Gosh, how tough is it to write a good short story ending? Surely it ain’t just me who finds this. A loose thesis goes like this. If a plot-driven story requires a twist or surprise ending, then the character-driven story often, though not always, leads to a moment of truth for the hero. But how to deal with that penny-dropping, A-ha! moment of clarity, without being overdramatic or drawing too much attention to the fact that this is an epiphany moment? As always, my motto is when in doubt check out how the experts do it.
When walls come tumbling down
To my mind, one of the best examples is the short story ‘Uncle Ernest’ by Alan Sillitoe – the tale of a lonely middle-aged man who innocently befriends two young girls he meets in a cafe, buying them dinners and then presents, until one day he’s cautioned by a couple of detectives, who warn him to stay away from the girls. Suddenly his idea of himself as kind and loving Uncle Ernest is blasted to smithereens by the assumption that he’s a pervert. It’s this intrusion of a totally different and brutal reality that makes the character’s world collapse around him.
He was only aware of the earth sliding away from under his feet, and a wave of panic crashing into his mind, and he felt the unbearable and familiar emptiness that flowed outwards from a tiny and unknowable point inside him. Then he was filled with hatred for everything, then intense pity…
Uncle Ernest by Alan Sillitoe (from ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ story collection)
You know you can make it even better, don’t you?
I‘ve grappled with this issue in my most recent short story. ‘The Hills and the Fortune’ ends with the main character (a not-very-bright teenage girl) having her own epiphany moment, when she realises that her boyfriend is out to exploit her sexually. This story was a runner-up in the Happenstance Short Story Competition and I was struck by something the judge, Janice Galloway, had to say about the way I’d conveyed my character’s moment of truth: Her realisation seems a bit too clear, too soon when it comes. (Don’t worry, she said lots of nice things too in her Judge’s Comments!)
But the reason I want to focus on this negative is because a) I’m here to learn and b) it echoes what my NAW tutor, Jackie Gay, said about the ending. While she thought it was a good story, she wondered if I’d missed an opportunity to add some of the physical sensations that a character would experience right at that moment when the penny drops. Here’s an extract from the story as it stands, so you can see for yourself what could be revised:
Con sighed. ‘You don’t get it, do you? I mean every bitch is sitting on a fortune.’ It took a few moments for her to work it out, but this time the answer, the knowledge, came to her in a slow and careful understanding. And while the blocks of comprehension were fixing themselves together, and stacking themselves up, she felt a spark of fire ignite inside. In her mind she started to run back out of the clearing, away from him and from the flame that was trailing her. She knew that when it caught her it would torch all the love she had for him.
But it was too late. She flew at him with her fists. ‘I hate you. I f***ing hate you.’
The Hills and the Fortune
I think Jackie makes a very good point. Perhaps what’s missing from the story is a sense of the character’s external world being rocked. What’s going on in her immediate surroundings? What’s she seeing, hearing, smelling? Have you noticed how, in moments of great shock, our senses get warped? Sights, sounds and smells become distorted, amplified, enhanced. (If you’re a migraineur, as I am, you’ll be familiar with this sensation. Ditto, I imagine, if you take mind-bending drugs.) And that’s a brilliant opportunity for us writers that shouldn’t be missed!
So thank you, Janice and Jackie. I think I’ve just had my own epiphany moment.
Over to you. What’s your favourite short story ending? What’s the best character epiphany you’ve ever read? Let me know.