How to Write an Ending that is Surprising Yet Inevitable
The first installment of Read Like a Writer, a new Recommended Reading series about the craft of fiction
Welcome to Read Like a Writer, a new series that examines a different element of the craft of fiction writing in each installment, using examples from the Recommended Reading archives. Each month, the editors of Recommended Reading—Halimah Marcus, Brandon Taylor, and Erin Bartnett—will select a few stories that illustrate a specific technique, style, or writing challenge. The title of our series owes a debt to Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose.
Flannery O’Connor allegedly said that endings should be “surprising yet inevitable.” Whether or not she actually said this, the internet will not easily verify. But it does apply well to her stories, most notably “Good Country People” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” (Or as we like to think of them together “A Good Country Man Is Hard to Find.”) The experience of reading to the end of these stories is certainly surprising—in the first, a lonely academic woman’s leg is stolen by a “simple” bible salesman, in the second, a grandmother is executed point blank by an escaped convict—but inevitable? It’s only in retrospect and through subsequent readings that you realize O’Connor doled out the material for those endings from the first page. Inevitability is crafted: it’s what separates “surprising,” which energizes the reader, from “a twist,” which makes the reader feel tricked.
The idea that endings should be surprising yet inevitable is an escalation of something Aristotle wrote in his Poetics: That the “change of fortune” should “arise from the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should be the necessary or probable result of the preceding action.” Sometimes “necessary” is translated as “inevitable.” (We’re using the S.H. Butler translation offered by the Internet Classics Archive.)
Aristotle’s request is reasonable—that the action follows a chain of cause and effect—where as O’Connor’s edict seems oxymoronic, even impossible. And yet, there are writers who continue to pull it off. In fiction, when every sentence is subject to change, written out of order, and endlessly revised, endings are built piece-by-piece. So how do these writers do it? How do they signal the ending without giving away the surprise?
For the first edition of Read Like A Writer, we’ve selected three stories from the Recommended Reading archives that deliver a surprise and not a trick. These stories showcase a range of surprising endings—from unexpected to shocking—and offer lessons in how the tools of tone, plot, and character are used.
The following stories are by definition very easy to spoil. We’ve done our best not to give away specifics, but if you want a pure, unadulterated surprising but inevitable reading experience, we suggest you read them before the analysis.
“Wintering Over” by Jason Brown
The writing prompt for “Wintering Over” might as well have been: think of a person’s worst secret, one that they have never told anyone. A secret that is as devastating as it is criminal. Now, reverse engineer the story that would move that person to share their secret for the first time.
Charlotte and Nathan are “wintering over” in an old, rickety house in Maine. She’s a potter and he’s a writer, and the cold and the isolation wears at Nathan’s creativity. Neither enjoy their new home, but neither are willing to admit it. Soon Nathan is in a full blown bought of writer’s block, worthy of the Overlook Hotel. During their stay and the hours she increasingly spends alone, Charlotte reflects on the summers she spent with her family in Minnesota, a place that feels opposite to Maine in season and setting but related by freedom from responsibility. She was outside of life there as she is here, and neither place is particularly happy. Their stay concludes with a staggering confession. To bring Charlotte to the place necessary for her to tell Nathan her secret, Brown makes use of every tool available to him as a writer: setting, circumstance, weather, character, memory, emotion, and theme. Without the reader noticing, every aspect of the story is working, but not pointing, to the end.
When you’re having trouble finding the right ending, the first thing to do is to take a thorough inventory of everything you’ve already written. If the ending is going to be surprising yet inevitable, its seeds are already planted. There might be something you can use that you’ve overlooked. A character who left but can come back, a step that’s always creaking, a lie that was told. “Wintering Over” is an excellent example of where the ending might hide. The surprising element here doesn’t come from a plot turn, an action, or an event that changes the course of the narrative. The surprise comes from a memory; it comes from the past.
“Valentine” by Alexander Yates
A common downfall for story endings is the “flinch”––when a story inches up close to something emotionally scary, and then, instead of pushing deeper, pulls up and away from the very thing the story is most interested in. “Valentine” by Alexander Yates does not flinch.
Sandra works at a flower shop in a small town to which she’s recently relocated. When she leaves for work on Valentine’s Day, she finds a bloody beef heart on her porch. The meat has been stabbed with something like cupid’s arrow. Sandra looks closer. Actually, it’s a metal bolt. You, reader, might be surprised. But Sandra? “She’s surprised and then not surprised to see it,” Yates writes, because she already knows who has done this. Sandra scans the street and spots her stalker sitting naked in a rental car, staring at her from a legally-permissible distance away.
How can the story escalate from here? In part, “Valentine” raises the stakes by contrasting the chaos of the stalker with the lawfulness of Sandra’s new life, where her friends make up the small town establishment. There’s Molly the emergency dispatcher, who is engaged to the sheriff. And there’s Sandra’s new boyfriend, the deputy, aka “Deputy Jeff,” whom Sandra dates at Molly’s encouragement.
As the tension between Deputy Jeff and the stalker grows, the story moves towards an ending that is more inevitable than it is surprising. The end, we know, will involve a confrontation. But when that confrontation occurs, no one in the scene looks away, not Sandra, not the stalker, and especially not Yates. “Valentine” proves that there’s a way of surprising the reader by fearlessly facing the story you’ve set up, and carrying it through to the painful end. The surprise isn’t what happens, it’s how it happens, and how it makes you feel.
“Ball” by Tara Ison
“Ball” by Tara Ison has the most out-there ending of any of the stories on this list, a classic “what the fuck?” plot swerve that makes you immediately return to the start, asking, “What makes this story think it can get away with this?” And then you reread the first few paragraphs and realize, “Oh, that’s why.”
“Ball,” as Rick Moody writes in his introdution, “is a truly outrageous story about contemporary relationships, sex, and dog ownership.” He also calls the story honest, tragicomic, astringent, and provocative.
The narrator is dating a guy named Eric. They have amazing sex but she doesn’t take him seriously. She plays games with him, like going on a long trip without telling him, just to keep him at a distance. The narrator also plays games with her dog Tess, who is obsessed with “ball” and can never be satisfied. This all seems fairly normal, except the narrator devotes most of the first paragraph to Tess’s “prettiest little dog vagina.” Her description is at once affectionate and disturbingly medical: “It’s a tidy, quarter-inch slit in a pinky-tip protuberance of skin, delicate and irrelevant and veiled with fine, apricot hair.” Who hasn’t looked at their dog’s vagina, but also, who has described it so precisely?
While you’re busy either justifying or pathologizing the narrator’s behavior, little do you know, dear reader, that this story has been preparing you for its outrageous conclusion by challenging your expectations of the action that follows the jokes.