Planning How to End it All – Part Two

If you missed yesterday’s installment (Part One) click here to read it first. Otherwise, this is Part Two of a recap of a WriterHouse workshop given by Rebecca Makkai and which I took this weekend called “Ending it All.”

2. Endings that Address Meaning

The first type of ending under this descriptor is the Blatantly Philosophical, where the writer, or the writer through the protagonist/narrator, simply tells you, “This is what this whole book meant.” In this type of ending the language tends to be abstract and unemotional but evokes strong emotions. To accomplish this, says Makkai, “the language must be insanely gorgeous” and the message has to be “complex, interesting, and new.” Her examples were Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald actually switches narrators to accomplish this), and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

The next type is the Revelation/Epiphany, which is usually for the character, not the reader. The reader may know exactly what has happened, but the character may not. This kind of ending is characterized by not much happening at the ending, but the character finally realizes something about him- or herself or about the world. Makkai indicates this is an “organic” type of ending, which is mostly used in short stories. This type of ending is where the ritardando effect is most useful; it slows the reader down and allows the epiphany to occur. This ritardando is accomplished by using short, sparse sentences and a judicious use of paragraph breaks. It can appear and read almost like a poem, says Makkai. Her examples were Raymond Carver’s short story, “Fat,” and James Joyce’s story, “The Dead.”

3. Endings that Emphasize Musicality, Sound

The first type of this kind of ending is Dialogue, and Makkai says, “Leaving us with the sound of someone talking can be remarkably effective, but what is said needs to be delicately profound.” In other words, the dialogue has to conclude the story but not in a trite or expected way. Her examples were Denis Johnson’s story, “Emergency,” Wallace Stegner’s novel, Crossing to Safety, and Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.”

The next type of ending is Lyrical, where you use consonants and vowels to evoke sound. This kind of ending should have a rhythm, one you can tap out on a table, with each sentence reproducing that rhythm. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, one of Makkai’s examples, the ending rhymes like a poem, almost in a way that presages rap music.

4. Endings that Play with Scope or Focus

The first type of this ending is the Sensory Pinpoint, where we’re focused on one, immediate moment that produces a specific sensory impression. Makkai likens it to a camera zooming in on a single object, one which has to have significance to the story. Her examples included Edward P. Jones’ story, “The First Day,” which has us focus on the sound of a mother’s shoes to her child as she leaves her at school, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and the ending of the TV series Friends, where all the characters leave the apartment and the camera zooms in on the apartment’s key.

In the same descriptor but opposite to the Sensory Pinpoint is the Long Fadeout. This, says Makkai, is a longer, looser type of ending, which has little to no symbolism. “Think,” she says, “of any Woody Allen movie where a couple walks away down a crowded New York street, and the camera pulls back until the couple is indistinguishable among the crowd.” It’s otherwise known as “extending the moment.” However, you must have resolution of the story before fading out, i.e., the fadeout itself can’t be the resolution. Examples include Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin and the ending of the TV series Cheers, where Sam the Bartender goes around turning off all the lights–no one else, no dialogue, the story’s done except for this long, extended shot to emphasize it’s over. “Of course,” says Makkai, “for this kind of ending, there’s glorious jazz music.”

Tomorrow: The third and final part, Endings that Rely on the Structure of the Whole Piece and Endings that Play with Time

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