Monday, December 7, 2009

When in Doubt, Time Travel

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about endings. No, not of the Roland Emmerich “Oh my God, the Mayans were right, save us, John Cusack, save us!” variety, but more in terms of our craft as writers. What can I say? Endings are tough. Especially when it comes to short fiction, a form that should, as Kurt Vonnegut once noted, start as close to the end as possible. And since simply inserting the phrase “The End” no longer provides the same amount of closure it once did in the second grade, I find myself—as a writer—all-too-often fearing, well, the end.

Of course, everyone has their theory on how to successfully construct an ending. And while I’ve been in enough fiction workshops to realize that everyone’s an expert, I recall one in particular in which our instructor—a brilliant writer herself known for her ability to slap the norms of short fiction in the face with a leather glove—informed us, on the first day of class, of the four short story endings that were hereby forbidden from use, not only for that semester, but the rest of our humble writing lives, Amen.

So. While I won’t attempt to formulate the perfect ending to that story you’ve been working on about the time you spent an entire summer carving babies out of blocks of cheese while the rest of the kids at camp actually got to second and third base, I can provide, in no particular order, four endings you can sure as hell rule out:

Forbidden Ending #4: And They Were All Cows

Fooling us readers into believing we’ve been following a group of lost souls as they wander the lonely country side in search of love, hope, hatred, pain—some form of human connection—only to reveal on the very last page that they were all, in fact, cows looking for nothing more than some grass to chew is just not cool. Unless your Donald Barthelme—then you get a pass.

Forbidden Ending #3: The Big Explosion

There’s a pretty phrase in Latin that alludes to the moment that the writer has clearly hit a wall in plot, and so he must bring in an all-too-convenient—not to mention often loud, messy, and completely random—occurrence to go BOOM!, shake things up a bit, and provide his protagonists (not to mention readers) with some kind of consolation . And while the phrase eludes me each time, there is an unofficial American translation for this phenomenon: The Stephen King. (Don’t get me wrong—I’m a fan of Mr. King, but c’mon, he says it himself when providing background to one of his earliest novels.) So unless you’re sitting on The Return of Cujo--or better yet, It 2: That--just don’t do it.

Forbidden Ending #2: Hospital Bed Death Scene

Or any variation thereof. It’s weepy, melodramatic and, well, easy. But let me clarify: some brilliant stories have been—and will continue to be—written about death (read Sherman Alexie’s short story, War Dances, now). The difference, however, between the good and the bad, is that the good will never use death as a way to neatly wrap up any and all prevalent themes; but instead, as a way to crack open the much more complex behavior of the still-living. In other words, if you must kill off grandma, do it with that big explosion. We’ll forgive you this one time.

Forbidden Ending #1: And it Was All a Dream

Maybe we’ve all used the dream sequence before in our writing—that one colorful scene where we get to throw from the window all that pesky logic that’s been holding back our story from the beginning. And while dream sequences are fun in that anything goes (not to mention it’s a sure-fire way to bring any lurking psychosis to the surface) the problem is, when the story itself can be dismissed as a mere night of tossing and turning, well, then us readers are going to want to throw something else out the window as well. And that’s completely logical.

So there you have it. But it doesn't all have to be bad. There are, of course, those techniques that certain writers have been bold enough to actually encourage. I’m thinking of another instructor—this one at Iowa—who was very clear about what to do should you find yourself at that moment when the story is calling for an ending, but you have no idea where to, uh, begin. His advice? Flashback. Go back in time. Return your character to a moment in childhood, a simpler time, a first date, a first fall, a first kiss, a first heartbreak, a first anything—just return, I say, return!

Since hearing this, I’ve actually come to notice the countless number of famous stories that utilize this method, which makes me wonder: will the flashback ever grace a forbidden endings list in a creative writing workshop far, far away? Maybe. But until then, I have yet to spot a chink in the armor (I blame Tobias Wolff for making it look so easy) and so in honor of the literary time travelers before me—and because I now sit at the very moment in question—I offer you this:

When I was five or six years old, my dad read me a bed time story and I remember complaining about the ending, to which he said it wasn’t the ending—not really—but merely the moment the writer got tired of telling the story. So if I didn’t like it, he said, I should feel free to find a better one. He turned off the light and I lay there, imagining the Berenstain Bears sitting around a table, not doing much of anything, not even talking, just staring at one another—Mama, Papa, Brother, and Sister—waiting I guess, waiting for me, and I realized then that endings were easier said than done. But if I closed my eyes, maybe I’d dream up a real good one.

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