• Joanna Campbell

The End of the Story

When we write the conclusion to a story, are we still connecting with the theme? I thought I would illustrate how the closing stages can go awry by using as an example my story, No Consequence. It was published some years ago in a magazine, but needed a partial rewrite first to improve the ending.

The story is about Ashley, whose parents invite his aunt and uncle to dinner every sixth Friday. This particular sixth Friday is also Ashley’s eighteenth birthday.

Some time ago, Ashley stumbled upon a letter addressed to him and dated the year he was born. It reveals that he is actually his aunt and uncle’s son, rather than their nephew. They had felt too young to take on the responsibility of a child. His parents (in reality, of course, his biological aunt and uncle) adopted him and never told him about his origins. The letter makes it clear that the four adults will give it to him on his eighteenth birthday, when he is old enough to finally know the truth.

Ashly is far less distressed by the facts of his parentage than by the prospect of life changing. He has always been happy with things as they are and doesn't want the truth to interfere. He would prefer not to be presented with the letter on his birthday, but for life to continue as always.

After the Friday dinner, the family always plays the old parlour game, Consequences, in which each player writes down a word or phrase to create part of a story, then folds the paper over to hide their line before passing it on to the next player. Often the structure of the story is based on two imaginary people and what they do together and say to each other, then the final outcome or consequence of their meeting.

This time, Ashley is responsible for reading out the whole story, for which he has written the final words. The scene forms the conclusion of No Consequence. Here is the first version:

“Go on then, Ashley,” his mother said. “Tell us the consequence.”

He hesitated, then out it came.

“OK, right then. Er…and eighteen years ago the couple had a baby called Ashley. But they were still students and too young to cope. So they gave him to the woman's childless brother and sister-in-law, a private, official adoption. And they all pretended to Ashley about who was the real uncle and aunt and who was the real mother and father. They met every sixth Friday so they could all keep the make-believe going. They played the game to protect him until he was old enough to understand. But Ashley hopes they carry on like this for always, so that nothing changes and that there are no consequences from these words, however grown-up he might be.

And while Ashley gathered up the paper and pens to clear space on the table for his coming-of-age presents, the birds outside the window struck up their final song of the evening.

The magazine editors who accepted this story were unsure about this resolution. They felt it lacked emotion. It was also unclear whether the narrative was meant to culminate only in Ashley's response to the truth. They had hoped it would finish with greater emphasis on the poignancy of an irreversible situation.

After a re-read, I could see how the original conclusion, however stirring and sincere it felt when I wrote it, failed to convey enough emotional impact. The words had fallen short. This is how I changed it:

“Go on then, Ashley,” his mother said. “Tell us the consequence.”

He hesitated, raking his fingers through his hair. At last he picked up the piece of paper. It quivered in his hands.

He remembered the injured shrew he had found, years ago now. The cat had left it in the long grass. When Ashley touched the shrew, it was warm, its small heart still beating.

Ashley kept it in his pocket until his mother found him a box that had once housed his christening mug. His father pierced holes in the lid. When the shrew recovered, Ashley’s mother said he must release it, back into the garden.

“But what will happen to it?”

“It will be happier,” she said. “It may be safe in the box, but it won’t like staying in there forever.”

They all watched the shrew scuttle under the honeysuckle.

“Why is it hiding?” Ashley asked.

“It’s making sure the world outside is still the same,” his father said.

“How will it know?”

“It will take its chance. When it thinks the moment has come.”

While he was remembering the shrew, Ashley’s family were looking at him. “Are you all right?” they kept asking “Are you ready?”

“You’re a little flushed,” Auntie Meg said. And Uncle Paul added that naturally Ashley was excited. It was a big day for him. Uncle Paul’s voice sounded as if he were holding his breath.

Ashley spoke in a whisper. It was all he could manage. They were straining forward in their chairs, trying to hear him. He said he was ready to end the game.

“I’m sorry,” he told them. “I’m sorry if it isn’t…”

“It’ll be fine,” his mother said, touching his sleeve. “You’re good at this. Unless…unless you don’t feel like it tonight?”

“No. Yes. I mean, I want to,” he said. “But it’s hard sometimes, isn’t it?”

They all agreed. It could be almost impossible to come up with the right words to finish the story.

“I’ve made it a happy ending,” Ashley said, stumbling over the words. “I hope you all like it. I hope you think it’s happy too.”

The grown-ups fell silent, their expressions encouraging, watching him as they always had.

Ashley tried to keep his voice steady as he read out the concluding part of the sixth Friday Consequences.

And eighteen years ago they had a baby. But because they were still students they gave him away and became his uncle and aunt instead. It was a private adoption. The two mothers and fathers called it something else. They called it the most precious gift of all.

The uncle and aunt met the mother and father every sixth Friday so they could all be one family. They wanted to wait until the child was old enough to understand the truth. But he found out and he’s sorry. He doesn't know what to say. He just wants them to know he does understand. He’s been happy all his life. He’s happy now. And, more than anything, he hopes they can carry on in the same way as always, so that there are no consequences from him knowing the truth, and so that nothing changes, however grown-up he might be.

Quietly, Ashley gathered up the paper and pens. And while he smiled at each of them in turn to show he was ready for his presents now, the birds outside the window struck up their final song of the evening.

Before writing this, I thought about Ashley, how he was holding onto the secret he had unearthed, resisting the upheaval and change his birthday might bring. And I recalled a friend whose mother told me that when he was a small boy, he had found a dead mouse. He didn’t mention it to anyone. He just kept it. When she emptied his trouser pockets to wash them, it tumbled out. It had clearly been there for some time. When she asked why he had held onto the mouse, he said, “It was still warm.”

I felt this revised ending showed some of the emotion I had felt when writing the previous draft, but which had faded during transmission to the page. This is often an issue when writing conclusions. Perhaps the exhilaration of finishing can trigger a disconnect between intention and reality, between the writer’s empathy for their character and the words which appear on the page. My first attempt had felt genuine, but turned out to be a remnant of all I had hoped to communicate. Perhaps the answer is to let your mind, or memory, find a way of showing what your story is about.

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