Final Punch Overkill: Short Story Endings

As a dedicated bibliophile, I’m always reading several books at once. No matter how many books I’m reading, though, I always try to include at least one collection of short stories. If you like variety, anthologies work best, since you can experience multiple writing styles in one collection. While I love the speed of a short story, lately many of my short story adventures have had the same problem: final punch overkill.

Let me give you an example:

In a short story about secret organizations, you read about the exploits of two curious operatives. The narrative explains their mission, provides details about suspected antagonists, and even throws in a few false leads, just for fun. As you follow the two operatives, you get to watch the espionage and have fun with the cloak-and-dagger antics. Although the mission may have seemed marginally impossible, the operatives manage to pull it off.

Final Punch Overkill: Instead of ending the story with the operatives finishing their mission, some writers want to throw in one last punch. For instance, maybe the writer of the above example decided to include one last scene where the operatives discover that, after everything is said and done, the antagonists were secretly funded by some renowned individual.

Now, some might argue that such a scene would NOT be considered overkill, and instead this type of scene might provide closure as the final reveal. In some cases, that would be true, but there is a clear difference between closure (resolution) and overkill.

Closure (resolution) implies that the entire story has been setting up a problem that the protagonist must figure out. Whatever solution the protagonist comes up with must be part of the resolution. Anything that happens during the closing scenes must have been preempted during earlier parts of the story. Therefore, to get to the point of closure, writers have to direct readers so that everything at the end makes sense. In general, writers accomplish this goal through character development, clue dropping, etc.

Overkill endings, on the other hand, are best described as endings that come out of nowhere. In the example above, for instance, the entire story is focused on two operatives and their abilities to complete the mission at hand. For instance, their mission might have included taking an antagonist-controlled asset out of the game by any means necessary. Unless the operatives are killing the person who’s funding the antagonists, why should the reader care about who was funding the project? Except for some random piece of information, it really has nothing to do with the main plot within the premise of the short story.

And therein lies part of the problem: the narrative format of the short story.

By its very definition, a short story is meant to be a standalone tale. However, the short story format is fluid and has been since the oral tradition of the middle ages. Part of that fluidity is fueled by the fact that writers enjoy their characters so much that they allow those characters to run wild through multiple short stories. While there is nothing wrong with using this and other similar approaches in the short story format, there is something imperative that writers must remember: short stories have to be self-contained.

I know I may receive a lot of flak for this statement, especially from writers who love to break the rules and throw tradition out the window, but no matter how much you argue, the short story is simply that – a short single story.

A writer may want her/his short stories to connect to one another, which is fine, but if you allow your short stories to be published in various anthologies, there’s no guarantee that readers are going to be exposed to all of your connected short stories. Therefore, unless you want to frustrate your readers, (which will make them even less likely to pursue your other works), you HAVE to give them what they NEED for the short story at hand to make sense. Adding that final random punch at the end won’t help. More simply put, if it doesn’t pertain to the immediate story, LEAVE IT OUT.

So, are you worried that your short story may include one punch too many? If you are worried, that’s a good first step – it shows that you are trying to improve your writing. The next step involves figuring out how to avoid overkill.

Out of all the short stories I’ve read, the following three issues seem to be the most likely to cause final punch overkill. If you can avoid these problems, you’re on your way to writing entertaining, self-contained stories that make sense.

Final Punch Overkill Problems:

Showing off

The ability to conduct thorough research shows the merit of any writer. However, while writers conduct far more research than they’ll ever use, most readers don’t go beyond basic Google searches. So, while you may think you’re being clever with some historical quips, anecdotes, etc., if the average reader doesn’t understand your meaning, then you’re just showing off to show off.

That doesn’t mean you can’t include interesting research in your short stories. There’s a time and a place to include esoteric information, like early on in the story as part of the set up or part of the false leads. Using some random fact as the final resolution/explanation doesn’t make you look smart, though, it makes you look pompous.

Furthermore, no matter how good the rest of your story may have been, readers tend to focus on endings. If the final scene of your story ties up all the loose ends in a way that makes sense, the reader is more likely to remember the story as a connected whole. On the other hand, if you use a bit of random research as your final punch, then all your reader will remember is that your story was kind of interesting, but it made no sense at the end.

Bad Planning

I support outlining wholeheartedly, but I know of other writers who feel that  too many notes take away from the creative process. For some people, this might be true, but more often than not, an ending that comes out of nowhere usually results from bad planning.

Some genres require more planning than others, but regardless of the genre, the writer has to know where she/he is going with the story. If you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t possibly know where you’re going to end. Sure – you might start writing from the hip to see how a scene works out or how characters react to one another, but there comes a point in the free writing process where you have to stand back and look at all the pieces.

In my opinion, one sign of bad planning includes quick endings that force all the pieces to fit. For instance, when one character somehow knows how everything happened and then explains it quickly during the final scene. We as the reader never saw this character obtain the answers, and in fact we saw the character do everything BUT figure out the problem, yet somehow we’re supposed to believe that the character just figured it out randomly.

While blurting out the answer at the end may make sense of the plot, to some degree, the way the character came up with the answer makes no sense, and clearly shows that the writer didn’t think about it until the last minute. Had the writer looked at the different scenes written during the free writing sessions, the writer may have realized that the story was missing some key moments, such as how the character finds the clues that will eventually lead to the answer.

Genre Identity Crisis

Although it may seem like giving in to clichés or formulaic writing structures, audiences need/want certain genre-specific elements within the literature they read. Some genre elements blend well with others, whereas other genres have hard limits about what is and is not allowed. Nevertheless, some writers get confused about what they should include in the genre in which they are writing.

As an example, steampunk is a genre about alternative Victorian history, and this genre is sometimes associated with science fiction. Just because it’s associated with science fiction, however, doesn’t mean that steampunk must meet the criteria for PURE science fiction. Some writers will let that science fiction association weigh heavy on their shoulders, though, and in the last scene they may throw in some super-science fiction ending.

For instance, I once read a steampunk short story about a prisoner in a penal colony telling a newcomer (the reader) about what he did on the outside, which included training steam and hydraulically powered rock’em-sock’em robots. For a Victorian alternative history piece, it was fairly interesting, until the end, that is.

In my opinion, that genre association pushed the writer into throwing in one last sci-fi punch: In the last sentence, out of nowhere, the narrator explains that the penal colony is on Mars.

My immediate response: “Really? Are you freakin’ serious right now?! How is being on a different planet even relevant?!?!”

As a reader, this type of genre identity crisis makes me irate because it ruins the story. As a writer, though, I can understand why someone might make this mistake Basically, a writer who would do this may have really wanted to write a genre piece, but didn’t quite understand the genre to begin with. Or, they didn’t realize they were writing a genre piece until practically the very end.

If you want to write a genre piece, you need to realize it from word one. Whatever the genre requirements may be, you must include those items throughout the story. If you only include that genre-specific element at the end, it’s not going to make a lot of sense to your readers. Plus, it’s going to seem like you added that last little bit JUST so you could say you wrote a genre piece. Trust me – you’re not going to fool editors and you’re not going to fool your readers. All you’re going to do is fool yourself into believing that your last punch hit the mark.

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