These are the notes that I'm using to make my talk on Writing a Great Ending to the Rainforest Writers' Village today. They are painfully self aware, and probably too precious for comment by half, but they're the best I have right now. It's a minefield to talk about "greatness" in writing anyway. I remember a quote I read somewhere that said you shouldn't listen to writers when they talk about what they are doing. They have no more idea of why they are successful than anyone else, and they just embarrass themselves when they pretend otherwise.
Writing a Great Ending
These thoughts are about the pursuit of more than a workable or adequate ending. Most professionally published fiction has at least a workable or adequate ending, but I'm interested in endings that seem to transcend the adequate. I'm interested in those endings that set me ashiver and make me want to go right back to the beginning and reread the story. I think those are the kind of endings that a writer aspires to write, even if just the adequate are beyond reach.
The Theory of Great Endings is Based on Some Premises
- The purpose of the first page of a story is to set up the last page
- The purpose of the second page of the story is to set up the last page
- Everything leads to the last page
- The last page is the payoff. The last page is an implicit part of the promise the writer makes with the reader that says, "Pay attention to me until this story is over, and it will be worth your while."
- The last words are where the story's lingering impression are set. It's where the author says, "This is what the story was really about" (although the author almost never says, literally, what the story was about). A story is a meaningful experience, but like meaningful experiences in real life, we hardly ever get a god-like narrative overvoice that booms out what meaning we should take from what just happened to us. We have to make our own conclusions. The advantage that a story has over real life is that we know we are in the midst of a meaningful event when we're reading a story, and there's a good chance that the writer will have an idea what that meaning is (sort of), so the ending can focus our attention on that possible meaning. In a well-written story, the props and events have been arranged to give us the best chance of seeing the meaning.
_ Since stories are meaningful events, that means that they are all, by their nature, metaphorical. The literal actions add up to something beyond or in addition to what actually happened. That's why random events aren't turned into stories (or, at least, they aren't turned into stories until a writer sees a meaning in them).
- Stories are "profound," in this sense: showing intellectual penetration or emotional depth.
- The ending is not the climax. The ending is the denouement, the "walking away" from the action. This is a term I first heard from Gustav Freytag's pyramid that tried to describe dramatic structure. "Denouement" has been labeled as "falling action," the "unknotting" of the story, but I think of the denouement as what is left when the plot it done. It's the results of the action, the echo, the impression. It's not just about tying up the loose ends and telling us about what happened to the characters. It invites us in some way to see that that the events were meaningful. Wallace Stevens wrote in his poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,"
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
The story is the "beauty of inflections." The denouement is the "beauty of innuendoes." The story is the blackbird whistling. The denouement is the silence just after.
- Another way to think of a denouement is to look at the ending of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. George has shot Lenny. Only George and Slim (and the reader) know what happened. One of the other ranch hands says something to them and George and Slim don't react as he would expect. He says something like, "What's bugging those guys?" What's bugging them is the meaning of what has happened. George, Slim and the reader know that something profound has happened. They are listening to the silence just after the blackbird has sung. They are caught in a great ending.
So, how do we get to a great ending?
- For the longest time, I've maintained that a story is driven by its conflict, and that a conflict has three parts: someone wants something, something stands in the way, and something of value is to be gained or lost. I've gotten a lot of mileage out of this kind of thinking, and it has helped me write every piece of fiction I've committed to paper. Lately, though, I think it leaves out an important component of story telling, and it cut out a certain kind of story altogether.
- There's a kind of story my three-part conflict didn't explain, where the character doesn't seem to have a "want," at least in the sense where the character took actions directly in pursuit of a goal. Instead, the character floundered about, sometimes acting as if he/she was in the midst of an ordinary day, or seemed to be pursuing a goal, but the ending implied that the story was about something quite different than what the character had in mind. These are stories, now, that I see are about what the character "needs," not what he/she "wants."
- A "want" is a conscious goal in the character's mind. It drives the plot forward. A "need," however, is unconscious. It's something that is a hole in the character's life. It may be causing an unhappiness or pushes the character to behave in ways that are self harmful. The ending of these kinds of stories reveal the need. This can be very powerful.
- Regardless whether the ending is about the results of the climax in terms of what the character wants or it is about what the character needs (or both), the ending, to be "great," instead of merely "good," has to hint at the possibility of a greater meaning. The great endings leave us wide open to the metaphorical and the idea that the events of the story open us up, for the briefest of moment, a mystery of the universe or a mystery of the human condition.
- To be great, I think the ending has to show either that the characters recognize that something profound has happened to them, or the reader has to realize that the character missed an opportunity to realize something profound happened to them.
- Either way, something profound has to happen to the reader. For the ending to be "great" in the way we are talking about, the story has to be so effectively written that the reader is guided through a profound experience by the writer. The ending has to be the perfect note that leaves the reader suspended over the metaphorical meaning.
The Role of Irony in a Great Ending
- Ironies or all kinds are about dissonance. There has to be a tug or pull between what we're being presented and what we expect. Great endings always seem to have some tint of irony in them. What happens is more or less or different than what we expected to get. Great endings seem, often, to be rueful in some way. There's a sense of a loss of innocence or a loss of ignorance. The ending reflects not on the result of the events, but on the results of the epiphany.
Cut the Theory: What is the Down and Dirty Way to Write a Great Ending?
- Really care about the significance of what you are writing. Meditate on why you think what you are writing is worthy of your attention. Take that thought into the writing of the ending.
- Create characters or situations that the readers truly empathize with. No ending can be great unless the readers are engaged.
- Put the characters in situations that address their needs, the unconscious part of their character that has a hole.
- Write the ending so that need is alluded to.
- Write the ending so the unexpected, the ironic, realization is highlighted in the denouement.
- The great endings rely on both being indirect and on the poetry of the wording. Rhythm (the beat of it) and the other sound effects elevate the language and signal the reader that they are into a profound place.
- Leave the reader with something to think about or talk about. The ending doesn't tell the readers what the story means, but it starts them on the long personal journey that will become the meaning for themselves.