The other day someone posed this question: must you know the ending of the story when you begin writing it?
If you have read this newsletter for a bit, or know me in real life, you know that I am a pantser. I want to plan things, honestly, I do. And yet. (I just put ice cream in my breakfast granola because someone, ahem, did not go to the store to buy yogurt yesterday. Also, can now recommend this substitution.) There are very few instances where a story comes to me fully formed before I put pencil to paper. I write as discovery and don’t really know my characters until they reveal themselves to me.
In grad school, nearly every story I wrote had the same ending: character gets in the car and drives away. I’m not kidding when I say maybe six or seven stories I wrote had this ending. I had a laugh at this realization and tucked that device in a drawer. Turns out, there’s a lot of different ways to end a story. But I wonder if you also have some similar devices that you return to again and again. It might not be endings, it might be a phrase of dialogue that gets repeated or an action or an image. It’s important for us to take note of these tics so that we can push ourselves further in our writing practice.
If I’m honest, I didn’t find the ending of Rebecca to be very satisfying. I’m not sure I can fully articulate the reasons. Is it unexpected? Yes. Was it memorable? It could have been. It’s a big event, the burning of Manderley, but it gets just a few lines. Narratively speaking, it changes everything. Though a lot of the other reveals in the novel held more weight. And maybe that’s the problem. It seems like a reveal, a new hill of rising action, instead a conclusion.
So, that got me thinking about stories that really stick the endings…
Our story for today is Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff. (Here’s an audio version of T.C. Boyle reading it.) It’s only a few pages, and the perfect story for August when the heat has left us feeling out of sorts, and we are fed up with folks around us.
As far as characters go Anders is up there on the unlikable scale. He thinks he’s better than everyone else. Smarter. He is cantankerous for the sake of it. I suppose you know an Anders in your life. Someone who wants to play Devil’s advocate for the sport of it.
Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the presumptuous crybaby in front of him. “Damned unfair,” he said. “Tragic, really. If they’re not chopping off the wrong leg, or bombing your ancestral village, they’re closing their positions.”
Even when the bank is being robbed, when he’s told to shut up, he can’t help but continue with his obnoxious commentary. He’s been a critic for so long, he can’t see life through anything but a critical eye. And this becomes his downfall. He’s shot. It’s hard to feel sorry for him. Afterall, it’s his own fault. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
What Wolff does with the ending, works against our expectations. Not only with the memory itself - why does he pick this day that has been forgotten? - but he takes us back in time to a moment when Anders was a boy, not yet obnoxious, not yet hardened by life, but full of curiosity. Too, the memory provides a newness for Anders - language that he doesn’t expect.
But before we get to what he remembers, Wolff catalogues all that he doesn’t:
It’s worth nothing what Anders did not remember, given what he did remember.
It’s not any of the people who were important to him - his first lover, his wife, his daughter. Not his mother or father. It’s not the poems he committed to memory, things he thought would give him comfort.
No. But through the ticking off of these things he did not remember, we get a better sense of Anders. The things that once brought him joy. And we also see how he has grown tired of his life. And angry about it. Wolff doesn’t tell us that Anders had plenty of opportunity to change course. We know that he did. Any life does. Especially one that seems as comfortable as his.
This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whirr of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gther for a pickup game. He looks on as the others argue the relative genius of Mantle and Mays.
There’s a switch in tenses here from past to present. It’s counterintuitive, perhaps, since narratively, we’re going back in time. But it makes the memory more immediate. The fragments signal a change.
Wolff stays in that last moment as long as he can. The last paragraph is far more lyrical than any of the ones that have come before. (Take a look at the sentences and dialogue in the bank scene. They are very efficient.) Too, he changes the way that he sees and presents Anders. There’s a connection to that kid. A potential still there:
The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.
The whole story is about encounters with strangers. The tedious and tiresome vs the ones that leave you awestruck. Write a scene where two strangers are made to wait with one another. How do they behave? What do they learn about themselves through this encounter?
Or. Consider how a memory might shed a different light on your character.
Revision prompt: It’s the newness of langauge that fills young Anders with curiosity. (Those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music.) Isn’t that the way of writing? Find a spot in your story or manuscript that is meh. Circle five verbs that are passive or predictable and find more interesting ones. Circle six nouns that could be more specific. Look to see what other sounds are happening in your sentence and aim to repeat one of those sounds. Look at your sentence structure. Is it all the same? Consider how changing it up, making runons, might add energy in places.
Have a nonfiction manuscript nearly ready? Tin House is reading unagented non-fiction Sept. 4-5. (Debut fiction will be read Jan 1-3.)
Jami Attenberg is hosting a Mini 1000 words of summer August 8-13.
And if you are up for a reading challenge, the Sealey Challenge starts today. Just read a book of poetry every day in August and watch how lyrical your prose becomes.
Okay, scribblers. Hear that whirr of cicadas? That’s your writing music for August. Get those pencils up and ready to dance~