Facts about Fiction 7

From The Brain Rummager by Brian Barratt

Happily ever after?

"And they lived happily ever after" is the way many fairy stories end. All the problems have been solved, and the brave, cheerful people ride off into the sunset.

But real life is not always like that, is it? Even fiction is not always like that: some stories are tragedies. They end in tears rather than smiles. So how should your stories end? Here are a few major categories of story conclusions:

1.   The main encounter is dealt with, the problem or mystery is solved, and everyone is happy.

2.   Something goes wrong, things do not turn out as planned, and hope is dashed.

3.   With a sudden twist, the story ends in a totally unexpected way.

4.   The reader is left to work out what really happened or what is going to happen next.

These are broad categories. The first type is obviously popular. It's nice to feel all warm and fuzzy at the end of a story. It is fiction, after all, and fiction is designed to entertain. This category is the easiest to handle.

No. 2 could involve, for example, a villain being caught and punished. It could also involve the end of a romance or the death of a loved one. One of the most famous tragedies in English literature is a romantic story ending with the words:

For never was a story of more woe,

Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

No. 3 can be summed up in the cliché, "The butler did it". At the end of a good crime mystery, when you have no idea who committed the murder, clues suddenly fall into place and the villain is revealed. Some of the short stories of Roald Dahl and John Wyndham have brilliant twists at the end. Read John Wyndham's "Survival" in The Seeds of Time, Penguin Books 1959, if you can find it in a library, for a seriously weird thrill!

No. 4, the story that leaves the reader wondering, must be written very carefully to make it satisfying. You know as a reader that you can be either frustrated or fascinated by an open ending. As a writer, your aim is to leave your reader puzzling with delighted fascination — what really did happen?

Red herrings

This is a metaphor. In fishing, red herrings are supposed to be the fish which distract an angler's attention away from the main group. In writing, a red herring is something which misleads the reader.

There is a difference between forgetting to explain something and misleading your reader. In one, you leave something out and do not read your draft carefully. In the other, you deliberately write something which will make your reader jump to the wrong conclusion.

How not to end a story

There are some types of endings you should avoid.

"And then I woke up".

If the story ends with "it had only been a dream", it might indicate that the writer did not really know how to finish it. This ending is a cop-out!

"And then I died/was killed."

Even fiction must have its logic. A person cannot tell their story after they have died. If they do, there must be some explanation of how they are managing to do it. This might move the fiction into a fantasy setting.

"You/we must protect/fight against... etc."

What this means is the sort of story where the writer finishes by appealing directly to the reader. This was mentioned in one of the previous sections. A story must stand on its own merits. The plot must be self-contained and the characters must speak for themselves. The author must be invisible. The only times the author can stand up and announce a message are in, for instance, a fable with a moral, or a Sunday School story designed to teach children about some aspect of religion.

Ending at the beginning

The articles on titles and story openings suggested that you, as a creative writer, should be enticing your readers into the story. It was also indicated that if you are stuck for a title, you might find it at the end of the story itself.

A satisfying conclusion can explain what the title means. It can also explain why the story opened in the way it did. At the start, you commence a journey, taking your reader through all kinds of "places", perhaps misleading them. At the end, they suddenly realise where they have been, and why, and where they are now.

© Copyright 2005 Brian Barratt. This material may be copied or printed only for use by students in school classrooms.

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