Sunday 17 March 2019

The End! by Tracy Darnton

Like many of us, I’ve been talking about writing as part of WBD school visits. One of the tips I gave to students entering the short story competition I’m judging, was not to neglect their ending. We hear so much about the importance of a killer first line, that elusive hook to grab attention. But what readers take away from the ending affects how they feel about the story as a whole. 

What do you like? Neatly-tied up resolution? Ambiguity? A warm glow? Shock? A twist? A perfect or imperfect cadence?

You probably don’t like feeling confused or short-changed that the story promised something it didn’t deliver, or that the story has petered out.

I’ve just re-read The Go-Between by L.P.Hartley which has one of the most famous opening lines of all: 
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

So far so good, but how I go away at the end of the process feeling about The Go-Between is more determined by how L.P.Hartley winds up his story. I’m busy; I’ve invested my time and effort into reading the devilishly small print of the whole book. Does it deliver for me in exploring memory, the boundaries of adulthood and class? Does it leave me still thinking about the characters and themes? Did the hint of some terrible life event in the prologue pay off? Was I satisfied?

A common tip on a short story is to cover the last paragraph or two and see if the story is improved. Finishing a novel is inevitably more complex. Where to end it? If you’re finishing on a big action moment, it’s tough to tie everything up without it seeming contrived and interrupting the pace and tone of a big reveal. A time jump, or epilogue, may provide that resolution - One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus or Sunflowers in February by Phyllida Shrimpton are good examples.

Epilogues certainly seem to be enjoying a revival though I confess sometimes I’d rather leave the characters exactly where we left them and not know what came to pass. Another balancing act for the author to navigate – and something I had mixed feelings about in The Go-Between. (Spoiler alert – did I really want to see Marion as an old lady and know the fate of every character?)

And if you can tie up your story beautifully, and have a killer last line too, then you really have nailed it. The Great Gatsby provides a masterclass in both concluding with

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Consider books you’ve read recently. Did they end at the right place? Did they have a killer last line?

Or did they just fi

The End

Tracy Darnton is the author of The Truth About Lies, shortlisted for The Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2019. She has an MA in Writing for Young People. You can follow her on Twitter @TracyDarnton


Sue Bursztynski said...

As a reader of science fiction/fantasy slush, I can tell you that I’ve rejected quite a number of stories that started well but had disappointing endings.

Claire Fayers said...

One of the children on a school visit asked me how to end a story. It's an interesting question. I said the story starts with a problem and ends when the problem is solved, but of course it's far more complicated than that.