SLUSH LESSON #3: Surprise!: The good idea is at the end!
It was one of the first lessons I learned when I started slushing for APEX last year: surprise endings don’t work. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good O. Henry story—in fact, I’ve got a book gift certificate I might just spend on a collection of them—but O. Henry is I think one of the few authors who can really pull off that style of insane twist at the end. And even then, it’s not a total shock: he’d been hinting about it the whole time. The whole story is about that twist ending. It’s not isolated by itself.
That’s not what I’m seeing in the slush, and it’s not what I’m seeing when I write a surprise ending. What I see is this: the entire first half to first two-thirds of a story is just build-up to the “Ah ha!” moment at the end. This seems particularly prevalent in amateur science fiction, and I’ve seen it more than once in my own attempts at the genre. The problem is that, ultimately, the “Ah ha!” moment at the end is the strongest part of the story. It’s the idea that should have been explored throughout the manuscript, not tucked away at the end.
I can only speak from my own experience on why writers do this, but for me, I think it’s pretty obvious: I’m scared of my own idea. I write surprise endings because I’m intimidated by the idea I’m trying to work with. Either I don’t know how to explore the idea, or I subconsciously don’t feel like I could do it justice: whatever the case, it’s usually because the idea intimidates me.
And judging from the manuscripts I’ve read which have these kinds of “tuck the good idea away at the end” endings, I think that may be the case with a lot of writers. Because their “surprise” ideas are good, even really good, but the rest of the story is just a weak, cardboard prop to get you to the ending. That’s not a story. It’s boring to read, because when I get to the end—if I get to the end, because unfortunately these beginnings tend to defeat themselves–my first reaction is usually “why didn’t they focus on this?!”
So I’m starting to recognize these “surprise endings” in my own writing. They still slip out from time to time, but now I’m starting to get tougher on my revisions: if it’s a surprise ending, cut out everything that comes before it, and dive head-first into the meaty part. It may be hard, it may be scary, but in the end, it’ll make the best story.