Hunger Mountain - Vermont College Journal of the arts

On Endings: Loving Limbo III

A Craft Short


Claire Guyton

In my sideways review of Jennifer Egan’s short story “Out of Body,” I declare my affection for the “zero-to-zero” story outlawed by Jerome Stern in Making Shapely Fiction. In this kind of story the protagonist is more or less the same person, mainly unmoved by the events of the tale, when we say our goodbyes. Why, I wonder, should character transformation be the rule? Like any other approach to story, the proof is in the material—a zero-to-zero story is as likely to be just right as any other. For my sensibilities, more likely. In particular, I enjoy a good “limbo” ending—a kind of ending I often see in zero-to-zero stories—in which we leave our character in a crucial moment, resolution forever denied. If done well, a limbo ending is incredibly satisfying, so powerful because I’m left to meditate on possibility.

Ahh, but. “If done well.”

I write a lot of stories with limbo endings but the jury is still out on whether these endings work—they are going out to literary magazines at an embarrassingly slow pace and not one “limbo story” has yet been published (though I have published a zero-to-zero story, which gives me hope). Maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board? Come with me.

When it comes to writing, any trip to the drawing board means, to me, rounding up a list of stories that accomplish beautifully what I want to accomplish myself, then studying said stories with, hopefully, a new eye. A short list of stories that end brilliantly in a moment of limbo follows. No promises, of course, that you will read these endings the way I do. If in the concluding lines of a story a character appears to be stuck in some way—either stuck because she doesn’t seem to know what to do next or because the author simply leaves us in the middle of an unresolved moment—I call that limbo. If I think that character is as likely to choose Door A as Door B (or C, or D) or no door at all—that’s limbo.

“Screenwriter,” Charles D’Ambrosio
“Out of Body,” Jennifer Egan.
“A Hunger Artist,” Franz Kafka
“Shiloh,” Bobbie Ann Mason
“You’re Ugly, Too,” Lorrie Moore.
“Pastoralia,” George Saunders.
“Levitation,” Tricia Springstubb, Hunger Mountain’s 2009 Mosher winner.

My own limbo endings came about organically, with no conscious thought that I intended to leave my character suspended in a moment. When I constructed these moments, I didn’t ask myself, “How do I successfully create a sense of limbo, here?” With notes from the stories above, I will revisit my limbo endings and ask myself that question. Because I really do want to do limbo well. If done well, this kind of ending thrills with potential energy and possibility, as in “Out of Body,” or blankets the reader’s heart with quiet, painful inevitability, as in George Saunders’ “Pastoralia.” Either way: Yes!

* Image from Wikimedia Commons. Limbo dancer in the streets of London, 2004.

Loving Limbo I ..Loving Limbo II..More On Endings


Claire Guyton, The Writing Life co-editor, writes far too many zero-to-zero short stories when she’s not anchoring Hunger Mountain’s blog on writers and writing, Another Loose Sally, or reviewing all the stories in the 2011 BASS. Claire is the Maine Arts Commission’s 2012 Literary Arts Fellow.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Diane Lefer August 27, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Long live “outlaw” writing!


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