Hello, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, nonbinary individuals of all ages. It’s been a while since we had an update from the editor-in-chief, but I’m out of work for the next week or so and currently editing an approximately 500 page novel. So why not add more writing to the mix?
I want to address something real quick, because one of the things I feel really passionate about is stories. Lately, with all the poetry we’ve been publishing, that might be a little unclear. However, my explanation for that is that, in my passion regarding fiction, I, personally, can be pretty picky when it comes to good fiction. I’ve already given some of my personal guidelines on what I think makes good writing, and over the years (crazy to think it’s been that long), addendums have been made to our guidelines. But I don’t really want to talk about this there, especially since it reflects my opinion and not the opinion of any of the other editors. To cut to the chase: I want to start addressing some tropes that will quickly get pieces in my personal rejection pile.
The first trope that I want to discuss is…
Suddenly, in a twist ending, Matthew Maichen’s post was cut off. He was found later to have died of a heart attack.
Death is violent, climatic, and conclusive. If you’re writing about a single character, the death of that character unequivocally ends whatever you’re writing. It’s an easy ending that can get an audience reaction, guaranteed, and it sidesteps a lot of issues. No need for obvious Deus Ex Machina when you aren’t even going to save your central character. Hell, even if the stakes aren’t life-threatening, you can avoid the actual resolution of every realistic, practical problem a character has by just killing them. In fact, my god, it’s perfect! Why doesn’t every writer end their story, this way?
Be honest: if the above was really the conclusion of this post, would you even be remotely satisfied?
What if I told you that we get stories that end like this almost every week?
I’m coining it right now, at the risk of coining something already coined. It’s called an: “And Then He Died” ending, and they’re apparently everywhere, at least as far as what people seem to be submitting. The funny thing is, when I read fiction that’s actually published, they seem to be sorely underrepresented. Maybe a lot of publishers share my opinion.
Let’s keep referring to the case-in-point to dissect this, because obviously, not all stories that end with main character death are bad. Some are suspenseful, shocking or tragic or otherwise just interesting. So what’s the difference? Why is the above heart-attack ending such poor form?
Let’s start with this: did I resolve the topic of the article before I just killed myself off and left you hanging? No. In fact, I didn’t even get to the meat of what I was talking about. I feel that a lot of writers arbitrarily end their stories in death because they feel no one can accuse them of not tying off loose ends. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, in random death, I not only failed to tie those loose ends, I diced the strings and threw away the pieces. After all, post-heart attack, not only did you not get to see the end of the article, you lost all hope of me ever finishing it. How will I? Bruh, I’m fucking dead.
Let’s say I write a story dealing with the misery that elder Americans have to deal with in their golden years. It’s about a woman in her mid-80s named Betsy. I introduce an absent son who doesn’t visit Betsy as much as he should. I introduce a live-in caregiver who is getting Betsy to sign all kinds of suspicious forms, with the implication that she’s signing away her life savings. I introduce the less personified but even more ominous threat of Betsy’s encroaching dementia. All these problems are building up, they’re coming to a head, they’re–
Betsy dies in her sleep and her cause of death is being old.
Do you feel it yet? That frustration? Where was this all actually going? Just like our last example, this fails to tie off loose threads, but there’s another issue that to me is even worse: there’s no thematic coherence. Think about it. Betsy could have died in her sleep surrounded by loved ones. She could have died in her sleep neglected as she was. The death doesn’t build on anything that happened previously in the story, aside from Betsy being old. It just happens.
So let’s try something different: say the caregiver, after taking the last of Betsy’s money, starts a fire. Betsy’s absent son is at work. In her dementia, Betsy notices the fire too late, crawls toward the phone, and calls him. Not 911. His number is the only one she can remember. He doesn’t answer the phone call from his mother, assuming it’s unimportant. Tragically, brutally, and in a way that exposes elder abuse in America, Betsy dies.
In what is still a shit ending.
Look, it’s an improvement. The last ending entirely ruined the story. This one’s just boring and lazy. My reaction, if I received this, would be: “Okay. I get it. Poor Betsy. I’m willing to be persuaded by the other editors on this one, if they really liked it.”
What makes this ending bad? Nothing is actually resolved. It’s not about whether it’s happy or sad. It’s not even actually about whether Betsy dies or not, though I guarantee you a dead Betsy increases your chances of the ending being awful. But all I really did, in this story, was introduce a series of problems. I said to you: “Hey? See that? That’s bad. That’s a bad thing.” Then, at the very end, I said to you: “Wow look at all these bad things that killed her. They’re so bad.”
I allowed all of Betsy’s issues to run their natural course leading to her death. My main character was powerless to resolve her problems, and the reader had no reason to believe that she would. I tackled no deeper issues beyond Betsy’s immediate struggles, and even the claim that this is thematically “about elder abuse” isn’t enough to grant the story a satisfactory amount of complexity. More than anything, I left my readers walking away having read a thoroughly unpleasant story, taking away nothing of real merit beside the fact that it was unpleasant.
Now, let’s say we focused the story more on the relationship between Betsy and her son. In addition to Betsy’s struggles with old-age, we’re also getting the son’s struggles with keeping up in a fast-paced career economy while not ignoring his elderly mother. We make the resulting story very similar to the above one, except, at the very end, the son notices the urgency of the call from his mother, calls 911, and then leaves work to make sure his mother is okay. His boss threatens him, tells him that if he leaves its his job on the line (obviously the boss has his own issues of being cartoony and one-dimensional now, but bear with me.) The son says: “I’ve got to make sure my mother is okay, I don’t care about anything else,” and leaves.
And suddenly, it doesn’t matter whether Betsy survives or not. We have characters actively making choices that carry consequences. They’re not just victims of their fate. The son arrives to find his mother dealing with some heavy smoke inhalation, but alive. Betsy struggles with her dementia, and against all odds manages to connect the dots from all the forms that the villainous caregiver has been making her sign. Is it too late to catch her? As far as whether you want a happy or sad story, it matters. As far as whether you want a good story, it actually doesn’t.
Now in order to make this ending good, I as a writer have to put in some serious work. I have to develop and improve the relationship between mother and son as the story goes on. They actually have to reconnect and re-establish themselves, building toward this point. They need good, old-fashioned character development.
And that’s hard. Especially in a short story. But here’s the takeaway: when you have one of these endings, it’s very likely that the ending in and of itself is not the entire problem. In fact, it may be laced throughout the story. Plotlines and characters weren’t established and developed as they should have been. You failed to build the tower right from its foundation, and now your only option is to knock down all the blocks.
So when you reach the end of a fiction piece, and your only thought for how to conclude it is death, consider very carefully how you got here, and what you might be saying past: “Wow, that’s so shocking, tragic, and otherwise upsetting.”
TL;DR: “And Then He Died Endings” are bad because:
- They often don’t actually resolve the story, they just feel like they do.
- They’re lazy and simplistic, both plot-wise and thematically.
- They expose poor development across the entire story, not just the end.
- To be honest, I personally have no interest in what the most depressing thing you can think up is.