Inviting the Reader to Make Meaning

Tom Sokolowski, author of “Feeding Hour” from Volume 72.2, explores the importance of endings as a means to inspire imagination from readers. He discusses pieces with memorable endings and argues that the key to an ending that will stick with a reader is a crucial image in the final scene that leaves the readers in a place to imagine more.


Vonnegut advises writers to give as much information up front as possible. Of course, this doesn’t mean giving the reader all the answers or backstories right away. Instead, think of the dazzling efficiency with which “The Lady with the Little Dog” or, say, Packer’s “Brownies” thumps the reader over the head with the inciting incident right there in the opening sentence. (Go ahead and read them, but come back, please). 

The beginning of a story, generally, is about providing a reader a contract which serves several functions (laying out the inciting incident, queuing the reader into the genre of the story, introducing voice, etc.) Of course, not all stories do the same thing. Some may begin with a character’s habitual actions before getting to the inciting incident. This is the case with Steve Almond’s “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Get Punched.” Some may begin in the future, in a frame which enables a character to look back on their life. This is the case with Zadie Smith’s “Sentimental Education.” Some may do something entirely different. But if the beginning of a story is generally about establishing a contract which lays out the rules or the tracks for the narrative, a story’s ending, I think, is often about allowing the reader to fully participate in the meaning-making of literature.

When discussing Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog,” Nabokov presents seven features that are typical of Chekhov’s fiction. With the sixth feature, Nabokov points out that Chekhov’s stories don’t really end; if the characters are still alive, their narratives have not concluded. To the reader, Chekhov’s worlds live on with unresolved conflict. And countless other great stories follow this principle. Think of that tall, rustling corn at the end of Munro’s “Save the Reaper.” Or think of Antonya Nelson’s “Control Group,” which is about a traumatized 4th grade boy (TV) who falls in love with his teacher. Without giving anything away, I’ll say Nelson ends “Control Group” with a mysterious focus on props, leaving the reader to piece together the meaning of TV’s final action. Has TV moved on? Or is TV now doubly traumatized? The possibilities.

Here is my argument (one that probably fits nicely with Baxter’s “Against Epiphanies”): stories that end with a scene or action dominated by concrete images often, if they are successful, create an experience which empowers the reader’s imagination. Ending with a crucial image allows the story to communicate a ton of information without tossing out exposition. Ending with a crucial image allows the reader to gain understanding without being provided an explanation.

Carver often ends his stories with a scene which is tied to a direct image. “Cathedral” is a classic example. The final scene goes like this: the narrator and Robert (who is blind) are sitting by the television. On the television, the narrator sees a Cathedral—a prop Carver uses to corral these men into a surprising intimacy. Robert and the narrator are holding each other’s hands. The narrator thinks he’s teaching Robert what a cathedral looks like. But really, the narrator is the one being infused with knowledge. The story ends with the image of the narrator closing his eyes, truly feeling the magnificence of the cathedral. Robert has taught him how to see! Somehow, Carver pulls this off. It’s beautiful, not too sentimental, perfectly executed, and a clear, concise, and satisfying ending that is so open-ended—the story world certainly continues after “Cathedral” ends.

I want to end by pointing out two stories that make an advanced step in order to double underline the final images of their endings. Chekhov’s “Gusev” and Cheever’s “The Country Husband” both play with point of view (the writer’s camera) to make a grand point of their final showing. If you haven’t read “Gusev,” certainly do so. Without spoiling anything, “Gusev” is a masterclass in point of view. Gusev, the character, is the locus of Chekhov’s orbiting camera. This camera roves spectacularly at the end—Chekhov takes us into the ocean, shows us pilot fish and a shark, then takes us up to the sky to see clouds and finally the sunset.

Cheever employs a similar point of view in “The Country Husband.” Throughout the story, the camera is attached to Francis via a largely limited third, though there are arguably brief moments of omniscience early on. After Francis goes to therapy and is recommended he take up wood working to occupy his traumatized, unfulfilled, unhappy self, there is a page break and the final section begins like this, “It is a week or ten days later in Shady Hill.” You’ll notice how much work that indeterminate amount of time does to shift the point of view to omniscience; it’s a marvelous control of language. In addition to the extraction from Francis’ limited third, Cheever also shifts from past to present tense. Then, in this final section, the camera, now detached from Francis, moves in a panoramic montage showing the neighborhood, briefly glimpses Francis, moves to (and lingers on) Francis’s son getting into a spacesuit costume, to Francis’s wife looking for a cat, to the cat, to a dog. So Cheever sort of says, okay the story ends with a bit of a joke about poor Francis, but remember the all characters I’ve introduced to you in this town/neighborhood; all these lives still go on pretty much the same regardless of what Francis does or doesn’t do; Francis is just one angrily vibrating node in this huge network of people. Cheever’s final section is a swarm of images which invite the reader to reflect on all of Francis’s interactions throughout the story and to participate in the meaning-making of the ending.

All these stories—“Gusev” and “Cathedral” and “Control Group” and “The Country Husband”—have a clear ending. But within these endings, there is room for interpretation, for a degree of ambiguity, for a variety of feelings to be had, for an artfully concentrated impression of the entire story. Again, I must emphasize, of course not all stories do the same things. But it’s my hope that the ending of “Feeding Hour” functions in a way that is similar to some truly great ones.

Tom Sokolowski completed an MFA at the University of Central Florida where he was awarded a Provost’s Fellowship. He’s currently a PhD candidate at Florida State University, and his other fiction is featured or forthcoming in the Minnesota Review, the Masters Review, Prime Number Magazine, and elsewhere. Tom served in the Florida Army National Guard. He is married to the poet Olivia Murphy Sokolowski, and lives in Tallahassee.