From what I can tell there are two approaches to reviewing submissions: those looking for an excuse to reject a piece and those who keep reading hoping they won't be disappointed. I fall into the latter category so I thought it might be helpful to write a series of posts on what can make a good story go bad.
For purposes of order, I'll start from the endings and work back. For me, there is nothing more disappointing than reading through a well-written story that grabs my attention and holds onto it, only to be disappointed at the end. Especially as I've had some success in requesting revisions to bad beginnings, but revisions to bad endings rarely come back as I'd hoped.
So here are a few of the worst mistakes an writer can make.
Shock and Surprise
For some reason many new writers have a penchant for surprise endings. I suppose it's a desire to write something "memorable" and certainly some of the stories we remember most from high school English are the ones that surprised us like Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," Amborse Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," and, of course, the classic, Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery."
The names listed here should provide a hint that surprise endings require great skill. Well crafted surprises are like those hidden pictures games. Once you know the ending you realize the clues were obvious. However, through authorial sleight of hand, the writer had you looking the other way. The mistakes new writers make usually fall into one of two categories. They either put up red flags throughout the story alerting the reader to expect a "surprise" at the end, or the ending comes out of the blue with no grounding in what went before. It's a surprise all right, like introducing the murderer in the last paragraph of a mystery.
The Unrealistic Ending
This somewhat overlaps the "shock" ending in that it relies on something supernatural like a ghost or an angel. Relying on the supernatural is okay if you are writing horror or fantasy or somehow the theme pervades the entire piece. If you are writing something in a realistic vein, you cheat your reader when you end with supernatural elements acting as a deus ex machina.
The "I Can't Go There" Ending
This is a strange phenomenon in which the writer takes on a tough topic, like a floundering marriage, and at the end, veers off into a light and totally out-of-context ending. Once a friend asked me to read a draft of his first novel. The main characters were a serial killer and a young man AWOL from the navy who meet while the latter is hitchhiking cross country for his sister's wedding. The book was masterfully written, permeated with a sense of foreboding. Like a car wreck you couldn't turn away from the reader feared the worse. Then, suddenly, the serial killer finds love with a young orphan, moves with her to a cabin on the mountains, and they all live happily every after. My friend admitted that the obvious conclusion was too painful, so she didn't write it that way.
I took a workshop called, "Writing Through the Pain" helping writers to get through the tough parts of their stories. Lorrie Moore's "People Like That Are the Only People Here" was one of the examples we read of writing about a painful and frightening subject. Sometimes, especially when our work is semi-autobiographical, it's hard to write the scary stuff. If you can't do it, then stay away from the topic. Don't, instead, end on a light and upbeat note. It leaves readers feeling cheated.
The Bonnie and Clyde
At the opposite end of the spectrum are those stories that end in a hail of bullets, or with someone getting their head blown off or leaping from tenth story window. This is sometimes called the apocolyptic ending.
Bonnie and Clyde's demise was a true story and sometimes the story requires that, but more often life doesn't provide a real ending. The incident we are writing about may end or fade out, but the people continue living with the decisions they've made or the actions they've taken. The best endings are more subtle.
But Not Weak
Sometimes a submission reminds me of that old joke about the kid writing a 100 words on his summer vacation. The last sentence is, "and that's...my hundred words." In this case the writer gets going on something and seems to run out of space or steam. Rather than go back and see how to shear off some unnecessary words, the writer attempts to fashion something that sounds like an ending in the middle of the story.Other times, the writer doesn't know where the true end is and continues to write past it until the piece just fizzles out. Apocolypse is not necessary, but a story shouldn't require "the end" for us to know it's finished.
These represent some bad endings I've come across. If you have more, add your comments. I'll continue with other ways stories go bad in Part II