Right Of Refusal

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway described his decision early in his writing career to end stories before the end. Which is to say (I believe), the story would stop before the point where a story traditionally—at least before the full advent of Modernism—was expected to end. Anyone who has ever sat through the last ten minutes of a movie that has been subjected to too much market research can certainly sympathize with Papa. Some stories keep ending and ending and ending: the guy get’s the girl—end.  No.  Cut to them marrying!  End. No. Cut to them having children, children growing, grandchildren—and death. End.

This is only a mild exaggeration. Storytellers are faced with the existential truth that nothing ever actually ends, it always flows ineluctably into the next thing. What’s more, one person’s end is another person’s beginning or middle. The end of the story of a pitcher who finally throws a perfect game could be the beginning of the story of a boy who spends his childhood wondering if there is really such a thing as perfection.

As in all parts of writing, what is not said is often as important as what is said, and this is certainly true of endings. Hemmingway was right, I think, not just because one would avoid serial endings, but because it allows your audience to fill in the meaning of the story. The conclusions your readers reach on their own are always going to be far more powerful than those you reach for them.

I know it is easy to lose faith in your readers at the end of your story. What if they don’t get it? Wouldn’t one more example drive it home? Usually not. An ending is actually an invitation to you readers to open a door. Hopefully, the story led to that door, but whether they choose to open it or not is up to them. You can beg them to open it by offering more and more evidence for why opening it would be a good idea, but the harder you try, the more likely they will not. Everyone is stubborn in this way. We are always more likely to take what we have been allowed to refuse.

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