Much of what was said above also applies to the contemporary literary short story—but not all of it. This kind of story also evokes some emotion at the end, although the emotion may be mixed and ambiguous. There also needs to be a change of some sort from the beginning of the story to the end, and that change should be embodied in an action. However, the action may be very slight, and, as mentioned earlier, the full import of the change may be carried mostly through symbol.
For instance, the waiter of Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" doesn't do much at the end of the story. He simply goes home, just as he always does. The experiences he has in the story won't change his external life at all. The only indication that he's even had an experience is his recitation of a nihilistic version of the Lord's Prayer. His night's observations have evidently brought out in him (or in the author through him) the feeling that since life must end in death, it is ultimately meaningless. The story embodies this realization in the mangled prayer, which then becomes a symbol for everything else that has happened in the story. The symbols, not the external action, are what carry the story's meaning.
One more example: Stephen Minot's story "Sausage and Beer." In this story a boy and his father set out to visit the father's brother, Uncle Theodore, who is in a state mental hospital. On the way the boy entertains various melodramatic notions about this uncle he's never met. (" 'My Uncle Theodore,' I rehearsed silently, 'he's the cop killer.' ") But instead the visit shocks the boy with its banality, with the utterly ordinary "quiet sound of madness." At the end of the story, father and son stop at a speakeasy (this is the 1930s) for sausage and beer. Food is there, and cheerful noise, and the warmth of the bar after multiple images of freezing cold. "We ate and drank quietly," ends the story, "lost in a kind of communion." The boy has made a passage into an adult realization, and the final action takes on the symbolism of religious ritual. It's not a traditional plotted story because nothing about Uncle Theodore's illness has really been resolved. Not much, in fact, even happened, except symbolically. But that's enough. To show that it's enough, the story ends with a powerful symbol.
Often that symbol will have been introduced at the beginning of the story, in the first paragraph. The first two lines of "Sausage and Beer" are, "I kept quiet for most of the trip. It was too cold to talk." By the end, father and son are still quiet but it is the quiet of "communion" blessed by the waiter's "benedictory smile." And the cold, referred to again and again throughout the story, has been replaced by comforting warmth. The use of the same symbolism at beginning and end creates a circular pattern that helps make even an open-ended story feel "finished."
Again, you might not want to write this kind of story. But as a writer, you should know that it exists, what its ending must accomplish, and how it uses symbols to do so. Many writers who start their careers with traditional plotted stories eventually become intrigued by the literary story and end up writing some of both (I did). And, of course, traditional plotted stories may also incorporate symbols into their action-based endings.
• The ending of the contemporary literary short story may or may not be identical with the climax.
• The story usually makes its point through symbol rather than resolving anything through action. The symbols evolve throughout the story, frequently turning up as early as the first paragraph.
THE VERY, VERY END:
the last Paragraph
Why would I think it worth my while—or yours—to include in this book a section focusing on a single paragraph?
Because the last paragraph of a short story is the power position—and within that position, the last sentence is the most powerful of all. Often—not infallibly, but often—the last sentence or paragraph evokes the theme of the entire story. Final sentences don't do this like Aesop's fables, flat-footedly stating a moral: Don't count your chickens before they hatch. Slow and steady wins the race. Instead, effective final paragraphs use action, symbol, or a character's thoughts to seamlessly comment on the story's meaning while also bringing the plot to a close.
As always, it's easiest to see this through example. Here are the last paragraphs of stories we've discussed in this chapter. Note how each evokes the story's theme:
I nodded. All three of us nodded. Then the waiter brought a tray with the order, and the fat man left us with a quick, benedictory smile. We ate and drank quietly, lost in a kind of communion.
—"Sausage and Beer," a story about the need for, and difficulty of, making genuine contact with other people.
P.P.S. Please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard.
—"Flowers For Algernon," a story about the complex interplay of intelligence and happiness.
"It isn't fair, it isn't right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.
—"The Lottery," a story about the good of the individual versus the perceived good of a whole town.
"No, thank you," said the waiter and went out. He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted café was a very different thing. Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it.
—"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," a story about the inevitable fear of inevitable death.
The last sentences of novels, too, tend to imply the theme of the entire work. This is true even though, as I said earlier, the very end of a novel is relatively unimportant compared to that of a short story. Yet novelists also polish that final paragraph until it does more than just bring the action to a satisfactory close. Consider the thematic implications of these last paragraphs, taken from four otherwise very different novels:
"None of us is going anywhere, Dr. Grant," Guitierrez said, smiling. And then he turned, and walked back toward the entrance of the hotel.
—Jurassic Park., a story about an ecological disaster that has not been successfully corrected, and possibly never can be.
We sat for a long time in silence, and then talked again of Conway as I remembered him, boyish and gifted and full of charm, and of the War that had altered him, and of so many mysteries of time and age and of the mind, and of the little Manchu who had been "most old," and of the strange ultimate dream of the Blue Moon. "Do you think he will ever find it?" I asked.
—Lost Horizon, by James Hilton, a novel about one man's discovery and loss of Shangri-La, the secret valley in the Himalayas that represents humanity's deepest longings: peace, agelessness, and the satisfying of all desire.
Torn paper was flying in the air over the victorious marchers; and now and then a scrap drifted down and brushed the face of the last captain of the Caine.
—The Caine Mutiny, by Herman Wouk, a novel about a World War II naval mutiny, in which the protagonist learns which values matter and which don't: a personal victory amid a mismanaged bureaucracy.
You get down on your knees and tear open the bag. The smell of warm dough envelops you. The first bite sticks in your throat and you almost gag. You will have to go slowly. You will have to learn everything all over again.
—Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney, a novel about a young man who since the death of his mother has buried his grief under a riot of wild, destructive living.
Sometimes the ending paragraph of a novel, as in short stories, deliberately echoes the opening paragraph. In Dan Wakefield's hilarious novel of 1960s sexual mores, Starting Over, the first and last paragraphs are identical single sentences: "Potter was lucky; everyone told him so." The first paragraph congratulates Phil Potter on his divorce; the last, on his remarriage. By using the same wording for two opposite events, author Wakefield slyly points up that Potter has learned nothing, grown not at all from his experiences. He has only come full circle.
Jean Auel, too, in her best-selling Clan ofthe Cave Bear, ends as she begins, with a scene of a child terrified at being separated from its mother. Here the parallel scenes bring some feeling of closure to a novel that isn't actually over, since it's the first in a four-book series. This circular device—like any other—can seem mechanical if it's forced on a book that doesn't warrant it, but when it does fit your story, it can be effective.
Notice that none of these last paragraphs use stiff, abstract language to underline their novels' themes. They aren't obtrusive. Indeed, the careless reader might not register the paragraph's thematic significance at all, except unconsciously. That's all right. A good novel or short story can always be read on two levels: that of plot and that of meaning. So should a good last paragraph.
Was this article helpful?