How to End a Story

This essay looks at the contrast between the endings in films and those in novels and short stories.

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Three cult films from the late-1960s/1970s end in three similar but slightly different ways. Vanishing Point ends with the the character of Kowalski being killed in a collision between his car and a bulldozer. Quadrophenia ends with Jimmy sending his Lambretta over the cliff. The Italian Job concludes with the fate of its bank robbers quite literally in the balance. These endings are unusual in being so conclusive, even if not always as conclusive as Vanishing Point.

Typically endings in novels and short stories are something else, something less final, holding within them a new beginning. They might involve: an intellectual growth or realisation as the result of a journey, a way of moving forwards; the continuation of a cycle beginning again as before, a repetition; or any number of solutions that you might find outlined in blogposts offering writing advice. Even tragedies hold the door open to new beginnings. And there is something about the drive towards regeneration that exists in fiction as it does in nature that makes Kowalski’s end shocking. He is simply gone.

This drive for regeneration is the same one that makes people want to puzzle their way out of Michael Caine’s predicament. For Jimmy, we think on his future life, though it seems less than rosy.

You will rarely come across big endings like these in novels and short fiction. Big endings don’t translate well to the page. A printed story is the careful working out of an equation, whereas a piece of film can make its own maths. By which I mean it can make things real through trickery and illusion. If our eyes see it, we can believe it, whereas in written stories our mind must understand it. The irony here is that life can be more than capable of throwing a curve ball and ending abruptly, and yet literature struggles with portraying this randomness.

Anthony Levings is a writer compelled by capturing moments in time and history.

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