Planning How to End it All – Part One

No, no, I’m not about to jump off a bridge. This weekend I attended a half-day workshop called “Ending it All” at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA.

Some of us can nail the beginning of a story, novel, or essay. Some can do the middle. Some can do both. What stymies most of us is ending it all, i.e., putting those two words down when we’re finished: The End.

I’ve drafted a very complex novel about the year 2000 in what was then still Yugoslavia. The story involves assassinations of government officials, the criminal underworld, ethnic cleansing, election politics, and even disillusioned Russian soldiers. In other words, a lot of plot threads. And since the bulk of my writing has been non-fiction (government reports), I like all my threads tied up loosely.

Also, because my work is based on current events and recent history, as events move on, sometimes that affects what I’ve written. I have to go back and “finish” a thread–either by weaving some more of it or snipping it.

Some feedback I got on that draft was that the ends were tied too neatly, so much so the ending went on and on and on and…

You get the picture.

Hence, my attendance at Rebecca Makkai’s excellent workshop, “Ending it All.” Makkai is a novelist (The Borrower), short story writer, and non-fiction writer, and her workshop was eye-opening. I never knew there were so many different types of endings! Over the next few days, I’m going to recap this workshop and the useful points Makkai made.

Here are her “rules” (and she acknowledges rules are made to be broken) about an ending:

  • It has to “feel” like an ending, and the best judge of what that feels like is the writer.
  • It has to honor any promises you made to the reader, i.e., if it’s a murder mystery you must reveal the killer.
  • It needs to add to the story, i.e., “and then this happened.”
  • It needs to be poetic, even musical.
  • It needs to be “surprising, but inevitable.”
  • It needs, in some small, subtle way, to refer to the beginning.
  • And, sometimes, it doesn’t have to happen at all.

Makkai says when an ending doesn’t work, “It’s quite likely because it’s not long enough.” We’re tempted, she says, to get to the zinger of our last line when we should be imbuing the penultimate paragraphs with meaning. She uses a musical term for this–ritardando, or the gradual slowing which marks the end of a musical composition.

Despite the fact Makkai says we can’t really categorize or classify endings, she did provide “descriptors” of the kinds of endings writers have used. For each descriptor, she provided examples, some from contemporary literature, some from the classics, and even some from movies and television programs.

In discussing types of endings I may refer to the actual endings of the examples Makkai provided, so Spoiler Alert; however, I’m only talking about the ending as a stand-alone, pretty meaningless unless you’ve read the entire piece. And I was heartened that I’d read or seen most of her examples; that gave the workshop even more meaning.

Here are the descriptors of endings I’m discussing today:

1. Endings that deal with resolution, or lack thereof

The first sub-descriptor for this type of ending is Stasis, which is the intentional lack of resolution. Anton Chekov was a master of this, and the example Makkai provided was his short story “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” which is the story of two people, married to others, who meet at a Black Sea resort and fall in love (a common theme of Russian writers even into the 20th century). The ending shows both of them wondering what to do about their situations and, boom, that’s it. Makkai mentioned this is very difficult to pull off and that most literary mavens consider it a rather old-fashioned device. What seems to work better for contemporary fiction is the “stasis of a character,” i.e., a character who doesn’t change even though the world around him or her has, often in significant ways.

The next sub-descriptor for this type of ending is the Intrinsic Ending, which involves a final, decisive act or event. This is so dramatic and so final that the story has to be over, it can’t continue. Examples were Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and John Updike’s story “A&P.” If this is the type of ending you chose, Makkai says, you have to make certain you don’t just show the final, concluding event but also its impact.

Next is the Game Changer, an ending which destabilizes everything else in the story, or, as Makkai says, “pulls the rug out from under you.” Examples were the movie The Sixth Sense (where the protagonist finds out he’s been dead all along), Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (where we find out the previous 300 pages was just the protagonist introducing himself to his therapist, who is now ready to begin), and Ian McEwan’s Atonement (one I haven’t read). Other examples of the Game Changer ending are Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” and Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” Makkai’s only admonition about using this type of ending? “Do not ever, ever, under any circumstances, have a character wake up and realize it was all a dream, or anything equally insulting to the reader.”

The final descriptor for this type of ending (resolved or unresolved) is The Breakup, where the author abruptly pulls us away from characters we’ve come to like. Examples were Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, and John Updike’s Couples. Makkai adds you can’t do this just to be perverse to the reader, but only because it’s the right way to end the story. In each example she provided, she indicated the story could end no other way than how it did.

Tomorrow: Endings that Address Meaning and Endings that Emphasize Musicality and Sound.

I live for your constructive comments.

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