Planning How to End it All – Conclusion

If you haven’t read Parts One and Two from Monday and Tuesday, respectively, click here for Part One then here for Part Two. Otherwise, this is the conclusion of a recap of a half-day workshop, sponsored by WriterHouse and conducted by Rebecca Makkai, I took this past weekend. The workshop was entitled “Ending it All.”

6. Endings that Rely on the Structure of the Whole Piece

The first ending under this descriptor is the Extrinsic Ending, where the story must end because of a time constraint or time period, e.g., the end of an era or some set event. When we reach that set event, we know the story is done. Examples of set events are a school year, a holiday, a war, a party, even someone’s entire life. Because of this established deadline, the tension within the story gets amped up. Examples include Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (obvious), the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm (made into an excellent movie), or the Harry Potter series, “as a whole, as well as each volume,” says Makkai.

Back in Part One (see the link in the first paragraph) when I listed Makkai’s Rules for Endings, the last one reads, “And, sometimes, it doesn’t have to happen at all.” That’s the Tangential ending, which, on the surface, has nothing whatsoever to do with what’s come before, except, Makkai says, “it has everything to do with what’s come before.” It’s an ending which is often metaphorical. Her example was Amy Hempel’s story, “The Dog of the Marriage.”

The next type of ending is the Return to an Enveloping Structure, where the ending is  like an inside joke because it may refer to something from the beginning. This is also related to the Rule for Endings, “Surprising but Inevitable.” The best example Makkai provided was the structure of John Knowles’ A Separate Peace. The protagonist returns to his old boarding school, walking around the campus; then, the balance of the book is about his remembering what happened while he was a student. Finally, the novel concludes with the protagonist walking about the campus while he compares war and life at boarding school. This type of ending is a reflection on what’s going on inside a character’s head.

The final type of ending in this descriptor is the Elegaic, which is a combination of the Philosophical and Extrinsic Endings, and it’s quite often a lament, in lyrical language, for a time gone by or a person no longer with us. The best possible example for this type of ending is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which ends in a single paragraph of such beauty it tears you completely away from the dystopian world McCarthy has just put us in and you’re glad for that break.

7. Endings that Play with Time

The first kind of ending under this descriptor is the Telescopic Ending, where you zoom out, into the future, to a point where the readers and the characters have some distance from the events in the book. From the future they have more wisdom and perspective to grasp what has happened. It’s a look back on the timeframe of the story, which up until this point was the “present.” The subjunctive tense is generally used for this type of ending, e.g., “Years later, he would look back, etc.” Makkai’s example is short enough to include here, from Alice Munro’s story, “Post and Beam.”

It was a long time ago that this happened. In North Vancouver, when they lived in the Post and Beam house. When she was twenty-four years old, and new to bargaining.

The second type of ending is the Many Years Passed…, the academic term for which is “Prolepsis.” Makkai terms it a subcategory of the Telescopic Ending, but we “live” in this ending for a while–a whole chapter or an epilogue–but just long enough to see something new happen. It is longer than the Telescopic Ending, but it’s really just a glimpse. Makkai says, “If you give too much information on too many people, it ends up looking like the end of Animal House.” Examples include the movie The Breakup or the novel by Eleanor Henderson, Ten Thousand Saints.

Then, there’s the Predictive Ending, where we’re not quite in the future but the narrator is certain where we’re going. The future tense usually characterizes this kind of ending, and for some real interest, Makkai says, you can twist this: The narrator is delusional in his or her predictions, but we, the readers, know they’re never going to happen. The ending of Jill McCorkle’s story, “Intervention,” which is about a failed intervention for an alcoholic spouse, is the perfect example of this type of ending.

And finally, we have the old stand-by, the Flashback, technically called Analepsis. The ending goes back to an earlier point in the timeline of the story, a decisive moment in a character’s life. We may know of it but haven’t yet witnessed it, or it may be a disaster we know is going to happen because of what has gone before. It can also encompass a moment of hope before that disaster and is, says Makkai, a good way to end a very sad story, i.e., with a note of hope even if it’s false and bittersweet. The example was from Israeli author Etgar Keret’s story “Joseph,” which is about witnesses to a suicide bombing. Other examples were Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, and Dan Chaon’s You Remind Me of Me.

Makkai capped all this off with a story ending which included most of the different types of endings, and that was the end to the story “Safari” from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. This is probably the best story within that novel in stories as a stand-alone. If you haven’t read it, do so. It’s beautiful and devastating at the same time, or as Makkai describes it, “It’s elegaic. It’s telescopic, but there’s a bit of flashback effect, too….There’s a revelation (in the form of some particularly devastating dialogue). It’s lyrical. It’s sensory and immediate. And I’d argue that both the telescoping and the revelation at the end are, to a certain extent, game changers.”

After all the academic “stuff,” we took a break then came back to an exercise. We took a story everyone knows–in our case it was Hansel and Gretel–and rewrote the ending using some of the descriptors Makkai had just explained. This was a very practical application of all which had come before. We had great fun doing this, and it helped to cement endings in all our heads.

Makkai sent us home to look at the endings of some of our favorite books, to see which descriptor they fit, and to write some good endings of our own. Years later, I would look back on this class as one of the most significant learning experiences in my writing career and, knew, that had I not taken it, my own happy ending would have been different, very different.

Okay, what type of ending was that?

 

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