REVIEW: “The Three Laws of Great Endings and My Two Shameless Hacks” by James Patrick Kelly

Review of James Patrick Kelly, “The Three Laws of Great Endings and My Two Shameless Hacks”, in Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans, eds., Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer (Hydra House Clarion West Writers Workshop, 2021): 87-91 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I read this essay with great interest, because endings are something I struggled with. The rules seem anodyne enough, but I look forward to trying out the hacks on my next story. I also found it instructive to read Kelly’s advice while thinking of endings that I personally find particularly successful (for some value of “success”; if “still be thinking about it next Thursday” (p. 89) is a measure of success, then the ending of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot-49, which made me angry enough to throw the book across the room and still makes me angry some 20 years after I first read it, totally counts).

The first hack is to “dissect your ending into three parts: climax, resolution, and denouement” (p. 87), with Kelly giving specific guidance on what he means by this dissection — concrete questions to ask yourself about each part once you’ve identified them. It’s the sort of exercise that sounds like it would be rather horrific to do the first couple of times but I can see how it would pay off (rather like reading your story out loud to proofread it; terribly cringeworthy when you start, but soon you realise the value of the process and you can’t do without it).

The second hack is “to make up ten different endings to your story…[but] you must spend at least twenty-four hours on this process” (p. 89), and unlike the previous one, this exercise sounds like loads of fun, and I can’t wait to try it.

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