Ending your story on ti
About twelve years ago I took a week-long writing course at Humber College in Toronto. My instructor was Timothy Findley or TIFF, as he asked us to call him. TIFF, who died in 2002, was the author of many novels, plays and collections of short stories, including The Wars, Not Wanted on the Journey and my favourite, Dust to Dust. He gave us much to think about in that short week, but one piece of advice in particular I had reason to remember just recently.
He came into class one morning, strode to the front of the room and began to sing the musical scale, slowly and in a deep baritone: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti . . ." We all knew the tune, of course, and waited for the final do - only it never came. He paused for about thirty seconds, one hand in the air (the man had been an actor, after all) until he knew he had our attention. "THAT'S where you end your story," he said. "Never write the final do. Always leave your story alive, with many places to go. Let your reader finish the story for you."
Like much of the good advice I've received over a long lifetime, this was soon forgotten.
But recently, I had a story accepted for a prestigious anthology. "I like the story," the editor said, "except for the ending."
Now, we all know how tricky it is rewriting a story we wrote many months earlier. I couldn't find my way back into the mood of the thing. That "far-seeing place" that Stephen King talks about, where I had uncovered the tale in the first place, was just out of reach. It was mid-summer and I had a cottage full of children, grandchildren and dogs. I couldn't concentrate and felt paralyzed by the short deadline.
In desperation I called my friend Vicki Cameron, who has got me out of story pickles before this. She had her own distractions at the time (a son home on a rare visit from Hong Kong and people coming to dinner.) But, being Vicki, she dropped everything and sat down to read the story. Within half an hour she called me back and told me where I'd gone wrong. "Here's where the story ends," she said, quoting the last sentence in a paragraph a full page and a half before my ending. "After that point it's just blah, blah, blah."
It took me a minute and then I saw exactly what she meant. I'd written the final "do". I'd wrapped the story up in a neat bow and left no alternative endings for the reader to imagine. That last page and a half was indeed just blah, blah, blah.
Do you have a Vicki Cameron in your critiquing group or in your life who won't hesitate to tell you where your story has gone wrong?
Sue Pike has published nineteen stories and won several awards including an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Crime Story. Her latest, Where the Snow Lay Dinted will appear in the December issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.
Sue and her husband and an opinionated Australian Shepherd named Cooper spend the winter months in Ottawa and the rest of the time at a mysterious cottage on the Rideau Lakes.