Some Characters Return
In 2012 I wrote a piece of flash fiction, which was well-received on a site where I posted short fiction in response to a photo prompt. The flash fiction piece was about a young woman hiding the body of a baby in the wall of a half-finished house. Almost every commenter said, “You have to tell the story of how that happened.”
In November 2012, I did, and the result was Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season, a literary novel about a successful author (so, not autobiographical) and her husband who find a baby’s bones in the wall of a room they’re renovating. The author, who’d suffered a stillbirth some years before, wants closure for the abandoned baby and sets out to find who put the baby in the wall.
The novel’s working title was “Amontillado,” from Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” which involved burying someone alive in a wall. As the story moves back and forth in time between roughly present day and 1944, the author has to face reality about her life and her marriage, but the twist comes when she discovers whose baby ended up in her wall.
I intended for it to be a standalone, but as someone who beta-read the MS pointed out, I left something hanging.
For NaNoWriMo 2016, I brought some of the characters from 2012 back, put them solidly in 2016–more or less–and had a new secret dumped in the lap of the author, another mystery for her to become involved in.
This one is more of a “real” mystery–I think–though like Supreme Madness the death in question occurs some years before, it’s pretty obvious who did it, but there’s a twist at the end.
This year’s working title is, Mournful Influence of the Unperceived Shadow, taken from a line in another Poe story, “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Yeah, I have a Poe thing. In fact, he watches over me as I write.
Hitting a Brick Wall (No Pun Intended)
The end is in sight, perhaps just a chapter or two away, seeing as I wrote three chapters today for a count of 7,175 words. And even though the inner editor is supposed to be quiet, she shrieked at me all day until I did some chapter rearranging. I couldn’t go forward until I did that, so I let Inner Editor have her way, just this once.
So, yesterday’s Chapter 29, Another Undisclosed Location, is now Chapter 30; the “new” Chapter 29 is entitled The Woman Who Fights; Chapter 31 is Ghosts and Efreets; and Chapter 32 is At the Top of the World. Oh, the total word count is now 88,159.
Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 32:
She heard a footfall she’d come to recognize—Brian O’Keefe. He settled close enough to her she could feel the heat his body generated from climbing to her position. She shifted closer to take as much of it as she could.
“What did your recce find?” she asked him.
“The good news is we cross that valley below us and we’re with the main group of the U.S. Forces, the CIA forces, and the Northern Alliance,” he said.
“And the bad news?”
She saw his teeth flash in the darkness. “No one puts anything over on you, do they?”
“Not for a long time,” she said. And the only one who could do that was, apparently, her own husband.
“The bad news is, there’s a group of about thirty Taliban in the valley. Abdullah says if we go south around them, we encounter too many Taliban and al Qaeda. We go north, we’ll be two days behind the American’s big push,” he said.
“Do the Talibs in the valley know we’re here?”
“Unlikely. They’re sleeping. Resting up for the battle, Abdullah says. He and I have different ideas about how to handle it.”
Meaning she would have to decide, but that was her job, wasn’t it. “All right,” she said, “let’s have a team meeting.”
She led the way from the outcrop, and they gathered in the small cave they’d found to shelter in, a single, small flashlight for illumination. Mai stayed as close as she could to the entrance, to block the light and so she wouldn’t be too far inside.
“All right, Abdullah, what is your plan?” she asked.
“There are thirty of them, eight of us, but we have stealth and darkness on our side. We each take three or four. Use knives. Quietly,” he said.
Mai translated for O’Keefe and her team.
“Brian?” she said.
“We take an hour to study their position in depth, see who’s sleeping, who’s on guard. I take Hat, Adams, Salim, and Coop, and we take out the guards. The rest of you stay up here with silenced guns to pick off anyone who tries to run,” O’Keefe said.
Kolya had translated for Abdullah, who then said to Mai, “That risks someone using a radio or getting away in the dark. My way takes care of them all.”
“What did he say?” O’Keefe asked, and Mai explained.
“And my way keeps half us in reserve in case something goes wrong,” O’Keefe said.
Thirty men between her and Alexei. Thirty men who wouldn’t hesitate to kill her, after they did unspeakable things to her. She looked at Kolya and spoke in Russian.
“What do you think?” she asked him.
“Abdullah is right,” he said. “Can you, so soon after…” She held up a hand to cut him off.
So what does Mai decide to do? Hmm, I guess you’ll eventually have to read the whole book. 😉
(c)2013 by Phyllis Anne Duncan
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?
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
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.