Baltimore, Nervous Breakdowns, and Monsters Under the Bed

This Saturday I am headed to the Baltimore CityLit Fest, which has a really exciting schedule of readers. If you’re local, drop by!

I also have a self-interview and a short excerpt from one of the stories in the book up over at The Nervous Breakdown, where I was lucky enough to be one of their featured authors this week.

A few weeks ago, the aforementioned Goodreads panel took place, and many smart and interesting things were said about the short story, most of them not by me, so do check out the full conversation if you have time, but I thought I’d pull my thoughts on endings, and in particular, endings as they relate to the project of short fiction, and share them here:

I think when it comes to writing endings there are two questions: first, “How Should the Story End?” And second “How should I write the ending?”
As far as the first question, I like the old cliché about endings: they should feel surprising but inevitable. I think the ideal reaction to the end of a short story is a brief gasp of shock, followed by a more contemplative process in which the reader steps back from the story and understands how it ended up where it did. If the ending isn’t working, the problem is often not the ending itself, but that the story hasn’t gotten there organically, that by the time I get to the ending, I don’t trust it, or it’s resolving the wrong question, or the story hasn’t been going anywhere all along, so it just kind of stops.
As for the question of how to actually write the ending, that’s often trickier. As I said yesterday, I tend to think of a short story as a moment that shifts or changes something permanently, and in that sense it’s sometimes hard to say where the ending stops. Is the ending the second right before the event or epiphany, the moment when it becomes clear to the reader exactly what is going to happen, or is the ending ten years later, when it becomes precisely clear how this moment is going to play out in the rest of these characters’ lives? It’s hard to find the point of just enough sometimes. I tend to be partial to stopping at the moment when you can see things falling into place. I like to leave the reader a bit breathless, bracing for the thing they know as coming next, and I’m of the school of thought that as long as the reader can see it coming, there’s no need for a full denouement to play all the way out on the page. Sometimes this gets called ambiguity, but it’s not really, it’s a concession that the things we imagine are often richer and fuller and more immediately and emotionally moving than the things we get told. If someone tells you there’s a monster under the bed, nine times out of ten the monster you imagine will be both more vivid and more threatening to you than the monster you’ll see if that person lifts the curtain for you. I want the reader to confront the scarier monster; I want the reader to have to admit to him or herself that they actually know what’s about to happen—in the next moment, and in some stories, over the next years or decades.

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One thought on “Baltimore, Nervous Breakdowns, and Monsters Under the Bed

  1. I am in the middle of reading “Before You Suffocate…” and loving it–and I also appreciate the advice you give here about how to end the short story. Please keep writing!

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