Taking a Knife to Short Story Endings

Almost exactly a year ago (in my 18th March ‘Keeping Perky’ post), I wrote: everything’s gone a bit weird, hasn’t it?

And 12 months later, it’s still weird.

Although, hopefully, with vaccines being dished out (here at least), quicker than you can say ‘global pandemic’, there is a glimmer of light at the end of what’s been a very dark tunnel.

In the writing classes I teach (via Zoom these days, of course), we are tentatively starting to talk about ‘when we can meet again properly’. *Fingers crossed.*

I had my jab on Tuesday and my arm is still sore, which I’m hoping means, despite having done hardly any exercise for a year, that I still have a vestige of muscle in there and it hasn’t all turned to flab.

But enough of this and onto writing stuff.

Telling Tales Short Story Competition

Chipping Norton Theatre is running a short story competition, open to children and unpublished adult writers, which closes on 30th April.

There are three age categories for entry: 7 – 11 years, 12 – 15 years and Adult.

The theme for the 7 – 11 years is The Visitor but ages 12 – 15 and adult can write on any subject that gets the creative juices flowing and it’s free to enter.

The short stories will be read by an impressive panel of readers and judges, including:

 Peter Buckman, writer and literary agent
 Jo Cotterill, award-winning children’s author
 Guy Jones, playwright and novelist
Clare Mackintosh, multi-award-winning author

The winner in each category will have their story published in the Oxford Mail and a printed anthology.

I teach 2 creative writing classes which are based at the Theatre in Chipping Norton but I have nothing to do with setting up or judging this competition! So, I can’t help or hinder you but good luck if you decide to enter.

Short Story Endings

I’ve just finished reading over 140 entries for the Evesham Festival Short Story competition and my mind, unsurprisingly, is focussed on short stories. Or at least, as much as it can focus on anything at the moment. (Anyone else feel like they’re wading through treacle? I don’t seem to be able to concentrate for longer than about ten minutes at a time, which is why it’s taken me all week to put this post together).

If you write stories for the (now almost-non-existent) woman’s magazine market, you’ll be ‘programmed’ – like me – to strive for happy endings. Womag stories, although they can and do deal with dark and difficult subjects, must have a hopeful or an upbeat ending because on the whole, people read magazine fiction for escapism and enjoyment and they don’t want to be depressed. I can understand that, particularly at the moment (in my book club we have a new ‘rule’: we don’t want to read anything depressing!)

But stories aimed at writing competitions don’t have to follow those ‘rules’. I think it’s fair to say that a good proportion of the stories I read for the competition, did not have happy endings. And that’s fine. I don’t mind a sad ending, or a happy ending (as long as it’s not too twee). When I read a short story – particularly if I’m judging it for a competition – I want a GOOD ending. And good endings are tricky, aren’t they?

Award-winning writer Gaynor Jones who knows a thing or two about writing short stories and flash fiction (one of her lovely stories, Butterfly Kisses, is here), says she doesn’t think she’s written a happy ending in her life.

I recently read some advice from her (in the Retreat West newsletter, to be precise. You can sign up for it here, if you’re interested), in which she said ‘short fiction should leave the reader with more questions than answers’ and when she’s asked to critique short fiction, almost always, her advice is to cut the last line or even the last paragraph of a story.

It’s very tempting to try to tie everything up in those last few lines, isn’t it, to make sure the reader ‘Gets It’? But you have to trust that the reader will. Leave some gaps for him to fill in, or allow him to imagine what might have happened before, or after, or during the time in which your story takes place. If you read Gaynor Jones’ ‘Butterfly Kisses’ (the link’s above) you’ll notice that there’s a big gap before the final section of the story. A gap that the reader has to fill in. It works fine, doesn’t it? Better than fine, I think it’s great.

I can’t say too much, obviously, about the stories I read for the Evesham Festival competition, because it’s still being judged, but there were certainly some otherwise excellent stories that fell at the final hurdle. They had endings that either fizzled out, or didn’t make sense or, more often, were over-written and were like a summary or an explanation of what had just gone before.

It was such a shame.

This entry was posted in Competitions, Magazines, Short Stories and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Taking a Knife to Short Story Endings

  1. I think endings are always difficult! But short stories in particular are so exposed that a weak ending really sticks out: you have to make every word count, especially those last ones.

    • I agree, Kathleen. Some people think that a short story has to end with a twist, too, don’t they? I like a good twist, if it works and if the whole story doesn’t then seem like an extended ‘gag’. But it’s not easy to pull it off.

  2. pennywrite says:

    I can write no end of beginnings! And re-write even more endings – they’re definitely the most difficult!

  3. Kate Hogan says:

    After all your hard work on your novel, then reading over 140 entries for the Evesham Festival Short Story competition I’m not surprised you’re finding it hard to focus on anything at the moment. I haven’t done very much at all and I feel as if I’m wading through treacle. I’m so fatigued
    some times I can’t even talk straight! Think this past year has been tough on us all. Pat yourself on the back, Helen, for all you’ve managed to achieve. Thanks for all the info. Good wishes. Kate Hogan.

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