When you’ve read for journals and taught your fair share of creative writing classes, there is this one thing that you’ll learn to fear — the ending of a story. And it’s not because you didn’t want that story to end. At least, that’s not usually the case. More often than not, this one moment in reading brings about dread because you’ve been trained to prepare yourself for the whole thing to fall apart. After reading hundreds upon hundreds of stories, you’ve realized that one out of every ten or so will feel the need to stun you with that one final line — as if one line placed at the very end of a long-ass story can wow you back to life and convince you that you’re in the presence of sheer brilliance.
Some people blame this on Netflix and our craving for cliffhangers and binge nights of online streaming. I blame Hemingway. Well that’s not exactly true. I can blame Hemingway for my romanticized love of bullfighting and Key West without any caveats. But I can’t blame him for bad endings without a serious explanatory clause. After all, he is the author that gave us: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” No, my blaming of Hemingway rests not with Papa himself but with our high school love of short stories that end with that one line that makes us feel deep. And that dangling leg and that whining hyena in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” made us feel all sorts of deep.
Perhaps I could have just as easily picked any other author who had their one twist-ending story anthologized over and over again. Perhaps I could have gone with ole Will Faulkner and his rose for Emily or Ambrose Bierce and his snapped rope, hanging there beneath Owl Creek Bridge, but “A Rose for Emily” just made me want to take a shower, and most of us have been around long enough to know not to try and follow Bierce down that road. We instinctively understand that Bob Newhart was the last one that could pull off the revelation that the entire story was nothing more than a dream — even if we don’t even know who Bob Newhart is. And while Hemingway is taking us into that dream territory with Kilimanjaro, even our pimple-covered teenage minds can see that it is a complex and cooler version of that twist ending that we already loved.
But it is that complexity that screws with us the most. We see it. We love it. And yet only a select few of us are good enough to even get close to replicating it. (And the ones that are that good, are too good to be interested in trying.) So instead, we just stab at endings that fall somewhere between the Hollywood hack jobs that keep us hanging on late into the night watching just “one more” episode and the serial-like Hardy Boy fiction that got us into reading in the first place. But here’s the thing: neither of those things make for great literature, and neither of them will get your short story to rise out of the slush pile.
We should all just go ahead and recognize that we are not Hemingway. Not a single one of us. And even if we did want to try to be (and let’s face it, an embarrassingly large number of twenty-something-year-old man-boys have tried to be Hemingway), this complex flashback/dream-driven version of Hemingway isn’t the one that we should try to cling to. If we must, we should focus our attention on Nick Adams, or the American and his girl, who are perpetually talking while they wait on a train in the valley of the Ebro River. Or really any other Hemingway story that you didn’t read in high school. Because here is the real shocker — most of them don’t end with a surprise. Instead, they end with a quiet and hushed whimper that leaves enough room for you to set the book down in your lap and just think for a few minutes.
We might have first discovered the genre of the short story through overly anthologized twisted representations of the modern short story, but that doesn’t mean that we need to stay there — trying to figure out the best way to amaze our readers with our brilliance. Your mom may tell you that your final stunner of an ending is the best thing she’s ever seen, but the chances are pretty darn great that your reveal won’t impress the rest of us.
Here’s the secret: if you really are brilliant, you will amaze your reader long before that last line. And if you’re not — that last line sure as hell isn’t going to be the one that saves you, and it might just be the one that sinks you. But it goes even deeper than that. The real secret is that you don’t have to be anything close to brilliant. You just need to be able to tell a good story.
Brilliance is overrated. Especially when it comes to good writing. I say this because we can’t try and be brilliant and actually pull it off. That just comes off as clever or something even worse — trite. Brilliant writing achieves that state outside of the author’s intent. Great authors are out there trying to tell good stories. And that’s what we should be trying to do. So stop putting so much effort into reliving those pass the joint moments of mind-blowing brilliance. The sober people on the outside of the circle never thought you were that deep anyway. And instead, just focus on telling the damn story. That’s what’s going to save you.
Editors and readers alike want to love your story. They really do. They want to fill their journal with damn good writing, and your submission is being read with that in mind. If they make it to the end, chances are, they’ve already seen something that they like. Don’t screw with them by pulling the rug out from under them at the exact moment that they were getting ready to send your story along to the next reader. It happens way too often, and it doesn’t help anyone. They already know that creepy kids see dead people and Dorothy is still sleeping in Kansas. You’re not charting new territory, and you shouldn’t try to. Because here’s the other secret: those short stories that you remember from your high school lit classes aren’t really even about the twist or the gotcha moment. (Okay, maybe “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” really is all about that one moment, but Hemingway’s mountaintop adventure sure as hell isn’t.) If you took the time to read that story that gets cited again and again for its brilliantly deep, surprise ending, you’d realize that it wasn’t as much of a gotcha moment as you’d thought. In actuality it’s just damn good writing. And that’s what we all need to try and create.
Featured image: “Ernest Hemingway Aboard the Pilar 1935″ courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via the public domain.
William Garland teaches English at the University of South Carolina, where he received an MFA in creative writing. His work is published or is forthcoming in HOOT, The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, Revolution House, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Real South Magazine, Black Fox Literary Magazine, and other literary journals and anthologies. He was the recent winner of Jasper Magazine’s “One Book, One Poem” contest, judged by Ron Rash.