The Punch is just as important, but WAY HARDER.
The best endings in short fiction punch you in the gut on their way out the door.
Think of a joke. A joke is a short story, ending with a punchline that hits you as hard as it can with funny. In fact, the good ones hit you hard enough to cause involuntary muscle contractions, shortness of breath, and even tears.
When we write stories, funny isn't usually the goal. We punch with all emotions around here. Sadness, anger, profound regret.
So, what I'm saying is: write a joke, but with profound regret as a punchline.
Worst standup act ever.
Sam J. Miller's Things With Beards has a final punch that hits quite hard, and I think it's worth studying to see how he does it. First, go ahead and read the story.
There's a lot going on in this story. It's a strange sequel to the 1982 movie The Thing, it's about AIDS in the 80s, social tension of black people in New York City, and hey let's add a side note of twisted self-image.
The thing I like about the final sentence is that it pulls all those things together.
MacReady knows, in that moment, that maturity means making peace with how we are monsters.
Note that this isn't a hard twist at the end, but it does recontextualize the story. It does that by showing us the underlying theme of all those different parts. People are perceived as monsters all over the place. In the 80s, gay people, especially AIDS victims, were seen as monsters. Black people fighting for their freedoms were seen as terrorists. MacReady is conflicted about this, and yes, he also happens to be an actual alien monster, but you know, nobody's perfect.
Here at the end, MacReady finally figures out that, okay, he's going to be a monster, and that's fine.
If being a monster is what it takes to be himself, then he'll be a monster.
So what makes this a good punch? In character-driven storytelling, the story turns at the moment the character changes. That's really what I like about this one. MacReady has his big revelation and then the story ends. It's not a huge twist. It's not a shot out of nowhere. It's something that tension has been building under for the entire story and this is where it all comes together.
What do I mean about tension building for the whole story?
Early on we see this exchange:
MacReady releases his hands. “So? We all pretend to be what we need to be.”
“Not true. Not everybody has the luxury of passing.” One finger traces a circle on the black skin of his forearm.
This sets up that tension between who we are and who the world sees.
Beards were camouflage. A costume. Only Blair and Garry lacked one, both being too old to need to appear as anything other than what they were, and Childs, who never wanted to.
Here, we see more building blocks moving us closer to that final line. People hiding who they are. Wearing a costume. It also brings in hints about the maturity that we talk about in the final line.
MacReady ate one cookie, and held the other up for inspection. Oreo knock-offs, though he’d never have guessed from the taste. The pattern was different, the seal on the chocolate exterior distinctly stamped.
Oh, hey, look, we're getting the same theme in unexpected ways. Goddamn knock-off Oreos.
He is a monster. He knows this now. So is Childs. So are countless others, people like Hugh who he did something terrible to, however unintentionally it was. He doesn’t know the details, what he is or how it works, or why, but he knows it.
He knows he's a monster. He's figured it out, or he's known it all along. Slowly, his self-perception changes, but he's not ok with it.
A cuttlefish contains so many colors, even when it isn’t wearing them.
We get this hint at the resolution in a line that doesn't seem to fit well with the others around it. It's a line about being more than what you appear to be, and it's important for the whole theme of this story.
So, this is why a good Punch is hard to write. It's a culmination of all that tension in the story building up. The power of a punch comes from the body, it comes from the stance, and it comes from the energy channeled from the perfect windup.
Also, the thumb goes on the outside.
Writing Exercise: Write a two line summary of the first two acts of a favorite movie, story, or video game. Now, with that two line summary, write a third line that changes everything. Experiment with weird twists, subtle jabs, and shocking tragedy.
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed this story. Next month we'll be talking a little bit about story structure and ways to play with the bones of storytelling.