World Without End

I wrote yesterday about the trouble with middles. Equally troubling, I believe, are endings. In fact, as I have written many times in this space, I believe ends are the difference between a good story and a great story. To me, the ending is why the story was written, a promise fulfilled that the reader will be left in a better place than where he or she started, whether that ending is comic, romantic, or tragic. There is no such thing as a formula for a good ending, but the one piece of advice I have read on the matter came from one of the best story-enders I've read: Ernest Hemingway. To me, what separated Hemingway was as much his endings as his “style,” from stories like “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” to the novels, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and The Old Man and the Sea. In A Movable Feast, Hemingway wrote that in Paris he “discovered” the technique of “ending a story before the ending.”

I like this. For one thing, you avoid the horrible, tedious trap of the story that won’t end, a symptom of the writer not being certain the reader yet understands what he was trying to say or worrying that he has not yet left his reader in the best place possible. So it’s economical. But more than that, it actually puts the ending in the imagination of the reader, which is where I think it belongs.

Life doesn’t actually end, after all. Someone may die, but someone else is always born; after the wedding, there is a marriage and maybe children and then maybe a divorce. Endings don’t actually exist. But our stories must end, and the question for the author is how quickly can I get out and leave the reader with the feeling of what has been learned, and what is to come.

That feeling is the gift. Because as your reader finishes the story in her imagination, feeling the message you haven’t spoken but have inferred, the character's change becomes hers. Now you have done more than merely tell a story; you have ignited the spark of potential within a stranger by appealing to the power of her own imagination.

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