Sometimes an ending can seem too much like the conclusion of a composition paper. The writer is moved to swerve away from the predictable, to untie the ending from the sense of inevitability that the story has spent its entire existence building. But how?
Myfanwy Collins gives a lesson in excellent endings in her story “Poinsettias.” It was published in PANK, where you can read it now. (Seriously, it’s short and wonderful, and you can read it in three minutes.)
How the Story Works
This kind of last-second-swerve might seem like the famous epiphanies from early Modernist writers. But, it’s actually quite different. To demonstrate, here are two of the most famous epiphany endings:
“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger”
—from “Araby” by James Joyce.
“In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing; he felt quite sure that he would never die.”
—”Indian Camp” by Ernest Hemingway
In both of those stories, the shocking thing is how quickly and suddenly the story states the character’s reaction to events—that is, if you find those lines shocking. To some extent, we’ve read so many epiphany endings that we’re immune to them.
So, now, check out the ending to “Poinsettias” by Myfanwy Collins. Keep in mind that, until this point, the story has been about the weird emotional state that often follows Christmas Day, the question of how long the season should last and when the final vestiges of it, like poinsettias, should be discarded.
“At the supermarket, they told her they would put the rotting turkey carcass in the renderer. They would take care of it, they told her. She felt some responsibility that the flesh of the bird be taken care of, that it be brought gently back to earth, to replenish, to renew. She remembered that when her mother died, hospice had said it was okay to send a personal item with her in the ambulance on the way to the crematory. She chose a fleece, duck-covered blanket that her mother had always snuggled under. That blanket was soft. It was so soft. When she thought of the flames, it was not her mother’s body she saw, but that blanket pushing toward the heat.”
This is an example of an ending that swerves away from predictability. Until this point, the mother has not been mentioned. And yet, we realize now, the entire story has been about her. So, how does the story pull off this ending?
In retrospect, we can see how every significant noun in the story is related to the idea of death.
- The character, Mandy, constantly sucks on peppermint Altoids because she “didn’t want her mouth to taste like shit. All of these people were walking around with shit-tasting mouths, but not her.”
- Mandy is upset with her partner about the poinsettias because “Nic would not let the poinsettias die. That was the problem.”
- The turkey that Mandy bought to cook turns out to be rotten; she “drove the carcass to the market in the way back of her car with the windows cracked, but even now, weeks later, the smell lingered, sulfur twisting up her nostrils.”
So, even though the mother’s death is not introduced until the last paragraph, the story has prepared the reader to learn about it. The ending swerves not because it comes totally out of the blue but because it gives the reader an unexpected way of viewing everything that has come before it.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s prepare to write an ending that swerves, using Myfanwy Collins’ “Poinsettias” as a model:
- Choose a topic. You might consider a subject that has been bothering you or scratching at the inside of your head for a while—something you’ve wanted to write about but haven’t figured out how to approach yet.
- Free write about ideas, images, people, places, or events that are connected to the topic. Stray as far from the topic as you wish. You’re exploring the mental, emotional, and physical terrain of the story. If you’ve failed to write about the topic from one angle, find another. Myfanwy Collins’ story is about the death of the character’s mother, but it begins with the terrain that exists around that death: Christmas, Altoids, Poinsettias, and a turkey.
- Begin a story that has seemingly nothing to do with your topic. Sometimes our stories about topics that we really want to write about begin too directly. We rush up to the topic instead of taking our time, creeping up on it. So, choose one of the things you discovered through free writing and begin the story there.
- Switch topics after a few paragraphs or sentences. Myfanwy Collins writes two paragraphs about Altoids and then switches to Poinsettias. If you’re not sure how to make the switch, use the same sentence that Collins uses: “The real problem was that_____.”
- Feel for the right moment to introduce the “real” topic. You may need to switch topics again or introduce new elements. But, keep writing. Keep putting your character into moments of tension—in other words, write the story, and if it’s truly about the topic that has been bothering you, that topic will push its head onto the page. Trust your subconscious to put the pieces together.