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.

Settings

One of the things you learn in any fiction writing class is the importance of setting–a reader needs to be able to “see” where you’ve located your story. Sometimes writers can focus on the plot and the characters to the exclusion of setting. Sometimes setting can be just as important as memorable characters or a finely detailed plot.

When your work is a novel, unless it stays in one place for the length of it–like Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians or Murder on the Orient Express–you have to do some research if you’ve never been there. That’s a key component of the writing, because a reader might have been there and can spot the errors.

When John Updike got the idea for The Witches of Eastwick he had the perfect small town in mind–Wickford, RI. However, when he went to the town to research and people got wind of the plot–three witches in the 1970’s who take petty, and not so petty, revenge on neighbors–they threatened law suits if he used the name of the town. Updike let them think they won. The book’s title is The Witches of Eastwick, but if you read the description of Eastwick in the first few pages you recognize Wickford right away. And it was the perfect setting for this quirky novel about the devil coming to earth. (What would have been the difference had the Wickfordians not been such typical New England prigs? Maybe it would have been a tourist destination–it’s a quintessential New England town–instead of a town you drive through to get to the Newport beaches.)

I grew up in a rural area near a small town, so those are settings I’m comfortable with. I can tell from a story if someone has only seen a picture of a farm or gone to one. I spent a lot of my life in a large urban area and worked in the Nation’s Capital for the most part. I’ve spent a great deal of time in New York City, so I get the urban setting and am also comfortable setting a story in busy cities. I also like the juxtaposition of city and country–it’s something that’s never quite been overcome by urbanization.

I’ve done some world travel–a modest amount–to England, Scotland, and other places in Europe. I can insert any place I’ve visited in a story with ease. Some of my work is based in Eastern Europe, and that’s an issue. I’ve never been there, and, frankly, unless you’re a high-paid, commercial novelist, extensive travel to research your settings can be beyond the budget.

Atlases can give you maps and facts and figures–all good, of course–but Google Earth can put you there. Its “Street Views” options can put you in the city or town or countryside you want to write about. It’s still not as good as being there, but it can give you a starting point. The next point is finding someone familiar with the area to give you the personal touch or cultural memes for a setting. I had a friend who had traveled extensively with USAID, and he was always able to give me a good read-over for settings.

Some writers overcome the setting issues by creating completely fictional ones. Whether in fantasy, other genre, or literary fiction, that can eliminate any setting errors or hard feelings from the locals. For his collection of linked short stories, In an Uncharted Country, Clifford Garstang created Rugglesville, VA. For her first book of linked short stories, Thrown Out,  and an upcoming series of novels, Jennie Coughlin created Exeter, MA. Both constructs are real; you can “see” yourself in either place. They feel real. Even in fantasy or science fiction, if you create your own world, people still have to be able to “walk” through it. It’s not enough to say “we’re on a spaceship” or “we’re in a fairy land.” The writer has to give the setting depth.

Which do you prefer–setting your work in known locales, or do you create your own world?