Making Those Last Words Count

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Hopefully you already read this wonderful piece on first lines in fiction. Those sentences are important because, of course, they color a reader’s perception of the rest of the story. Daniel discusses a “solicitation of trust”—“a chance for the author to communicate that the reader is in capable hands.” And he’s right: I’ve put down more stories in my life than I’ve actually read because of authors failing to convince me to follow them, failing to convey that they know how to sustain my interest and that, if I take their hand and see a story through to the end, I won’t regret it.

But this piece isn’t about those first lines—it’s about the last. Those words that, when it comes down to it, determine whether or not the story is successful, or whether it falls flat on its textual face. In most cases, hopefully, by the time the story’s over those first lines have been overshadowed by good storytelling, great sentences. But even when the story is good—and I see this all the time—if the ending falls flat, or tries to jackhammer some thematic/ideological point too deep (see: Unnecessary Didactic Ending) or if, in getting there, the puppet strings become too visible (my favorite metaphor for conspicuous construction) then, well—

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So strip the scaffolding, snip the strings. Allow your characters to fall and flail through the fictional abyss.

Now let me undermine the false sense of authority I’ve established on the subject with this—nothing I say is absolute, and everything I say is exclusive to my own opinions on what constitutes “good writing.” Instinct tells me to mention avoiding the “twist,” but it can be done effectively. Instinct begs me to warn against conspicuously packaged Joycean epiphanies when something more discreet might do the trick (but wait: what’s the trick again?). Many submissions go for dialogic endings, which seem to aim to provide the text with some final punctuation. But these are difficult to pull off in a meaningful way if your name isn’t Flannery O’Connor, often reading as a case of the author trying to get in a word or two of his or her own before ending. I know, I know. It’s tough. Writing fiction only gets harder as you discover more possibilities of what fiction can be. It’s no real pleasure in life.

Pictured: strong, evocative imagery

Pictured: strong, evocative imagery

At the risk of pedantry, my best advice is to follow the story’s lead and, as an author, stand back. Surprise yourself. Sometimes ignoring your own brain is the quickest route to satisfaction—or, whatever degree of satisfaction is possible for a writer. It’s probably not much. What I’m really saying is that those endings we find ourselves constantly returning to might need to be examined more closely—that they might not be the best choice.

I know, I know—what do I know? I’m not sure. But as far as endings go, you know what I rarely see, but always want? Strong, evocative images. Powerful gestures. Let me step out of the abstract, let me spitball a few examples: Barthelme’s “The Balloon,” Barry Hannah’s “Water Liars,” Rachel B. Glaser’s “The Kid,” Jason Ockert’s “Echo,” Lydia Davis’s “The Great-Grandmothers.” And I could probably go on and on and on but, for both our sakes, I won’t. Instead, I’ll attempt to explain what charges them with such electric resonance, and I’ll attempt to do it in a single word.

Heart.

Not to be confused with saccharinity, or sentimentality. This is what I want to feel at the end, and there are so many different routes in getting there. A great mentor once told me a good ending aims to skewer the heart—so here’s to it, then. We’ll be waiting. Skewer our hearts, skewer your own. Read the stories that skewer you most, remove the spear, reassemble. Read, remove, reassemble. Then write. Submit your heart to the minnesota review. I can’t wait to read it when you do.


Pat Siebel is the Interviews Editor at Hobart. His work has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, Cartridge Lit, Go Read Your Lunch, Hobart, the Susquehanna Review, and was featured in the Best of Black Heart 2014 Anthology

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2 thoughts on “Making Those Last Words Count

  1. On the matter of twists and artificial surprises, Rust Hills long ago wisely suggested that the end of a story should have a sense of inevitability, even though until we get to that end we readers feel instead suspense and uncertainty. As I recall, Hills was speaking primarily of plot events, but his advice seems consonant with an insistence that a story end have heart or skewer hearts (if I understand what you mean by those words).

  2. Matt, thank you for the effort to articulate what you are looking for in poems to be accepted, although you warn us poets that they are probably not indicative of the MR staff as a whole. As a poet deciding where to send poems, I would like to know if your judgment of a poem is one of two, or one of many, and whether you have veto power, but your not-quite manifesto is still a better start than most journals give. I am a little uncertain about this statement: “So do I consider race, gender, age, and location when I read submissions? You’re damned right I do.” You can know a poet’s gender and location easily enough from the return address, but I am curious about how you guess race and age, especially race? I might be missing something, but it seems that you would have to judge by the content or style of the poem. I certainly hope that you would not use the sleuthing once used by some colleges and employers to exclude various minorities (e.g. names that sound African-American or Jewish). If in fact you do guess a poet’s race and age (and maybe gender, if the first name is initials or unisex?) by the poem’s content, I am a little uncomfortable. But I applaud your call for more political poems, and think that too many poems are selfies.

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