Once, because I was getting a student straight from the jungles of Laos, I was given a crash course in southeast Asian culture. I learned that in that part of the world the worst insult a person can bestow on another is to touch the top of their head. Similar to giving someone the finger in the USA.
The father of my future student told me that he was learning our culture by reading anything and everything he could get his hands on. When he said that, an alarm went off in my head because a few days earlier I’d attended a writers’ workshop in which a student had read a story he’d written.
It was about a boy who was staying with his grandparents. He and his gruff grandfather didn’t get along except when they went fishing and joined forces to catch the huge trout that had eluded the grandfather for years. On the last day of the visit the boy hooked the trout and there followed a classic battle that ended with the trout getting away. In the face of this disappointment, the boy and his grandfather silently gathered their equipment and headed for the house. Halfway there, the grandfather, without speaking, removed the boy’s cap and ruffled his hair. And that was the end of the story.
Most Americans reading that ending would know that the grandfather ruffling the boy’s hair was a sign of love and would see familial love as the theme of the story. But I wonder what that Laotian father with his different cultural background would have got from that particular ending.
Endings matter. If you want your reader to take something away from your story, don’t hide it too deeply or they might miss it completely. So how do you create an ending that’ll let the reader take away from your story what you want them to take? You think about the reader and what you want him or her to take away from your story.
If you want your reader to come away with a specific, very detailed life lesson, then give them an ending with that specific, very detailed lesson embedded in it. If you want your story to become a springboard for the imagination, then make sure there are blanks that your readers can fill in themselves.
About the story of the boy and his grandfather? I’ve often wondered if that writer would have written a different ending if he’d known his story would be read by someone from southeast Asia. If I ever run into him again, I’m going to ask.