Short-story endings; using a pen name
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: February 26, 2008
|Does a story always have to have a definite conclusion, or can it be a mysterious ending, where it is up to the reader to decide what happened?|
Generally, the conflict in a short story needs to have some sort of resolution. Without this closure, a story can feel unfinished and leave the reader frustrated. In that sense, yes, stories should have conclusions. However, resolutions in short stories usually aren't comprehensive. They tend to leave some lingering questions for the reader and this lends the story authenticity.
In Raymond Carver's "Cathedral," the narrator dreads the arrival of his wife's friend, a blind man named Robert who is coming to spend the night. The narrator is uncomfortable with his visit, and the fact that he's blind. At the end of the story, a cathedral comes on television and the narrator attempts to define it for Robert. He ends up drawing one, Robert's hand resting on his so Robert can experience the shape of it. Partway though, the narrator closes his own eyes and continues to draw. Robert asks him how it looks and without opening his eyes, he says: "It's really something." This is a small moment, but it's one where the narrator's perception changes. And this is all the conclusion this story needs. Notice the questions that still linger: Will the narrator become more sympathetic or accepting of those unlike himself? Will he form an actual friendship with Robert? Will he be relieved when Robert leaves? We don't know. But we do know this: the narrator was able to see outside his own, limited experience of life.
Think of an ending as a step in a particular direction, as opposed to an all out commitment to that direction. In Flannery O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge," Julian is disdainful toward his mother and her pleasures, such as her new green and purple hat, and the reducing class she takes at the Y to lose weight. At the end, when his mother has an attack after they get off the bus, Julian's true need for her comes out. We don't know how Julian will behave from then on, but his regret in that moment is palpable and revealing.
Even the most open endings offer some sort of resolution. Percival Everett's "The Fix" opens with Sherman being beaten up because he refused to fix what others wanted him to. A shop owner takes him in and he becomes a part of this community. We learn Sherman can fix unexpected things, like foot massagers earlier deemed unfixable, and the squeak in a shoe. And his fixing extends to people: He "solve[s] the Morado woman's sexual identity problem" and revives a woman who died in an accident. The people in the community become desperate and demanding of his ability. He's chased to a bridge with a "long drop, which no one could hope to survive." The mob presses in from either side. The story ends this way:
Sherman stepped over the railing and stood on the brink, the toes of his shoes pushed well over the edge.
"Don't!" they all screamed. "Fix us! Fix us!"
Does Sherman jump? Or does he climb down and face the crowd? Does he survive? The story doesn't say. But this ending resolves an important element of the conflict. Sherman will continue to suffer at the hands of others because of his ability. This may not be an ability he will be able to use without immediate danger to himself.
The degree to which your ending is enshrouded in mystery can vary, but you do need to offer some resolution. And be careful to avoid endings that are so vague the reader doesn't have any indication of what to make of it. A definitive resolution is part of what makes a story an actual story, as opposed to an anecdote, or a mere collection of actions strung together.
|How does a beginning writer approach having a pen name? Do you include it in your manuscript? How do you mention it to potential publishers in a professional manner?|
A pen name is a fictionalized name that some writers use instead of their real one. Sometimes writers do this to keep their different kinds of writing separate, using, for example, a pen name to publish children's books, and the real name to publish adult horror books. It's a perfectly legitimate practice, as long as you're not using it for an unlawful purpose.
You can usually include this information in a query for books or a cover letter for journal submissions. Some writers will sign the letter with their pen name and indicate in the body of the letter that they've done this. Or, you could simply include your pen name after the letters a.k.a. (also known as) under your legal name on your letterhead or wherever you include your contact information. Other writers will use their legal name to sign letters and mention their desire to use a pen name in the body of the letter.
Which option you choose is up to you, but it's important to be clear and up front with publishers. You don't want to give them reason to question your intentions. And they will need your legal name in order to pay you.
|Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.|
Send your questions on the craft of creative writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.