I’m Steve Adams, a writer, writing coach, and a freelance editor who’s studied a wide range of artistic forms before landing, quite late, on prose. As I’ve always been fascinated by the artistic process, I decided to start working my ideas out on the page, using a quote from a writer or other kind of artist as a prompt. I hope my column, “About Your Writing,” is useful to you.
“The reason you can’t have an accident at the end of a story is it doesn’t look accidental; it looks as if the author put it there. I don’t know why this is, but if you put an accident at the beginning of a story it looks, sure, like an accident—this accident happened. But if you put an accident at the end of a story it looks absolutely authorial-intentional.”
To break down what Baxter is saying here… Of course, all endings, beginnings, and middles are “absolutely authorial-intentional,” in that the author decided to put it on the page exactly like that. In fact, every word in a book is, or at least should be. But what he means is, endings look and feel “intended” as far as the reader’s relationship to the story and what they take away or experience from it, where openings often don’t.
To put it another way, a reader will buy any opening, whether it’s a beagle who starts singing in German at sunrise, or Martians who land in Oklahoma to steal all the state’s milk cows, or an elderly wife poisoning her much younger husband. Before this authorial move is made, the world is wide open, and this event, what some would call “the initiating event,” sets the story on its course. From that act alone the possibilities have narrowed exponentially, even if the writer knows nothing else about the story. In that case the writer could start asking questions as to where the story might travel over this newly circumscribed landscape: Who is the elderly wife and why is she poisoning her husband? How did she come to marry a younger man? What might that have to do with her trying to murder him?
We’ve moved past that wide open nature of beginnings and committed ourselves to a direction. If we follow this line there will be no singing dogs or Martians; everything will be related to the woman and her husband. But within that relatively narrow range, another universe opens up, and we can ask more questions. Is she attempting to kill him because he was cheating on her? Do we find out at the end it’s a type of mercy killing? Maybe she’s discovered he’s a serial killer, or is out to kill her and she’s beating him to the punch. Or maybe she’s taken on another lover.
Again, within the opening of the first move there’s another world of possible lines to follow. Though early on it’s usually ideal to have at least a sense of where your story’s ending lands, especially in long form, not everyone works this way. One can just head out and write your story as a process to discover your ending. Though such stories often wander off into the woods never to be seen again, they don’t always. And this can be an effective way to brainstorm in short stories because the time commitment is so much less.
But back to Baxter, when the story you’re reading feels like it’s run into a brick wall or fallen off a cliff, it’s rarely the opening that feels at fault; it’s the ending. Because with stories the ending is the cue, the spotlight that flashes on and illuminates the length of the story, finalizing and clarifying the context and content. And if it fails, everything that comes before it fails. Few things are more satisfying than the ending to a solid thriller where we go aha! as everything comes together surprisingly, yet perfectly, or the love story that gives you the ending you wanted but didn’t know you wanted, or perhaps in a way you didn’t know you wanted. And honestly few things frustrate me more than many modern literary novels that start off gangbusters but fade or drift at the end.
For this exact reason, readers need that landing in order to know what to make of the story. They’re waiting for it. Unlike a beginning, which can be anything, we want an ending that can only be one singular thing. When done perfectly, the story will feel like it could have ended no other way.
Alright, that’s an awful lot of pressure to put on a poor writer who’s just trying to keep moving through the first act of their novel. My God, I should already have the perfect ending too?
In a word, no. Again, everyone does this differently. Michael Ondaatje is known for writing immense “discovery drafts” of novels where he excavates everything as he goes along. But it’s hard to recommend that for the average writer. Novels take long enough to write as-is. So, to repeat myself, unless you’re writing short form where you can afford to follow a thread for twelve pages to see where it might end up, I usually recommend writers have in mind, if not the exact location of the perfect ending, then at least the town…where the ballpark sits…that might contain the perfect ending. That knowledge will also help you write everything in between.
This will give you a point to write toward, a light in the distance. As you travel along you might find its location shifting a bit. That’s fine. And as you get closer you might realize you actually need to land at a ballpark in the next city over, instead of what you’d planned. So adjust. You only get to your target by traveling toward it as you discover more about your story, and you discover more about your story by writing it.
And once there? You might find you’ve landed on home plate and the ending snaps into place perfectly. But more often you only get to the parking lot of the ballpark with the knowledge your perfect landing rests vaguely somewhere inside. No worries! It doesn’t have to be exact yet. You only need to reach the ballpark. And by doing so you’ve reduced your possibilities immensely—which is what you want at the end of a book: fewer possibilities, as few as possible. Like at the end of a funnel.
Now that you’ve arrived at this location, one method to find your ending’s exact position would be to follow your story from its beginning and track the narrative lines to see where they’re headed. You should also examine the very beginning to make sure you understand the issues and themes that are implied and openly stated there, and the questions raised that must be addressed. These can give you clues as well as insight into elements that need to be brought together, or eliminated, to pinpoint your landing.
Alternatively, if you have a clear idea of your ending (lucky you!), from that point you can go the other direction, take the themes and story elements and questions answered at the end, and layer them in behind you in a type of reverse engineering, adding and turning and twisting them this way and that, referring to one element here, echoing another theme there, filling in gaps, all along the storyline until everything links up and matches to that final resolution at the end. And when you’re done and you land on your story’s individual, singular, location, whether by coming to it directly from the necessity and push of the clues behind you, or after finding your ending, going back over what’s preceded to line everything up to it, or most likely, a bit of both, it’ll feel like there never was any other possibility. It will, ironically, at that moment also feel simple and obvious, but only because you made it so.
Steve Adams’s writing has won a Pushcart Prize and Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s award, been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays, and anthologized. His prose is widely published, and his plays have been produced in New York City. He’s a writing coach and freelance editor at www.steveadamswriting.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @iamsteveadams.