The Fiction-Fix for Bad Endings: Incident-Irony

I recently asked my 9th grade students to write some short fiction. Some were excited. Others felt lost. They asked me, “Does it have to have five paragraphs?”

My answer? “Even our essays don’t have to be five paragraphs. And fiction doesn’t work that way at all.”

I ask them, “When is the last time you were encouraged to write fiction in school?” A common answer? “Kindergarten.”

But if we are going to ask them to analyze fiction, why don’t we ask them to write fiction? If we’re being honest, I think that the real reason is this: when we ask them to write fiction, we get a lot of bad fiction. Fiction that ends with the inexplicable death of the first person narrator. Fiction that is just a chance for Eddie in 5th period to have a slasher dismember his best friends in increasingly gruesome ways. Fiction that writes itself into a corner, so the student author has the main character wake up and realize it was all a dream.

I had been making real progress for many years on the closeup elements of fiction. I could get students, with practice, to write fairly good moment-by-moment narration. I could get them to write witty, believable dialogue. I could help them integrate descriptions of people and places into the flow of the story.

But no matter how well the action, dialogue, and description flowed, too many stories ended with a whimper, not a bang. With a big “HUH?” instead of an “OOOooooh.” Stories that started with promise, and then simply left us hanging with no point. “Suzie sat down in the magical labyrinth and cried and her mother never heard from her again.” Stories that had me asking, like Kevin in The Princess Bride movie, “Why are you even telling me this story?”

I thought, There must be a key to good endings. It must be a skill – a teachable, practice-able skill.

I looked at the endings of short stories and novels that I loved. I looked at the movie endings that l Ioved. I looked at the student stories that did work.

The answer: Irony.

Most endings are based on irony. I just finished Romeo and Juliet with my classes – irony six or seven different ways. Ironies don’t have to be tragic and depressing either. When I have taught To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the biggest ironies is that the children spend the first half of the book thinking Boo Radley is a monster – and in the end he is their guardian angel.

Of course, drawing over 6,000 comic strips about teaching over the past 22 years has given me plenty of experience dealing with irony. All tragedy is based on irony – but so is all humor.

So – how to get students to think ironically – to make it a habit they can put to use when they write fiction? The answer came in a flash: a writer’s notebook exercise called Incident-Irony. I give students and “incident” – a scene, scenario, or situation that could go several different ways. Their challenge? To come up with as many ironic twists as possible in just three minutes. I emphasize that they are not to write a whole story: the task is to list as many twists as possible in the three minutes. The format, I tell them, will usually be “_________ (the character) does _________, so __________ blank happens.” Or else, “________ (the character) thinks ________ when _______ blank is really true, so ________ happens.” The first incident I use is nearly always the train incident. I invented it during a survival unit in our textbook – a unit where I took the liberty of adding a fictional survival story to the assignments. Here is the first incident:

Incident-Irony – Train: Your character is on a train and sees a gasoline truck parked across the track ahead. Do they save everyone or only themselves? What happens? Brainstorm as many ironic twists as you can in 3 minutes.

The first time students do it, many struggle. After the three minutes are up, I have them share in their small groups and pick the ironies they think are best to share with the whole class. The sharing is crucial – both small group and full class. Irony is a very particular kind of skill – what matters isn’t just what I think of it, but the response of the group as well. Really good ironies will get an “Ooooooh!” or and “Aaaahh!” or a laugh. Actually, the darker they get, the more we laugh. (For reasons I cannot fully explain. I have done the activity with adults, and they laugh too!)

When we share with the whole group, the feedback is instantaneous. I ask them all to be nice, encouraging, and constructive, but when an irony doesn’t work, crickets chirp. Or you hear other students going “What?” or “Huh?”

Here are some ironies for the train scenario that don’t work:

He jumps off the train and runs to safety and everyone else blows up.

She tries to save everyone by stopping the train. It works.

He tries to jump off the train, but then gets eaten by a shark. (This is certainly surprising, but not really ironic – the shark has nothing to do with what came before.)

But some of the ironies work. Ironies such as:

He tries to warn everyone about the impending disaster, encouraging all passengers to jump off the train to safety. As they are all laying on the hard-packed earth around the train tracks with broken bones, concussions, and sprained ankles… they see the train was already set to go off on a side track. It passes the gasoline truck safely.

They try to get the engineer to stop the train, but he’s been asleep on the job. It’s too late to stop the train, so they work to detach the rest of the train from the engine car. The engineer fights them, thinking they are a criminal. The main character pushes the engineer back into the passenger car and dies heroically, saving everyone else.

He tries to have just himself by jumping off the train alone. As he is sailing through the air, he realizes two things: the train is passing the truck safely, and he has just jumped out of the train as it passes by a cliff. Or over a bridge, so he falls to the road below and is hit – by a different gasoline truck.

Yes, these do get a little crazy – but so do the ironies we find in literature. Anna Karenina, anyone? When the above scenarios were shared in class, the responses were nearly always audible laughter, oohs and aahs. Irony is just… fun.

Incident-irony is extremely engaging – students begin to try to amuse and shock one another. They love sharing. One of my creative writing students started combining the current irony with events from three ironies back. It became epic.

The most important result, though, was that their fiction, for the most part, improved drastically. After doing even five exercises, most students have produced in the neighborhood of 15 to 25 ironies – and received at least small-group feedback on all of them! When they drafted and conferenced their short stories, I asked them to specifically get feedback on how well the ending worked – was it ironic? Some students still struggle a bit – but even an attempt at irony is better than no irony at all – and certainly better than “She woke up and it was all a dream.”

As we get into using incident-irony more, I also introduce the idea of theme to the discussion – what theme is explored through this irony? Self-preservation versus self-sacrifice? No good deed goes unpunished?

And, of course, the fringe benefit is that after students have created ironies of their own, they are much better at spotting them when they see them in their reading. So in the end, it helps with their literary analysis as well! Below is a list of other incidents to use for the exercise. They vary wildly in subject matter and tone and all lead to different types of possible ironies – and stories. Of course, students can take any one of their ironies from the writer’s notebook exercises and expand it into an entire story! Come to think of it – I could have students come up with incidents of their own that I could use with the whole class!

Why didn’t I think of that before? Ironic.


  • Your character is on an empty stage in a theater, ready to act. 
  •  Your character is stranded on a desert island, afraid they will starve to death, and desperate to get off.
  • A survivalist has a bunker than can withstand a nuclear blast, enough weapons for a small army, and food to last for ten thousand years. He goes out to buy one more thing.
  • Your character, who has always hated nature, is lost in the wilderness after a plane crash.
  • Your character avoids boats and water because they are terrified of drowning and can’t swim.
  • A character gets a text and thinks their best friend is telling them off.
  • A character feels nervous about a job interview for their dream job.
  • A character is happy because of winning millions in the lottery.
  • A character is disgusted by a new food someone is trying to get them to eat.
  • A child wishes their toys could really come to life and talk to them.
  • A man keeps claiming to his family that he was abducted by aliens, but his family and friends don’t believe him.
  • A married couple: one spouse thinks of themselves as a great cook, the other can’t stand the other’s cooking… but always pretends to like it.
  • A character has been trying unsuccessfully to solve the Rubik’s Cube for over 20 years.
  • A boy doesn’t have enough money for school lunch.
  • A man wants to escape everyone and just read. An alien from outer space lands on Earth and just wants to be friends with everyone.
  • A person discovers they have a superpower.
  • A student continually tells their teacher they hate reading.
  • A writer has severe writer’s block.

Images via Created by David Lee Finkle.

Do you encourage fiction writing? How do you get them to improve their endings? You can connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or on Facebook at

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