This is where it all ends.
This is the opening lyric to the Cult’s 1989 album Sonic Temple. I remember it like it was yesterday. Standing in my dorm room, unwrapping it to the excitement of getting to hear something new, the first few guitar riffs unrolling to Ian Astbury announcing as much as singing the first line: This is where it all ends.
Of course, I wasn’t thinking about flash fiction back then. But I was thinking about Passion. Clarity. Authority. The Turn. The Command. This wasn’t about the beginning. This was the end, Mofo. It always was about the end.
Let’s say the ending is the most important part of flash fiction. This argument can’t be too wrong even if I previously supported ideas that the beginning was the most important.
But the ending is the whole point, isn’t it? It’s where we are going. It’s where the beginning said it would take us. It’s the promise that must be kept.
I know one thing for sure. An ending can be the reason an editor might reject an otherwise beautiful story. It’s where they might say no to the one they love. I know it’s happened to me. Sometimes the editor even says so in the rejection. And they’re right.
Let’s say an ending has to have some of these things:
A Choice is made. Something is realized. A character wins. A character loses. A character wins something even if it wasn’t the thing they originally wanted to win. Someone dies. Someone lives. Chekov’s gun goes off. Satisfaction. Expectation. Surprise. Resolution. Echo. The ending does all the work. The character’s balance has to be either restored or destroyed. The character does something different. They are taken to a place they weren’t at in the beginning, and therefore, the reader is moved as well.
The ending of Jeff Landon’s Five Men in a Hot Tub is a good example of a story smoothly going to a place that you didn’t expect it to go. We used this story as an example in our piece on beginnings. He sets up the world quickly: a man in a hot tub with his four friends. He says they’re there to help Billy deal with the death of his marriage. That might stay true, but by the end, we know Billy isn’t the one needing this help. Each paragraph raises the stakes for the protagonist step by step. In paragraph 2 the men are “kindred with shame.” In paragraph 3, the narrator’s wife is also leaving him. His friends are all he has left in paragraph 4 even though they “all used to be someone else.” In paragraph 5, the narrator remembers telling his mother that everyone is torn. And then the ending. He’s out of the hot tub (taken to a different place) standing outside with his friend Chip after they’ve nearly struck a buck with their car. He sees their breath, and he sees snowflakes on Chip’s bald head, and it reminds him of being with his wife and their baby. We are now as far away from five fat men in a hot tub as you can be. He is dipping his baby into the ocean (baptizing us all). He is seeing her baby hair standing straight up like “she is trying to give the wind something to dry its hands on.”
He has gone to a place that makes sense from step to step. He is in the beauty of the memory of his child, but he is not undamaged. Everyone is torn, but the baby is there to help them all. This end is not the end of the world.
Pretty Girl, by Jacqueline Doyle, was one of our Pushcart nominations this year at New Flash Fiction Review. It is a difficult story to read that pulls no punches. Right from the start, it’s going for your gut as hard as it can. It doesn’t take long to find where our character is or what her balance is or what’s at stake:
She has no idea how long it’s been since he came up behind her in the dark parking garage, one hand squeezing her throat, one holding a gun to her head, whispering “Don’t scream, pretty girl,” his breath hot on her neck.
For the next 800 words or so, we progressively learn that she is duct taped and lying on the floor of the back seat of her car (as far from balance as possible), driven by her attacker. It blends with memories of her life before (balance).
One of the punches not held back is the idea of how it will end for her. The reader is in the same spot as the protagonist: wanting to delay the inevitable ending. Wanting to see anything else. The only grace given is that delay. Everything that happens, every word is in balance with the mission.
She feels sick, she’s never had a headache this bad, she’s trembling from the cold, the grit on the floor cuts into her bare arms and legs, which are covered with goose bumps, and all she wants is to curl up beside her mom on the ratty brown couch in the family room with the green afghan wrapped around her, watching some dumb show on TV. Cramped on the floor of the back seat, twisting with her arms bound behind her, she watches streetlights on the freeway whiz by outside the car window above her, then nothing, telephone poles, an increasingly emptier night sky, hazy, with hardly any stars. She can’t remember ever looking at the sky for this long before.
We nominated Kara Vernor’s story How Not to Become an Expat for Best Small Fiction 2019. Its convention is second person advice on what not to do when you live in a foreign land. It uses a humorous device of presenting unconventional things the protagonist has done as actionable pieces of advice for everyone. The entire piece is about the way this world throws the character’s life out of balance. “Sense the quiet of the house, a stranger world than the already strange world you bussed through to get there.” The character goes through an escalation of adventures involving drugs, sex, and economics. The ending is a beginning too. It starts the process of coming down from this buzz. It finds a way to get back to balance that only this strange world could provide: “Have a couple more nights on the town. Fuck one more stranger. Forgive yourself for not learning Spanish. Buy your ticket home.” This ending is about endings.
Let’s say a Listicle about Endings isn’t even possible. There is no easy answer. There is no perfect rule. But there is a flow. There is a balance. There is a signature key you will know when you hear it, both on and off.
Here’s are a few patterns of endings I feel get out of key. This is subjective and comes from the “there is no right or wrong” space. But it’s also a space you probably don’t want your reader to be thinking about:
This kind of ending makes a grand landing that seems meant to dazzle and impress. It says, Look at me! Look at the amazing thing I just pulled off. Wasn’t that the shit? And it might be. But I think if it was in balance and in the natural flow we would see the story landing more than the writer. We would see the amazement more than the amazer. We don’t want a magic trick; we just want the magic?
Hold My Beer
This ending is similar but maybe even more off center. This one says about the other 2/3 of the story, you think that was good, how about this! And the final 1/3 is entirely something different. It’s not just unnatural flow, it’s a whole new stream.
That’s All Folks!
This ending is similar to the last episode of The Sopranos. It just cuts to black. It abruptly cuts to Porky the Pig saying, That’s all Folks! It is the opposite of flow, natural or unnatural. Rather than going from point A to B it goes from point A to–
Let’s say an ending has to have all of these things. None of these things. Let’s say the list of what not to do can easily be the list of the best endings ever.
Let’s say the ending has to have intent.
Let’s just say: This is where it all ends.