How to End an SF/F Story

In an earlier post I went over some recent novelists honoured at two very different SF/F awards – the literary-minded Hugos, and the bloody-minded Splatterpunk Awards – and looked at how their opening lines worked. It was an interesting exercise, so I’ve decided to follow it up with a look at the opposite subject: ending lines.

This time, I’m going with short stories rather than novels. Why? Because the shorter the story is, the more important the last line. A novel can have hundreds of pages to win over its reader, but with a short story, the final sentence or two can make all the difference between the reader remembering the tale or merely shrugging and moving on to the next story.

So, here are the endings to the six most recent finalists for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story…

“As the Last I May Know” by S. L. Huang

I’m here to make you doubt
You wish I weren’t.
I hold no answers in my loaded heart.
I only sit
And wait
And wait
And wait.

The final paragraph of this story is a seven-line piece of blank verse, so I decided to quote the entire thing. Even without reading the story, the tone of the conclusion – ambiguous, unfulfilling – comes through clearly. Note that the ending relates to the title of the story: “As the Last I May Know” implies a search for answers; “I hold no answers in my loaded heart” reveals that the search was in vain.

“And Now his Lordship is Laughing” by Shiv Ramdas

“I’ll see you again soon,” she whispers into the wind.
And Apa begins to laugh.

As with the previous ending, we have an ambiguous closure: again, the indication is that the speaker is waiting for something to happen (in this case, a reunion). We also have another ending that relates to the story’s title, as both refer to a character laughing.

“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” by Nibedita Sen

[Submitted for Professor Blackwood’s Sociology 402 class by Ranita Gaur.]

An odd way to end a story, until we consider that the story in question is written in the form of an excerpt from an academic paper. The ending, which hints a wider narrative by revealing the character who wrote the paper, is only natural.

“A Catalog of Storms” by Fran Wilde

We stretch out our arms to hug her and she weaves between them like a breath.

A memorable contrast between an expression of everyday affection (hugging) and an element of fantastic strangeness (the character weaving between the others’ arms like a breath). It’s hard to imagine that hugging an apparently gaseous body would be pleasurable – unsatisfactory or unfulfilled character interactions have become a theme.

“Blood is Another Word for Hunger” by Rivers Solomon

Ziza hummed on, and in that moment, Sully was content just to listen.

Although this describes a mundane scene, it carries a suggestion of finality: the implication is that a conversation has ended, and nobody is eager to start it again. The line’s position at the end of the story brings a degree of unspoken tension to the surface.

“Do Not Look Back, My Lion” by Alix E. Harrow

Eefa turns her face to the smoke-hazed horizon.
She does not look back.

Another ending that relates directly to the story’s title, this time describing a very familiar scene: it’s a variation on the classic riding-into-the-sunset used as a final shot in so many Westerns, albeit with a stronger than usual emphasis on the ambiguity faced by the protagonist as they head off for the unknown.

Next, the Splatterpunk Award short stories:

“Angelbait” by Ryan Harding

Tilda waited for the key in a dead world, watching the steady drip of the blood angels.

Read on its own outside the context of the story, this line is nonsensical – and yet it still carries an evocative, apocalyptic air, referring directly to a dead world before referring to “blood angels”, a phrase that vaguely recalls Revelation. Note that, as with the Hugo-winning “As the Last I May Know”, we have the image of a character waiting.

“Norwegian Wood” by Jeremy Wagner

When the flames came and consumed the confessional, Torbjørn saw no faces.

Surely, seeing faces in fire would be more unsettling than not seeing faces in fire? Yet, the tone of finality in this line somehow makes the latter prospect the more chilling. Torbjørn, implicitly about to burn to death, is alone on a profound and cosmic scale, something that may be more devastating than conventional damnation.

“Censered” by Christine Morgan

So he merely raised his curled fists to shoulder level, smiled angelically, and popped both middle fingers to flip all of Heaven a double-bird.

A neat, succinct little line that encapsulates the story and its protagonist. Reading this, a cartoonish image of a rude angel will pop directly into the reader’s head – and lo and behold, that’s exactly what “Censered” is about.

“Shoulder Pain” by Chandler Morrison

Her body remains rigid at first, but after a few moments, her muscles slacken and she puts her arms around you, and then she begins to cry, too.

A scene of emotional rawness with nothing fanciful or fantastical about it; the only formalistic playfulness is its use of second-person, which serves to push the reader still closer to the moment. The relatability of the scene makes it all the more hopeless.

“Param” by Susan Snyder

I truly hope I will see her there, on the other side. Perhaps we can do this again.

Well, there’s not much to go on with these two sentences. But note that this is a considerably more hopeful conclusion than most of the Splatterpunk Award stories (and Hugo stories, for that matter). The reference to “the other side”, with its suggestion of an afterlife of some sort, makes it a quirky kind of hopefulness.

“Breaking the Waters” by Donyae Coles

Later, at the hospital, when they asked why she had been screaming, she said only that she was not. “I was singing them a lullaby,” she said, and never spoke again.

A visceral ending with a thick vein of strangeness running through it. Not only has the main character died, she’s taken all memory of her experiences with her, leaving only a mystery behind: who are “them”, and why did her lullaby sound like a scream? The hospital staff will never know.

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