Ask A Flash Fiction Editor: Endings

A brilliant ending should make you go whoa. And reread.  And go whoa again.

Whoa can mean a lot of things: whoa—how messed up, or whoa—how poignant, or whoa—how surprising, or whoa—how perfect. But regardless it should punch you in the heart or the gut or the head or maybe several at once. And even if it’s just a little pinch it should still leave a mark.

I’d like to thank Brenda Morisse for allowing us to use her piece-in-progress, “Mixed Up With Jesus” (full text below) to talk about endings in general and flash fiction endings in particular. Beginnings and endings are like bookends—all the care taken to hook a reader into a story must be utilized in the same way to cast them out—shaken and forever changed. And this is especially true in flash fiction, where a reader is going from beginning to ending in one sitting.

Riding into the sunsetYour ending is the final ringing note of your entire story.

Many writers, even those who begin beautifully, underestimate the importance of endings. How many of us were taught in school that a “conclusion” was just a wrapping up, a clever regurgitation of everything already said? Brilliant endings, if they were discussed at all, were held at a distance like sorcery, admired but not imitated.

Endings used to be a huge struggle for me. I would conceive, craft and execute a compelling story, but once I’d said everything I wanted to, I’d just tack on a “bow” at the end. In graduate school, Danielle Dutton had us separately examine our beginnings, middles, and endings. We first examined our openings, where and how we began. Then we examined our middles, how we kept the tension always pulsing. And then, just as we were getting ready to examine our endings, she threw a wrench in the whole plan and made this suggestion: What if the middle IS the end?

With great discomfort, we turned back to our stories: What if this juicy middle thing I just wrote while under the auspices that I still had more time to “tie it all up” is really the end? What if there is no need for that clever bow, that concluding paragraph…what if it’s just…done?

Because that’s how it happens in real life anyway, isn’t it?

Most writers either over or underwrite their endings. If you are overwriting your ending, then chances are the true final ringing note of your story is actually buried in the territory of what you are now calling the middle. If you are underwriting your ending, it probably means that the most crucial part of the story arc still hasn’t happened yet—the story isn’t done. In that case it’s about turning the knife just one more time and seeing what else happens.

So with all that in mind, Brenda, let’s talk about your work and particularly the ending of your story, “Mixed Up With Jesus.”

But before we talk about the ending, let’s talk about everything else. Everything else is so fun! I believe there is so much “real” in the surreal, and I love reading stories that are able to create the duality of subtext underneath a story that on the surface seems absurd. And I love what you’ve done with the figure of Jesus, putting someone so symbolic and archetypal into the unpleasantry and awkwardness of modern relationships. Did you know that Burroughs claimed 40% of his material came from dreams. Free inspiration, all night long!

But let’s look at your ending, which is still a bit shy of the mark. Let’s consider cutting it back, seeing if your ending is really in your middle. To do that, I looked for what felt like a final ringing moment within the middle of the story, and I landed in this paragraph:

Finally He breaks the silence. “Remember when you wanted to marry me and live in a convent and wear the holy face all day? Remember how you balanced on that slippery rock that glistened under a waterfall in Tannersville, naked? And that time behind the bushes in a park, when the stranger moaned you’ll remember this forever. And you said, I will?”

My hunch is your ending might be hovering around here—there’s something about this moment in the exchange that feels the most rich with opportunity. The characters are heading into some potential final knife twist—maybe you haven’t nailed the exact wording yet, but it feels like it’s just a phrase or two away from the “whoa”. Because here’s the problem with humor—as soon as we “get” it, we’re over it. Comedy—like drama—consists of an ever growing escalation of surprises. In this story, we love the novelty and parody of Jesus in such a non-Jesus situation. But the humor needs to continually change or else it will be like the same joke is stretched too far. So maybe in these final moments the story goes into another level of weird. Or maybe it stops and becomes incredibly poignant. Or maybe it gets outrageous. Perhaps in these final moments one last thing is revealed. Or perhaps it happens in the silences.

What currently follows—the spot on the dress and the idea of singing karaoke—that’s funny, you can keep it if you choose—but rearrange it to come earlier rather than leaving it in the privileged final slot.

The good news about endings is the work is often just excavating and shaping—and realizing that the perfect ending may already be there, fully formed, right in front of your eyes.

Happy Writing!

~Nancy Stohlman

Thanks again to Brenda Morisse and to all the writers who have shared their work-in-progress so far, including: Peter Cowlam, Diane Klammer, Cath Barton, M, Rosemary Royston, Nicholas Michael Ravnikar and Ellen Orleans. I believe the difference between an amateur and a professional is the professional writer’s willingness to always be a beginner, and each of these writers has been incredibly generous with their process—thank you.

(Do you have a  flash fiction piece in progress you’d like to submit for a future conversation? Email me at nancystohman@gmail.com or find me on Facebook.)

*

Mixed Up with Jesus

By Brenda Morisse

There’s been no dancing since the flood because the earth is still starved and quick to tug at my tango. So when Jesus waltzes into my dream, I try not to worry, even though death seems to follow my callers and suffering through another Good Friday waiting on God’s travel arrangements is more than I can bear.

I nonchalantly check for stigmata, offer cocktails. “Make yourself at home, at least take off your gloves,” I say. He shakes His head no, but after reading my mind, He shrugs. “Believe what you want to believe, I know who I am and I like to dance, too.” Before I can demand references or a parlour trick to raise my dog, Tallulah, from the dead, He asks if I can Hustle.

“The Hustle? I didn’t do the Hustle when I did the Hustle. You should know that!” I scold. I roll my eyes at Him and then He rolls His eyes, and I roll my eyes back. “You’re funny.” He laughs. “I’ve always known you’d look like Anthony Quinn,” I whisper. He tells me that I’ve never learned how to let things die.

“You would have given the canary mouth to mouth and what if you had swallowed its head? Even the soap. Look at how you tape all the other last breath slivers together. And your new habit of spitting on old words.”

“True, but you’re the one who won’t die.”

“Relax your grip,” He says. I inch my vintage opera gloves up over my arms. “Lovely.” We small talk until dinnertime when He snoops around in the kitchen for a snack. “Sorry I haven’t cooked since the disaster,” I say.

“Want to grab a bite?”

I ask, “Like on a date?” And He says, “Sure. How about the Dominican restaurant across the street?” We’re seated at the darkened table in the corner with first date awkwardness crowded between us, so I glance up and notice that the patrons and waiters are staring at us. I look at Him and He’s glowing, and then check my reflection. I’m glowing too. So there we sit, glowing face to face into each other’s eyes.

Finally He breaks the silence. “Remember when you wanted to marry me and live in a convent and wear the holy face all day? Remember how you balanced on that slippery rock that glistened under a waterfall in Tannersville, naked? And that time behind the bushes in a park, when the stranger moaned you’ll remember this forever. And you said, I will?”

We only pick at the fish dinner but we drink wine until we’re tipsy and the wineglass tips. I ask Him to clean the spot on my dress. He says, “Just because a god rises from the dead doesn’t mean He’s at your beck and call Him when you need the laundry done.” I change the subject with a sigh and then read the sign at the bar, aloud. Karaoke esta noche.

“Do you know the words to it?” He asks.

“Yes! Do it. Do the hustle. Ooh. Do the hustle.”

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