Where Have All The Endings Gone?

A rant concerning literary pretension: Where have all the endings gone?

The more I read, the more I realise my tastes tend to the traditional. I like stories with a beginning, middle, and end. I like tension, I like characterisation, I like innovative and appropriate use of language. A good sentence scores points in my book, sensible paragraphing even more so.

I rarely, if ever, read novels these days, so I’m restricting this rant to short stories and novelettes (and the occasional novella). However, I read a CONSIDERABLE amount of short stories – unpublished slushpile stories and published stories in magazines I subscribe to, as well as a goodly quantity of stories in review copies.

In all this reading, I’m noticing a trend. An increasing proportion of these stories are tending toward the ‘New Weird’ style that seems to be popular right now (as opposed to the Old Peculiar, which has been kickin’ on for decades). That’s all well and good, as I enjoy the surreal tale now and again, but there’s a kicker with a lot of these ‘New Weird’-esque tales – a lack of a ‘tail’.

It’s as if a bunch of writers met and decided “right, we need to be a little more ‘literary’, so let’s try some weird fiction, and hey, while we’re at it, why don’t we leave off the ending – that will give us major brownie points with the literary avante gard.”

Well, here’s the scoop folks – it’s just plain annoying!

Sure, a number of my own stories, particularly my flash stories, are vignettes, but there’s still a circularity about them. A sense of a narrative thread that isn’t left dangling. Here’s my advice to authors, both new and established: Don’t leave your threads dangling!

There are some good examples of this, which, in general, break the rules. One such is Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice collection. I loved it, but I did struggle at times with the unconventional narratives and vignette-style of many of the stories. Karron Warren’s work is similar. I think the major reason these authors are successful with their dangling threads is the layers of characterisation crafted into their stories, as well as the abject surrealness of the worlds they inhabit. I respect both authors, enjoy much of their work, but there is also some of their work which I struggle to read, or it leaves me frustrated. I find it very hit and miss.

Dangling threads and non-endings are teases. The worst offenders are the well-written ones, the ones which build up a sense of connection to the protagonist and the characters, the ones which delight in intricate world-building. The reader hits the end of the story and at best scratches their head and says ‘huh’, and at worst throws the book against the wall. I am a throw-the-book-against-the-wall type of person. When written by a talented author, I can’t help but think of it as literary pretension. For me, there is no subtext in such pieces. It’s artfulness disguised as art – and it’s damn frustrating.

When the inexperienced writer leaves the end dangling, it saddens me. Clearly, the traditions of storytelling have developed for a reason. My caveat here is that I’m by no means a stickler, but experience has taught me stories with a narrative thread that is rounded off are generally stronger and will probably stand the test of time. When an inexperienced writer tries this anti-ending, it is almost certainly doomed to fail. The old adage of ‘you need to know the rules to break them’ is incredibly true. As I’ve discovered, if you think you know the ‘rules’, you don’t. When you know the rules of storytelling and grammar inside out and back to front, then by all means leave your thread dangling. When you can create the characters of Margo Lanagan, or the living-dangerous worlds of Kaaron Warren, then you can give it a go.

What saddens me about inexperienced writers being the main culprits of this phenomenon is not that they’re doing it badly, or that they’re experimenting, but the heartfelt belief I have that they truly believe this is what will sell, or what is “good”.

I believe writers should concentrate on their storytelling and especially their language. Constructing a sentence which is polished, bereft of excessive adjectives/adverbs, but using strong verbs rather than primary school language seems to be a dying art. Cut out your ‘gots’ and your filtering words and your passive phrases. Refine your language and mine your imagination!

Anti-endings are not the answer. In many ways they cheat the reader. Do you really want your reader to feel cheated, especially after all the work you’ve invested in bringing your story to life?