I recently heard Colum McCann discuss his latest book of short stories, Thirteen Ways of Looking. One of the many thought provoking things he said was that he liked to introduce different possibilities for his characters, pick one to explore, leave others for his readers to wonder about, and then end the story with “plenty of white space” on the page. I interpreted white space to mean room for the reader to draw conclusions.
This approach to ending short stories, he observed, engages readers and challenges their thinking, a fair enough goal. Though other ways of ending stories can do that as well, I contend. New Yorker stories often end like McCann’s, and I end up thinking What the hell?
But I’m of an age that when I discovered short stories, they ended with epiphanies, unique insights that opened my mind to new possibilities or new understandings.
And I’ve enjoyed enough pulp fiction to appreciate the O. Henry surprise ending—triggering the Oh, my God! reaction.
Like other forms of art, the short story evolves, reflecting and leading new directions in the larger culture. But like those who still prefer the impressionists or the cubists, I hanker for the explicit ending—insightful or surprising. For me, one of fiction’s gifts is that its stories can have endings, cathartic and memorable, not just fade away, unresolved, like so many situations in the humdrum of daily living.
What are your preferences for how short stories end?