. What do the endings do to you? How do they do it? We very often want to tie things up neatly, a happily-ever-after sort of thing, no loose ends dangling. But then there is nothing for a reader to ponder, nothing is left lingering if everything is sealed. Allow them that pleasure, which might mean cutting the last line, paragraph, or even page. It’s hard to do, I know this well, but try it with your own story and see how you feel.
Endings are intimately tied into beginnings. For me, the greatest stories have some resonance with the beginning, sometimes very subtly, whether I can see a very short story’s beginning out of the corner of my eye, or it came 10 pages earlier. There are many, many places to start your story – where your first draft started isn’t where the finished story might start. In fact, nothing in your first, tenth, orhundredth – draft is set in stone; everything is up for grabs and can be changed. You might decide to tell it from the point of view of another character, in the present tense instead of the past or the third person instead of the first. You might try all of these things and then come back to the way you wrote it in the first place. Editing is far easier if you have left your story to sit in a drawer for a few weeks, ideally even longer, so you can come back to it with fresh eyes and see what you think of it.
Once you have your draft down, you’ve seen where you’ll begin. This might involve you deleting the early paragraphs which helped you write your way into the story. You can look at whether you’re trying to tell your reader everything you think they need to know, or whether you’re leaving delicious gaps for them to step into and become involved in the story. How large the gaps will be is up to you. You may want to be very minimalist and barely tell a reader anything, verging on confusing them, or just leave some things to their imagination. Remember: the short story reader is clever and they expect to do some work, so you’d be giving them a gift.
Your final task, what I will leave you with, is simple: keep writing, keep following the story. I can’t say to you: write the end today, as you may not have gotten to the middle yet; you might have to do some more writing or some more creative waiting. Your story may need to be five pages long, or 25. Perhaps it will end up being less than one page, but you need to write ten times as much in order to find out.
If you decide that you want to try and end your story today, set a time and write without stopping or thinking for half an hour, keeping an eye out for anywhere you might be widening the story instead of moving towards an end point. Don’t plant seeds that open your story up; think about landing the plane instead of going higher.
It’s been fun sharing this week with you, I hope seeds of stories have been planted that will grow, and I look forward to seeing what emerges!