We talk a lot about the importance in fiction of a strong beginning, but what is often harder to pull off successfully is the ending. This is especially true in short fiction, which doesn’t provide much space to introduce new characters, develop an intriguing situation, and bring it all to a satisfactory resolution (which doesn’t necessarily mean tying it up with a bow).
There are plenty of ways an ending can fail to satisfy, but on closer examination, it is rarely the ending itself that’s at fault. Endings build on what has gone before. Endings that stumble often indicate a deeper issue with the story’s premise or structure, and rarely can they be fixed just by changing the last few paragraphs.
A story that begins by drawing a roadmap and then proceeds to follow it exactly as outlined tends to make for a pretty dull tale. So stories often try to subvert the expectations they have set by serving up a twist, but this isn’t as easy as it might sound. Springing a surprise on the audience without a hint that things are not as they seem is a manipulative trick. In the worst case this can come off as a “Jar of Tang” story that exists only to drop the supposedly clever “Gotcha!” at the end. Some authors even go so far as to hide information from the reader that the characters are privy to, purely to preserve the surprise. The ending may not be terrible per se, but such an inversion of dramatic irony almost inevitably reveals the entire story to be a sort of elaborate practical joke on the reader.
But walking the middle road between utter predictability and bolt-from-the-blue is hard. We’ve all read a lot of stories. (As Nathan Fillion puts it, “We’re the most story-literate society the world has ever seen.”) We don’t expect the story to take the most obvious path — that would make it not worth telling. So we’re alert to the foreshadowing that makes a twist feel earned and we can often guess it before the reveal. A strong story doesn’t derive all its power from the element of surprise — it delivers its impact even when you can see the twist coming. In “Matthias Comes Home From the War,” the audience is likely to recognize what is happening before Matthias fully understands it himself, but this awareness doesn’t undercut the tension; on the contrary, it makes the unfolding of his realization all the more poignant.
Similar to the twist is the surprise premise. But if we’re reading a science fiction story we’re already expecting to find a situation that we haven’t encountered before. If we start the story with a mundane setting we’re going to be watching for the weird element to show up (and, unless it’s very original, we will see it coming before it gets here). Some stories spend so much time setting up the premise that all we ever see is the setup, and the story ends just as it’s starting to get interesting. It’s a bad ending, not because it’s a cheap surprise but rather because it’s not an ending at all. At best, these stories read like the first chapter of a novel that we might have enjoyed, if we’d had the chance to read it.
Just like there are times when it’s a good idea to violate the dictum, “show don’t tell,” there are times when information that could be played for surprise is better delivered straight up. For example: A vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost inhabit the same apartment. Best to get that out of the way so that we can move on to all the complications that it entails, rather than reveal it slowly because it’s such a neat idea. After all, a premise is only as good as the narrative possibilities it affords, and a story’s success lies in how well it exploits those possibilities.
At the opposite extreme from stories that hold on to surprises for too long are those that give them away from the start. Stories that begin at the chronological end of the narrative (or at least at a climactic moment) and then go back in time to show us how we got to that point have become increasingly popular of late, especially in television series. In some cases, by the time we’ve caught up to the events that we’ve already seen, we realize that our assumptions the first time around were mistaken and see them in a new light. This device is sometimes a gimmick that fails to redeem a weak narrative, but when it’s well done, the story is truly about the journey rather than the destination.
A virtuoso example of the technique can be found in Spin by Robert Charles Wilson. The novel opens several billion years into the future, then jumps back to something close to the present day, while staying with the same characters. Right away (and without having to read the back cover) you know something strange is going on with time, and that it has to do with the disappearance of the stars. Before long there are references to Martians and the fact that one of the main characters is dead in the distant-future time frame. But none of this robs the main narrative of its drama. The story of how we get to this point is riveting, dropping revelations both big and small along the way, without invalidating what we’ve seen of the future or making any of it seem like a cheat. In the end, this story closes the loop most satisfyingly, a sign of a book that’s well built from the very beginning.