Wednesday, September 29, 2010


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.


  1. Those of us who've been in a critiquing group with Vicki know exactly what you mean. She can pinpoint the source of a problem, nail down the reason a story isn't working and suggest possible endings. I, for one, am grateful for all the time and effort she's spent critiquing my work.

  2. I do have a Vicki Cameron in my group, too -- Vicki! She really knows her stuff.
    I would have loved to have been in TIFF's class and what a wonderful thing to keep in mind when editing -- no 'do'!

  3. I've had the privilege (and ego-slaying pain) of 'a Vicki Cameron critique' when she edited Ladies' Killing Circle anthologies.

    If critiquing can be compared to surgery --- fixing the problem, excising the cancers, draining the infections, restoring health to the body --- a 'VCC' is the operating room's laser surgery, imho. Susan Gates

  4. Well said, Susan. It's a swift cut but always right on target.
    Who needs an ego anyway?

  5. being musical, like Linda, and being dramatic (20 years in theatre), and being a film freak, i have another take on "ending on ti" - the curtain always falls, so to speak, no matter the art form - yet some curtains must fall on resolution, on a solid "DO" or the audience leaves frazzled and hanging on "TI" - if i take this parable literally, my "mystery" would end before resolution? not necessarily, but certainly when somebody bad has been bested by somebody else who is less bad - but being a fan of foreign films, which defy Hollywood by ending on TI instead of DO, i recommend all of you seek out Night Moves, a noir thriller directed by Arthur Penn, the movie giant who died yesterday - see what happens to Gene Hackman at the existential end, where somethings have resolutely ended in DO, but the movie is a solid TI

  6. Well, shucks, I'm the Vicki in question and I thought people hated my critiques.

  7. Anyone remember the story The Lady or the Tiger... it ended on a Ti.

  8. I wish I could remember the discussion better but I don't think Findley was suggesting we not resolve the story problem but that we stop the story there and resist the urge to say, "I was so relieved to finally see the murderer caught that I went to bed and slept like a log and the next morning I . . .
    I've made a note of Night Moves. Thanks for the recommendation

  9. Great advice. I would have loved to have a Vicki when I was writing short fiction. It took me many hours and often 'resting' a story partway through for months to figure out on my own the biggest problem weighing it down.