the writer’s job is to write about questions … not, however, to answer them

And then comes the final line: “I closed my eyes and pondered my next move.” My students often complain that this ending seems abrupt, unfinished. In the anthology we use, it comes at the very bottom of the page, and students often admit to having flipped to the next page, expecting the story to continue. Usually I avoid telling them that it does continue in the collection of linked stories, because doing so allows students to dismiss the ending as a concession to the larger narrative or as something other than an ending. Instead, I direct them to the letter by Chekhov in which he famously instructs A.S. Suvorin, “You are right in demanding that an artist approach his work consciously, but you are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct formulation of a problem. Only the second is required of the artist.” In other words, the writer’s job is, first, to write about questions complex enough that they avoid simplistic answers or easy moralizing and, second, to demonstrate such questions with precision and accuracy. The writer’s job is not, however, to answer them. Answers are not only reductive, they’re also political, prescriptive, moralistic, and this undermines the efforts of such realists to be “visible nowhere.”

J.T. Bushnell

I’ve written before about my difficulty with endings (and how this is likely a key reason why I have several three-quarters-finished novels). Lately, I’ve noticed that often even when I think a book is very good, I find the ending disappointing compared to the rest of the book, so I’m starting to think that perhaps ending-angst is not uncommon amongst writers.

Before I go on, I’m going to pause and quote myself. I was going to excerpt, but wth, here’s the whole thing:

Thought the 1st: If it’s not a mystery, the reader figuring out the ending before the end isn’t that important. It’s more about how you get there.

Thought the 2nd: I have a similar problem (I think) with novels wherein I cycle through various ideas for endings, but can never settle on one b/c each choice feels too arbitrary. (am I forcing it? is this the ‘right’ ending?) Whereas with short stories, I tend not to worry as much about the structure, and just write till the story feels done, then fix any issues in subsequent drafts. IOW, w/ short stories I don’t plan out the ending, I write to it. (I also finish stories, novels not so much Wink hmm. …aha moment…)

Thought the 3rd: If you’re bored with writing it, maybe it really is boring? That is, maybe everything is too figured out. Maybe you need more mystery, more uncertainty about where things are going to keep you interested–and maybe that’ll also make for a more interesting story in the end? Maybe think less about where you’re going than where you are in the story right now.

Thought the 4th: Maybe the ending doesn’t need to be ‘satisfying’ (all loose ends tied up, everything made clear). I’ve been thinking about the season finale of The Killing. On the surface, the show was a season-long police procedural. So, when the season ended without the killer being unambiguously identified, viewers were all up in arms about how they’d been ripped off, blah blah blah. So you might say, oh, the ending was failure. Except… everyone who watched was talking about it–precisely because the ending was ambiguous.

The first time I read The Grapes of Wrath, I hated the ending. That’s not an ending, I said. The book just stops! I did feel ripped off. But now, I see how wrong I was. Even though it’s been a long time since I’ve read it, and in the interim I’ve read many books whose endings I’ve forgotten, I remember that ending.

Thought the 5th: Maybe this would be a good topic for an article!

Well, that was two years ago and I still haven’t written an article on endings, but I think I’m getting closer. Anyway.

I like this approach to endings—end with a possibility, a fork in the road, a decision to be made, rather than ending with the decision because it eliminates the arbitrariness of picking choice A, B, or C  (which, ugh). It’s not up to the writer to decide. It’s up to the reader.

If the author decides, then that choice becomes the de facto ‘right’ choice. There’s nothing for readers to think about, to discuss, at the story level. Any ‘discussion’ is therefore focused on the author and their choice (UPOP if readers agree with the decision the author made, flamewars if they disagree).

If the reader decides, it allows different readers to make different choices. There is no one ‘right’ choice. Discussion is necessarily focused on the story, rather than the author. There is no one right answer, only stronger or weaker arguments.

Also, now I want to re-read The Joy Luck Club.